What Is Cyber?

By Stephen Recca, M.A.

In recognition of Cybersecurity Awareness month in October our faculty will offer insight on both policy and technical perspectives related to cybersecurity. Steve Recca, M.A. kicks off this five-part series with a deeper look at the term cyber. 

CTU Homeland Security Degrees - CybersecurityCyber is in. Government officials share worries over cybersecurity. The Intelligence Community warns of cyber threats from nation states, anarchist groups and lone wolves. Civil liberties watch groups decry infringements of privacy and individual rights by state-sponsored cyber eavesdropping.  And, cyberspace experts and open-source advocates worry about cyber lockdown, through Hobbesian restrictions on web access. 

All this angst probably has good reason. Each of these communities views the computer software, hardware and pathway infrastructure through a different lens, with legitimate concerns on the use and misuse of this thing called “cyber.”

On the occasion of October as Cybersecurity Awareness Month, we can hope (however improbably) that all these disparate communities can find common ground for the task of more effectively managing the challenges of the sprawling digital state.

What is Cyber? 
Etymologically speaking, it’s a descriptor. Not much help there, but the adjective “cyber” provides a domain association with more common terms:  cyberspace, cybersecurity, cyber crime, cyberbullying, cyberfriend, cyberpunk, and so on. We frame cyber with familiar reference points, conveniently linked to a large, for the most part indefinable thing – cyber.

I say indefinable, but that’s in practice, not theory.  As far back as 1992, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defined cyber as: “Of, relating to, or involving (the culture of) computers, virtual reality or the Internet…”

That seems reasonable, at least until we break down each of the subsets. These are terms we all use comfortably, but without certainty. Culture of computers? Virtual reality? Even, the Internet, which laymen tend to confuse with the World Wide Web, presents some definition challenges.

Semantics aside – or not – the challenge is that cyber and related activities have become part of our everyday vocabulary as computing technology has exploded in the last two decades. As technology consumers in our professional and personal lives, we have had to learn how to use the tools, and grasp the terminology to go along with them.  But, arguably, our understanding of the essential concepts in this new and essential domain is lagging far behind.

To bolster your understanding of the cyber-etymological playing field, try the following sites:

  • Cyber Crime
    You may never have heard of SPIT, though you probably have experienced it. It’s an acronym for Spam Over Internet Telephony, or all those unwanted, pre-recorded, auto-dial sales calls. This and other terms relevant to Internet and cyber crimes – and just plain annoyances – are compiled by Pursuit Magazine. 
  • Cyberbullying
    For parents and families hoping to better understand the environment with the rise in cyberbullying, this site contains a lot of information and a good glossary of terms.
  • National Security
    For those interested in cybersecurity as a subset of national security, consider this site for its downloadable report that’s an output of a U.S.-Russian collaboration.

The last resource, is noteworthy as a collaborative effort whose significance might not seem patently obvious. But consider, while the U.S. has developed significant cybersecurity and information assurance capabilities, Russia has deployed tactical and operational cyber-armies in Estonia in 2007 and Georgia in 2008.

Confidence-building measures between Moscow and Washington, such as the effort described above, are significant. The question is who – and what – else should we be concerned about. In next week’s post Dr. Bruce Harmon will discuss common technological terms related to cybersecurity.

Image credit: Info Risk Today 

National Cyber Security Awareness Month