Jarno Limnell, director of cyber security, Stonesoft
Jarno Limnell, director of cyber security, Stonesoft

Cyber war is one of the hottest buzzwords trending through newsfeeds. But even though many are quick to use the term, not everyone fully understands the concept.

Cyber warfare is a reality, but the reality of the situation may be far different than many believe.

Governments are taking potential threats seriously, with at least 12 of the world's 15 largest military powers building cyber warfare programs that assess tactics and capabilities that will be critical in any future cyber war. It has also been reported by intelligence sources that the number of intrusions and attacks have increased dramatically over the past several years.

Accusations of cyber attacks are also on the rise worldwide, with Iran ranking high on the danger list. Iran has become “a force to be reckoned with,” U.S. Air Force's Space Command leader Gen. William Shelton reportedly said in a January speech in Washington, D.C. Additionally, it has been reported that Iran has been fortifying its own cyber attack capabilities following the Stuxnet attacks, which are believed to have resulted in the explosion of several Iranian nuclear centrifuges.

The world is moving toward a greater strategic use of cyber weapons to persuade adversaries to change their behavior. Past conflicts required soldiers that were physically and mentally tough enough to succeed in battle. However, physical strength need not be an issue at all for the new brand of soldiers who instead must possess a sophisticated knowledge of computer security and code.

F-Secure Chief Research Officer Mikko Hypponen reportedly noted at the recent DLD13 conference in Munich that hackers have morphed from the “happy teen hacker” type that is just hacking for fun to those who engage in it with a motive and for a proverbial kill.

“Hackers now are either criminals out to make money, activists out to protest or governments engaged in targeting their own citizens or attacking other governments, whether for espionage or cyber warfare,” he said, according to The Guardian.

Not every malicious attack, however, falls into the cyber warfare category, which is largely where unwarranted paranoia, misuse and misconceptions of the term arise.

What counts as “cyber warfare” remains an open question, but it does have certain stipulations. A major misconception is that cyber war takes place on a different domain, such as a fifth domain, that is totally separate and disconnected from all other forms of warfare, be it land, sea or air.

However, rather than being disconnected from all other types of warfare, the “cyber” world of bytes is an integral part of all other domains. It penetrates all the levels and dimensions of warfare, with cyber components prevalent in weaponry, communications, equipment and other war-related items.

Any future crisis, even one not deemed a cyber war per se, is likely to involve a cyber component. It would be tough to avoid it, particularly in major wars between developed countries. Cyber is the only realm that allows attackers to have an impact on all other dimensions.

Cyber components may embed submarines and ships; alter airplane functioning and drops; interfere with satellites; cut off the distribution of electricity; affect the performance of smartphones, automobiles and prisons; and engage in a laundry list of additional maneuvers that shut down, deter or otherwise work to destroy an enemy.