Information Societies- A Highly Vulnerable ‘Body’?

The Information Society – A Highly Vulnerable ‘Body’?

Cyber-Battlefields and Digital Crime Scenes

1. Introduction

The continuing technological process of late Western capitalistic-democratic societies led to the creation of new social, governmental and economic spaces in the World Wide Web. Since its beginning, people populate the many spaces of the Internet with digital effigies or ‘cyber-identities’[1], respectively and institutions as well as all kinds of organizations established online presences. Today, individuals, collectives and even whole systems connect their data bases to create a new, digital environment (e.g. Lister et al. 2009: 163 et seq.) or ‘body’. A dynamic, unstable body, consisting of innumerable ‘cells’. Not all of its parts are  equally connected; access to some areas is restricted and safety measures are taken.

Information thereby became the most valuable resource: Its commodification is to some (postmodern) media-philosophers the most significant feature of our current economical and social system (Lyotard 1984). The vast spaces of the Internet are filled with information. A lot of it might be regarded as useless, but concerning the context and the intention of use, information can become very valuable. Getting access to information / knowledge is often the main purpose of belligerent or criminal activities in cyberspace.

Along with the Internet, new forms of warfare and criminality evolved. The shape of these conflicts and the used weapons are thereby largely determined by the very same technological factors as our new environment (Coker 2004: 84). This is also applicable on cyber criminality, another phenomenon which arose with the constant progress of computer- and communication technology. There are various forms and a wide range of possible targets of both cyber/information warfare and crime. Individuals as well as institutions or even whole systems can be focused by hostile actions. Whether hacking, spying, stealing: cyber attacks developed multiple appearances during the last fifteen years and challenges governments, corporations and users everyday (e.g. IWS). The Internet can be a battlefield as well as a digital crime scene.

This essay examines the different forms of information and cyber warfare in the Internet, attempts to highlight its techniques as well as targets and provides some ideas for further research. The main aim is to approach the overall question whether the information society is a highly vulnerable ‘body’ or not. Due to the limits of this assignment several aspects can be ascertained only cursorily; a in-depth analysis cannot be provided. However, basic observations and some prospects on this issue will be highlighted. First of all, the most important terms in this context have to be defined.

2. Defining the Subjects: Cyber / Information Warfare, Cyberterrorism and Cybercrime

The definitions of important terms in the discourse(s) on cyber warfare are not always clear, and certain buzzwords are relatively ambiguous. In context of the New Media, Cyberwarfare describes a wide range of aggressive actions using and simultaneously targeting New Media. Possible targets can be mere websites as well as computers managing sensitive data, stock exchange, controlling traffic or the like (PCMAG; Psycom; IWS). Techniques of choice would be destructive programs like viruses, ‘hacking’ or ‘spyware’. Cyberterrorism and Cybercrime use the same techniques and strategies, but there is a distinction to be made in regards of the protagonists and aims / goals in each case; the (political-)context seems thereby to define the form of ‘cyber aggression’.

Cyber- or information war is very often used as an umbrella term for more specific variations. However, observing media discourses on the topic leads to the assumption that the term more specifically refers to digital conflicts between two or more nation states / political entities (e.g. Times Online). Cyberterrorism origins from insurgent groups and has very often a certain ideological or social background (; Georgetown University). Discourses on the issue deal with fears of devastating terroristic attacks on essential technological networks such as telecommunication, energy or banking systems.  Cybercrimes are mostly conducted by individuals or criminal organizations; they often try to make economical profit with ‘stolen’ or faked information (e.g USDJ)[2]. These classifications are not fixed and the lines between the different forms of cyber aggression can blurry. Thus, it is assumable that in the context of a cyber conflict – whether war, terrorism or crime – the levels of aggression can overlap, i.e. a cyber war between states can for instance entail forms of cyberterrorism and crime.

In every case knowledge / information can be identified as a key factor in multiple ways: 1. Knowledge of successful strategies to achieve a certain (military or criminal) goal, i.e. how to use the proper ‘weapons’; 2. Knowledge of ‘defense-strategies’, i.e. protecting databases against unauthorized access or destructive programs; 3. Knowledge itself as the ‘prey’ of offensive actions, whether to obtain or to erase it – with the long term aim to enrich own knowledge or to cause severe damage to the opponent. Stealing, spying, processing and interpreting information can be regarded as the main tasks of the ‘cyber-soldier’ and digital criminals in times of World Wide Web. Therefore, they have to learn a new “cybernetic language” (Coker 2004: 84) which allows them to move and ‘fight’ in the new spaces, i.e. they must be capable to understand and use new technologies.

3. Levels of ‘Cyber-Aggression’

There are manifold targets of hostile/criminal activities in cyberspace. These actions are not limited to institutional homepages or data bases containing valuable information; individuals can become victims, too. One could speak of different “levels” on which acts of cyber warfare and crime occur. These can be defined as attacks on personal websites (personal context), the sabotage of governmental computers (political context) and the deprivation or destruction of information on corporation data bases (economical context). The different forms of cyber aggression can aim for all these contexts/levels at the same time.

Again, digital attacks on a specific object can focus different aspects. In the case of an individual, the activities can range from stealing and/or destroying sensitive details, spying (e.g. e-mail, chats etc.) or, if a digital effigy exists, the attempt to perish reputation (KBS World). Depending on the context and the target of cyber aggression, the scale of such actions varies. During the Georgian-Russian War in 2008, Moscow (allegedly) used cyber warfare as one component of its overall war strategy:

Here, cyber warfare could be observed and analyzed in an almost ‘classic’ sense. Nevertheless, there is one major problem: the aggressors are not clearly identifiable as there are strategies to maintain anonymity in the Internet. Furthermore, cyber wars can break out between countries even though the involved governments live in peace with each other ‘offline’. A popular case would be the cyber-conflict between China and the USA: Despite the fact that both nations have tight economical bonds to each other, the US government  alleged several times that China would constantly  ‘attack’ the USA in cyberspace, with the aim to deprive valuable information or intelligence, respectively. US media sources regularly covered this story[3]:

Apparently, the same applies to European media sources (e.g  Telegraph 21/11/08). Besides, it seems that Russia is also perceived as a ‘cyber-villain’ (e.g. BBC 17/05/07; BBC 03/02/09). However, these countries accused the USA for cyber warfare in other contexts, too (e.g.  The Guardian 24/01/10). Though taken quite seriously, the conflicts still happen in a ‘remote’ space as diplomatic relations in neither case stopped.

Defining the sources of cyber crime is even more difficult, as actually every individual with access to the Internet can possibly conduct unlawful operations. Preconditioned, he/she knows how to use the digital code for such purposes. To sum up: Despite all their advantages, digitalized information societies can suffer attacks in several dimensions; our new environment / the digital body can be penetrated in various ways. Hence, technological progress and computerization entail another dualism.

4. Conclusion

Is the information society a vulnerable ‘body’ now? At first glance, the answer seems to be yes.  There are many dangers to the ‘netizen’ and his habitat, multiple ways to harm the network exist.  But simultaneously new defense mechanisms emerge continuously. A critical observer may ask in how far certain forms of cyber crime and terrorism are actually welcomed by a whole industry of anti-virus, anti-spyware etc. Questions of observation/surveillance (e.g. Webster 1995: 52 et seq.) must be considered, too. In case of the average user, the individual itself determines largely the level of its own vulnerability by controlling how much information he/she puts online. The digital connection of corporations, social and political organizations is a logical consequence  of the technological progress, as the fast exchange of information embraces numerous advantages – despite certain threats. Approaching the discourses on cyber war, -terrorism and crime challenges the observer to deal with very complex and highly dynamic concepts. Discussing these issues leads to numerous interesting as well as crucial (media-)philosophical, ethical, economical and judicial questions.

For instance, how intense will  the influence of cyber war on the shape of contemporary and future conflicts be? Its importance will surely increase and it will remain a crucial factor in military strategies. However, it is unlikely that it will somehow replace conventional warfare in the near future. Attacks in cyberspace  mostly still have a purpose or impact in/on the ‘real’ offline world; the crimes committed and battles fought in the World Wide Web are not completely detached from it. They are not exclusively restricted to what Baudrillard (1983) described as the Simulation but lead to perceptible consequences. Another important aspect in this context: The concept of information societies is not applicable to all countries on the globe as many regions still lack of a proper technological infrastructure. This margins the limits of cyber warfare to a certain extent.

Furthermore, ascertaining the discourses on cyber warfare and terrorism – especially in the mass media – might reveal certain imbalances in the coverage of the issue. By using methods like content analysis and/or critical discourse analysis ideologies, stereotypes, myths etc. might be identified.

5. List of References:

ABC News, (07/03/10)

Baudrillard, J. (1983) Simulations. New York: Semiotext.

BBC, (07/03/10)

BBC, (07/03/10)

BBC, (09/03/10)

CNN, (07/03/10)

CNN, (07/03/10)

Coker, Christopher (2004) The Future of War. The Re-Enchantement of War in the Twenty-First Century.Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Georgetown University, (09/03/10)

IWS, (07/03/10)

KBSWorld, (09/03/10)

Lister, Martin / Dovey, Jon / Giddings, Seth / Grant, Ian / Kelly, Kieran (eds.) (2009) New Media. A Critical Introduction. Second Edition. Oxon and New York: Routledge.

Lyotard, J. F. (1984) The Postmodern Condition. A Report on Knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press., (09/03/10)

PCMAG,,2542,t=cyberwar&i=44971,00.asp (07/03/10)

Psycom, (07/03/10)

The Guardian, (07/03/10)

The Telegraph, (07/03/10)

The Telegraph, (07/03/10)

Times Online, (09/03/10)

Webster, Frank (1995) Theories of the Information Society. London: Routledge.

USDJ, (09/03/10)

[1] Another term would be ‘netizens’, a compound consisting of net and citizen.

[2] Cybercrime can also contain trafficking illegal media content such as child porn but this aspect is less important for this essay. See for mor on this issue  BBC (09/03/10)

[3] See also ABC News, (07/03/10)


Author: Dr. Dennis Nguyen

Media and Communications Researcher with particular interest in online media, transnational discourses, crisis communication, public sphere theory, and empirical methods.

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