Cyber espionage does not equate with cyber warfare. Espionage may be carried out by multiple actors for manifold reasons. It does not automatically relate to warfare and plays only a minor part in the vast realm of war. Therefore, making such an equation is unjustifiable and potentially causes more harm than does good.
China has recently been accused of intense spying activity in cyberspace. She has been claimed to use cyber means to gain access to, for instance, military and technological secrets held by both foreign states and corporations. In this context, the rhetoric of cyberwar has also raised its head. It has been asked whether we are already at war with China.
A danger lies at the heart of cyberwar rhetoric. Declaring war, even cyberwar, has always serious consequences. Since war is acknowledged as the most severe threat to the survival and well-being of the society, war rhetoric easily creates and feeds an atmosphere of fear, provokes a raise in the emergency level and launches associated counter-measures. It may also lead to an intensified cyber arms race.
There are several good reasons to avoid unnecessary militarisation of cyberspace and mixing of cyber espionage with cyber warfare. Firstly, cyber espionage is an activity multiple actors resort to in the name of security, business, politics or technology. It is nothing inherently military. Espionage is about finding out something that was ought to remain secret and as such, it may be carried out for different motivations.
Secondly, conducting effective cyber espionage campaigns may take years. Yet, their results are uncertain. On the contrary, engaging in a long-lasting, yet iffy cyberwar would hardly be a wise policy as the costs of warfare tend to provide a negative surprise.
Thirdly, gaining information is not the prime motive for waging war. Instead, war is waged in order to re-engineer the opposing society to support one’s interests and values, that is, to prevent it from doing something or to persuade it to do something. This holds true for cyberwar as well.
The probability of a particular cyberwar in the near future is low. What we should be more aware of is the use of cyber means in conventional conflicts. Cyber espionage can be utilised in warfare for preparing for war, as part of intelligence efforts, and for preparing for peace. In addition, a long-lasting spying campaign that eventually becomes detected may lead to war if it is interpreted to justify pre-emptive or preventive actions.
Even if the concept of war has become vague and the line between war and peace is blurred, espionage should be understood as an activity of its own kind. For actions to qualify as war they should cause massive human loss and material damage ‒ cyber espionage does not do this. For the majority, there is little to be gained from confusing cyber espionage with cyber warfare, yet the potential losses in the form of increasingly restricted freedom and curtailed private space may be substantial.