War in cyberspace is about definitions

definition wikipedia opendata
definition wikipedia opendata (Photo credit: Libertic)

Almost immediately after posting my last blog, What will be the impact of a massive attack in cyberspace?, a good friend asked me to “define Massive”, to which I responded, tongue in cheek:  “Bigger than just me”?

It struck me with the weight of an ex-wife:  things have not changed in 20 years, we are still stuck in what many of us call “Definitional Wars” or the struggle to get definitions approved that are not only accurate but widely accepted.  Did you notice the word “approved” in the preceding sentence?  Approved by whom? Who gave them the authority over me?  If I was working on the Joint Staff in the Pentagon, I know that any definition in a Joint Publication would be an official definition.  It had gone through many rewrites, many reviews and been the subject of countless ‘fall on your sword’ fights.  Sometimes the struggle was altruistic, it was about making sure the word or phrase encompassed all pertinent arguments.  Of course, much of the time the fight was about a rice bowl, which is someone’s pet project.  It could also be about money, one word could reduce one’s budget in the following budget cycle.  It was also about power, perceived power that is, of those caught up in the struggle between powerful personalities of the leaders of various groups.  Another problem is Joint definitions must be followed by the Services – the Army, Navy, Air Force and the Marines, but the Services may have their own interpretation of how that applies within their particular Service.  This last sentence is more powerful than you might ever learn, one Service in particular is really stretching the limits…   nuff said.  As a good friend just relayed to me, another great problem we have is with factions, there are also different camps of thinkers.  Think of Colonel John Boyd, the father of modern warfare.  His thinking was radical and forced developing fighter jets to be smaller and more nimble.  He also invented a new way of thinking and fighting modern wars, the OODA loop.  The same thing for Special Forces, by its very nature they are unconventional and many conventional leaders are severely intimidated, so they found ways to hinder some SF operations.

I choose not to get caught up in definitional wars, as we have been for the past 15 years. A big problem is we have no real leaders who say “this is the definition” and stick with it.   We have a wonderful leader in General Alexander, for whom I have worked numerous times, so I have a little insight. He is brilliant and not constrained by conventional thinking.  In my humble opinion he does things for the right reasons, there is no need for him to ever blow his own horn.  To digress for just one second, my biggest fear is not of Cyber Command and the National Security Agency under one leader, it is who would follow him.  I know of only one leader with the savvy, the experience and the leadership capabilities to properly lead both, but he only has two stars. I emphasize the leadership capability because in the past the Director of NSA was an intelligence officer but did not have Title 10 Authority.  General Alexander is a career intelligence officer but as Commander of the US Cyber Command he must have Title 10 Authority and does.

A bigger problem is the constant evolution of technology and terminology.  By the time a definition is properly staffed and is published, it is usually obsolete.  For instance, an attack might be 50 pings per second.  Next month it might be 500 pings in one second.  The following year it might be 5,000 pings…  and during this time period we still are discussing 50 pings per second.

Earlier this year I discussed this problem while at a conference in Toronto, Canada, with a number of seniors.  I floated an idea which was warmly received but I am not absolutely certain it is politically correct. Okay, I know it’s not politically correct, but it sure is the right thing to do.  Let us all agree on a working definition. Let us write it in a Wiki type format and then allow the numbers to change with the cyber-environment.  As technology changes we can insert the proper words.  As the environment changes we can insert new numbers or new thresholds.  I think it’s worth a shot.  Do you?


3 thoughts on “War in cyberspace is about definitions

  1. What your interesting post naively forgets to mention is that “verbs and adjectives are neat, but nouns are what gets funded”.

    Resources are committed by answering a question: What do you want to be able to “do”? The “do” is the noun that must be a clearly defined (or at least, understood) thing.

    It is not mere sophistry to defines things.It is vital:

    (1) You need nouns so you can say what you do.
    (2) You need nouns to describe what is “good” and “bad”.
    (3) Without (2) you cannot justify State action, or condemn State (or non-State/independent) action against citizens.

  2. I do not pretend to understand what you have written above.

    However I do think that definitions rate as important if two or more people wish to communicate with one another In some cases, when two people use the same word it can lead to disagreements and misunderstandings and “fights”. because they think they mean the same thing.

    Take such words as high, good, bad etc. A high probability for Person A may mean seven chances out of ten. However Person B may mean 9 chances out of ten. This problem actually occurred and because I asked useful questions I found out that the two people actually agreed

    I spent some time defining different words and am about to load them on to my web site in the category called “Definition, Distinctions, and Frameworks”. It should take a few days As you can/will see I write notes on various words in each definition. Thus you can have a chance to see my thinking and reasoning – and disagree where you want to do so.

    If you do, by all means write to me. You may convince me to change my definition of some words.

  3. As a survivor of many of what I’ll refer to affectionately as “Pentagon Wars” I believe we are a society to caught up in ‘defining’ and ‘labeling’ – to project that we have a common understanding – but in reality from one culture to another – we probably never will achieve that (but it just somehow makes us feel better doesn’t it?) Joel, I’m wondering if its simply because the human mind in its pattern-seeking/ pattern recognition programming requires this because we just aren’t comfortable with ambiguity. I like the idea of wiki’s because they constantly evolve …. we collectively shape it over time, situation as our understanding evolves so does that ‘definition’

    As for authority and power – everyone has it – it is legitimate if someone perceives it. Sharing information or knowledge is the real power – isn’t it?

    If we want to understand the complexities of cyberspace – we need to embrace ambiguity as that will inspire creative thinking. I say go for that wiki…

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