Recently Barack Obama gave a speech on security, focusing on nuclear, biological, and infotech threats. It was a good, thoughtful speech, but I couldn’t help noticing how, in his discussion of the infotech threats, he promised to appoint a “National Cyber Advisor” to give the president advice about infotech threats. It’s now becoming standard Washington parlance to say “cyber” as a shorthand for what many of us would call “information security.” I won’t fault Obama for using the terminology spoken by the usual Washington experts. Still, it’s interesting to consider how Washington has developed its own terminology, and what that terminology reveals about the inside-the-beltway view of the information security problem.
The word “cyber” has interesting roots. It started with an old Greek word meaning (roughly) one who guides a boat, such as a pilot or rudder operator. Plato adapted this word to mean something like “governance”, on the basis that governing was like steering society. Already in ancient Greece, the term had taken on connotations of central government control.
Fast-forward to the twentieth century. Norbert Wiener foresaw the rise of sophisticated robots, and realized that a robot would need something like a brain to control its mechanisms, as your brain controls your body. Wiener predicted correctly that this kind of controller would be difficult to design and build, so he sought a word to describe the study of these “intelligent” controllers. Not finding a suitable word in English, he reached back to the old Greek word, which he transliterated into English as “cybernetics”. Notice the connection Wiener drew between governance and technological control.
Enter William Gibson. In his early novels about the electronic future, he wanted a term for the “space” where online interactions happen. Failing to find a suitable word, he coined one – cyberspace – by borrowing “cyber” from Wiener. Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer popularized the term. Many of the Net’s early adopters were fans of Gibson’s work, so cyberspace became a standard name for the place you went when you were on the Net.
The odd thing about this usage is that the Internet lacks the kind of central control system that is the subject matter of cybernetics. Gibson knew this – his vision of the Net was decentralized and chaotic – be he liked the term anyway.
All I knew about the word “cyberspace” when I coined it, was that it seemed like an effective buzzword. It seemed evocative and essentially meaningless. It was suggestive of something, but had no real semantic meaning, even for me, as I saw it emerge on the page.
Indeed, the term proved just as evocative for others as it was for Gibson, and it stuck.
As the Net grew, it was widely seen as ungovernable – which many people liked. John Perry Barlow’s “Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace” famously declared that governments have no place in cyberspace. Barlow notwithstanding, government did show up in cyberspace, but it has never come close to the kind of cybernetic control Wiener envisioned.
Meanwhile, the government’s security experts settled on a term, “information security”, or “infosec” for short, to describe the problem of securing information and digital systems. The term is widely used outside of government (along with similar terms “computer security” and “network security”) – the course I teach at Princeton on this topic is called “information security”, and many companies have Chief Information Security Officers to manage their security exposure.
So how did this term “cybersecurity” get mindshare, when we already had a useful term for the same thing? I’m not sure – give me your theories in the comments – but I wouldn’t be surprised if it reflects a military influence on government thinking. As both military and civilian organizations became wedded to digital technology, the military started preparing to defend certain national interests in an online setting. Military thinking on this topic naturally followed the modes of thought used for conventional warfare. Military units conduct reconnaissance; they maneuver over terrain; they use weapons where necessary. This mindset wants to think of security as defending some kind of terrain – and the terrain can only be cyberspace. If you’re defending cyberspace, you must be doing something called cybersecurity. Over time, “cybersecurity” somehow became “cyber security” and then just “cyber”.
Listening to Washington discussions about “cyber”, we often hear strategies designed to exert control or put government in a role of controlling, or at least steering, the evolution of technology. In this community, at least, the meaning of “cyber” has come full circle, back to Wiener’s vision of technocratic control, and Plato’s vision of government steering the ship.