Lee Jarvis, Stuart Macdonald and Tom Chen have recently completed a survey of the global research community into cyberterrorism. They found more disagreement than agreement regarding questions such as whether cyberterrorism constitutes an important security threat (only 58% thought so). Their results suggest that the ‘cyber’ dimension may add additional controversies and challenges to how terrorism is understood and researched.
Cyberterrorism is amongst the most discussed, imagined and feared of contemporary security challenges. For policymakers, researchers, and filmmakers alike, its position as a bridge between new technological capabilities and non-conventional violences renders it a remarkably powerful spectre. Where the ‘cyber’ conjures up the possibility of massive, multi-dimensional disaster scenarios, the ‘terrorism’ spirits forth fears of irrational, belligerent, fanatics. And yet, as with so many security threats, the very meaning, let alone the significance, of cyberterrorism remains fundamentally – and perhaps even essentially – debated.
This contestability will not come as any surprise to anyone that has ever engaged in the study of terrorism: however, or whether, this term is prefixed. At the same time, there is considerable value, we suggest, in mapping the contours of contemporary debates on this and other security concerns in order better to understand two questions of considerable importance. First, what do researchers think of cyberterrorism itself; what does it mean, how significant a threat does it pose (and to whom), how should it be countered (and by whom), and so forth. Second, what do researchers think of the current state of knowledge about cyberterrorism; what is known or not known about it at present, and what are the major research challenges for those presently working in this area?
In order to try to get a handle on some of the above, Swansea University’s Cyberterrorism Project team has recently completed a ‘state of the discipline’ survey of the global research community. This survey was completed by 118 individuals working in 24 countries across six continents, the findings of which are now available in our first published research report. The research was motivated by an attempt to explore current conceptual controversies around the term cyberterrorism, and to encourage researchers to reflect on the concept’s value for scholars and policymakers.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, and perhaps even refreshingly, our survey threw up far more dissent than agreement, with opinion tending to be distributed rather than concentrated. For example, 69% of our respondents argued that states could commit cyberterrorism, with the primary examples given being attacks on Iran, Estonia and Georgia. Only 47% indicated that violence against people or property constituted an important element of cyberterrorism, while 58% viewed cyberterrorism as a significant threat. Perhaps most interestingly of all, 49% of our respondents suggested a cyberterrorist attack had already taken place. Whether that figure seems high or low, what are we to make of the fact that 49% also indicated an attack of this type had not yet occurred? Finally, only 24% of our respondents believed a specific definition of cyberterrorism to be essential for researchers; slightly fewer than the 31% who believed one essential for policymakers.
Disagreements such as those indicated above will not – indeed cannot – be resolved by any survey of researchers or ‘experts’. At the same time, their identification does throw up important research questions for the study of security challenges such as this. For instance, do these disputes merely reflect or reproduce underlying disagreements about terrorism more broadly? Or, on the other hand, does the ‘cyber’ dimension add additional controversies and challenges to how this phenomenon is understood and researched? For instance, does the apparent increased willingness to countenance the possibility of state terrorism in the cyber realm derive from the empirics of this particular case study: perhaps due to high profile precedents, on the concentration of resources and knowledge within state apparatuses? Or, on the other hand does thinking about terrorism in a cyber context change how terrorism itself is understood: might this widening of the concept have implications for our views of its primary perpetrators? In our research we do not set out to answer these questions definitively. Rather, we present these findings only as step toward their discussion.
The report is available here
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About the authors
Lee Jarvis is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Political and Cultural Studies at Swansea University, UK. He is author of Times of Terror: Discourse, Temporality and the War on Terror (Palgrave, 2009) and co-author (with Richard Jackson, Jeroen Gunning and Marie Breen Smyth) of Terrorism: A Critical Introduction (Palgrave, 2011). More information on his research can be found at www.leejarvis.com
Stuart Macdonald is a Senior Lecturer at Swansea University who researches criminal law and criminal justice. He has published articles on anti-terrorism policies and legislation in leading international journals, including the Sydney Law Review and the Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy.
Thomas Chen is a Professor in Swansea University’s College of Engineering, and an expert in computer and network security. He is co-editor of Broadband Mobile Multimedia: Techniques and Applications (2008) and Mathematical Foundations for Signal Processing, Communications, and Networking (2011), and co-author of ATM Switching Systems (1995).