Of Clouds & Cyber: A little Story about Wording in InfoSec

René Pfeiffer/ September 5, 2016/ Discussion, High Entropy

In case you ever received a message about our calls for papers, you may have noticed that we do not like the word cyber. Of course we know that it is used widely. Information security experts are divided if it should be used. Some do it, some reject it, some don’t know what to do about it. We use it mostly in italics or like this: „cyber“. There is a reason why, but first let’s take a look where the word comes from.

The Oxford Dictionaries blog mentions the origin in the word cybernetics. This word was used in the 1940 by scientists from the fields of engineering, social sciences, and biology. Cybernetics deals with the study of communication and control systems in living beings and machines. Hence the word is derived from the Greek κυβερνήτης (kybernētēs, steersman, governor, pilot, or rudder). The cyber part attached itself to other words in the following decades. The idea of cyberspace is widely known. Cyberspace was born in William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer. Now we have a lot of cyber going around.

The main problem we have with this word is the fact that it hides meaning. Merriam-Webster explains that cyber is something with computers, computer networks or the Internet. Pick anything you like. Often the context lacks clarification. Take cyberwar for example. Cyberwar is a war where computers, computer networks or the Internet is used. So the breaking of the German Enigma could be labelled cyberwar as well. But where comes the war part in? Could cyberwar be anything you do with computers, computer networks, or the Internet while the war is on? So being caught in a war zone and frantically looking for a safe place on your smartphone by using online map services is a cyberwar? Sounds more like escape or sanity.

Attaching cyber to anything that can be described by a word doesn’t help either. The same is true for the word cloud. Cloud technology can be anything from creating rain out of thin air or hosting web sites. Let’s skip cloud warfare at this point. Instead of using the Cloud, you might want to take advantage of modern web, network, and virtualisation technology.

This is our criticism in a nutshell. Information security is already complex as it is. Adding smoke and mirrors to confuse the audience isn’t helpful. IT is full of acronyms without inventing new words or using existing words in wildly different contexts. Regardless if you are a researcher, writing about information security, develop software, or contribute by posing serious questions, please stick to facts. No distractions, no ambiguities, please. Thank you!

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About René Pfeiffer

System administrator, lecturer, hacker, security consultant, technical writer and DeepSec organisation team member. Has done some particle physics, too. Prefers encrypted messages for the sake of admiring the mathematical algorithms at work.