Cyber Statecraft: Best and Worst Headlines

Cyber Warfare

In the emerging world of “cyber” reporting, accurate headlines are less common than unicorns.

This blog, the first of a recurring series, will highlight the single best and many worst headlines about cyber statecraft for the second quarter of 2011. If it seems unfair to you to have only one winner, but many losers, then you may be new to this field. Even when a journalist writes a balanced story, the headline writers will plaster hyperbole about “cyber war” to attract eyeballs. Unfortunately, too many people only read – or remember – the scary headlines without noticing the article’s nuance. 

The single best headline about cyber statecraft by far in the last three months is from the International Business Times on 22 June 2011:

Security Breaches Becoming A Near Certainty for Businesses

Why is this headline a winner? It led an article reporting, “Ninety percent of businesses have fallen victim to at least one cyber security breach in the last 12 months according to a survey sponsored by Juniper Networks.” This headline’s brilliant use of “near certainty” captures the sense, prevalent among cyber defenders, that there is no room for confidence.   Malicious cyber actors are dominant and defenses, at best, can hold them off for a time and detect the inevitable breaches quickly before there is too much damage. Accordingly, this is not just a headline about a single survey, but sums up the current state of cyber security. Other headlines (such as “90% of Businesses fell Victim to Cyber Security Breach at Least Once in the Past 12 Months” and “Ponemon Institute Survey Finds 90 Percent Of Businesses Fell Victim To Cyber Security Breach At Least Once In The Past 12 Months”) covering the same survey missed this opportunity.

If that is the best headline, what are the worst?   The competition was tight as there were many, many truly awful headlines.   Most of these were generated from coverage of new United States government strategies and decisions announced this past quarter, particularly the declaratory policy in the International Strategy for Cyberspace and the unrelated decision on the rules of engagement for using cyber capabilities.   Accordingly, there will be separate categories for the worst headlines from the “mainstream” media, foreign media, and the computer security specialist media. 

For the category of worst headline from the foreign press, this entry covering those topics from Azerbaijan’s ABC.AZ edged out all other competition:

USA government officially starts cyber attacks against enemies all over the world

This is a wonderfully terrible headline, combining as it does a number of awful elements which somehow gel to become even worse when strung together. The whole is truly even less than the difference of its parts.   Somehow referring to the United States as “USA government” starts the reader off with a sinister appetizer while “enemies all over the world” closes with an evil-sounding dessert.

 Unfortunately, the press barons of Baku do not have a monopoly on bad headlines on the Obama administration’s recent cyber actions. Since this blog cannot possibly list all of these, the BBC takes the award for worst cyber headline from the mainstream press with

 US Pentagon to treat cyber-attack as ‘acts of war’

This headline was chosen to represent the mainstream bad headlines for two reasons. First, the headline says little, and what it says is incorrect. The phrase “act of war” appears neither in the International Cyber Strategy nor in the BBC article. The International Cyber Strategy said a malicious cyber incident “may” receive a military response and even this would be after all other options were exhausted. Second, this article was chosen because the BBC is a news agency that is normally a favorite of the Cyber Statecraft Initiative and this selection proves that the Atlantic Council does not play favorites, will not pull punches, and most importantly, is not just picking on the Azeris.

Saving the worst for last, picking the winning headline from the computer security specialist press was easy. In response to the International Cyber Strategy, the headline writers at Security News Daily came up with this whopper:

Obama Reserves Right to Nuke Hackers

This headline is simply terrible, made worse by the accompanying photo of a thermonuclear explosion. It is no wonder that so many people, even in cyber security, misunderstand the actual cyber security risks when faced with such hyperbole.

Of course, cyber statecraft is not the only field plagued by bad headlines quickly spread by Twitter. Headline writers will continue to choose attention grabbing headlines so it will be up to us, the readers, to ensure we have the right filters to separate the hyperbole from the junk and – and, above all, to go past those tweets and headlines, both good and bad, and actually read the articles.

Jason Healey is the Director of the Cyber Statecraft Initiative at the Atlantic Council of the United States. You can follow his comments on cyber cooperation, conflict and competition on Twitter, @Jason_Healey.

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