NORRIS: In fact, some think we're already in one, as NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.
TOM GJELTEN: The top cyber specialists at the Pentagon, Robert Butler, routinely talks about how often the Defense Department is hit by cyber attacks. But at a cyber security conference here last week, he distinguished between those intrusions and cyber war.
ROBERT BUTLER: Right now, you know, what we typically are seeing is criminal activity.
GJELTEN: Criminal activity, stealing things.
BUTLER: What you're trying to work through is understanding, one, what has happened; two, the type of threat.
GJELTEN: Among the speakers at last week's conference was Max Kelly. He investigated cyber activity at the FBI, and then became chief of security at Facebook.
MAX KELLY: When I look at what real cyber warfare scenarios are going to be, I think they're going to be very much like cybercriminal scenarios, in that they're largely covert. If there are actual actions, they're very targeted actions.
GJELTEN: Here's one action that, at first, may look like cyber crime, but could actually be part of a cyber war plan. You have a technology company with some servers and a lot of bandwidth. A foreign adversary hacks into it, but not to steal your technology, just to get access to your computer system, and then to sit there and wait. When the moment for actual cyber war finally comes, the adversary will have the perfect base from which to operate, your company.
KELLY: They can suddenly use that to attack anywhere they want to in the world, and it's going to look like it came from you.
GJELTEN: Herbert Thompson teaches cyber security at Columbia University.
HERBERT THOMPSON: I think what we're seeing today are the more reconnaissance activities of cyber war. And that really is fascinating.
GJELTEN: Take Google's announcement last week that hundreds of its Gmail accounts were hacked from China. Thompson, who runs a company called People Security, says the perpetrators may have wanted to identify individuals with access to some sensitive facility or information in the idea that cyber warriors could then pose as those people during some future conflict.
THOMPSON: We're likely to see a series of these small but subtle battles, where the attacker, the nation state, is doing reconnaissance, gathering information and really amassing the new weaponry of cyber warfare, which is intelligence about people who may be interesting targets.
GJELTEN: Reconnaissance, of course, has always been part of war fighting, cyber, Thompson argues, is simply a new war-fighting domain. And like other domains - air, land or sea - cyberspace requires its own techniques for gathering intelligence, and it introduces brand new war-fighting capabilities.
THOMPSON: And that's the phase we're in right now.
GJELTEN: Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
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