Bruce Schneier on the odd linguistic tic of how we describe an act depending on who the actor is:
Back when we first started getting reports of the Chinese breaking into U.S. computer networks for espionage purposes, we described it in some very strong language. We called the Chinese actions cyber-attacks. We sometimes even invoked the word cyberwar, and declared that a cyber-attack was an act of war.
When Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA has been doing exactly the same thing as the Chinese to computer networks around the world, we used much more moderate language to describe U.S. actions: words like espionage, or intelligence gathering, or spying. We stressed that it’s a peacetime activity, and that everyone does it.
The reality is somewhere in the middle, and the problem is that our intuitions are based on history.
Electronic espionage is different today than it was in the pre-Internet days of the Cold War. Eavesdropping isn’t passive anymore. It’s not the electronic equivalent of sitting close to someone and overhearing a conversation. It’s not passively monitoring a communications circuit. It’s more likely to involve actively breaking into an adversary’s computer network — be it Chinese, Brazilian, or Belgian — and installing malicious software designed to take over that network.
In other words, it’s hacking. Cyber-espionage is a form of cyber-attack. It’s an offensive action. It violates the sovereignty of another country, and we’re doing it with far too little consideration of its diplomatic and geopolitical costs.