When U.S. senator John McCain told Ukrainian television that the allegedly Russian-backed breach of the Democratic National Committee’s server was “an act of war,” Michael Schmitt cringed.
Schmitt, a professor of law at the U.S. Naval War College and University of Exeter in England, has spent years trying to defuse talk of cyberattacks, an expression used to describe everything from remotely disabling a city’s power grid to stealing a Facebook password. The concern, for Schmitt and others, is that overheated rhetoric could prompt dangerous diplomatic missteps.
“We’re very nervous when people say ‘cyberattack,’ because a ‘cyberattack’ opens the door to a state responding at very highest level of severity,” Schmitt said in a recent interview. “If there’s any area where we need to be careful, it’s this.”
Schmitt is one of a group of academics campaigning to change the language around electronic subterfuge. Their work on a recently published handbook, the Tallinn Manual 2.0 , is meant to help policymakers to distinguish serious attacks from minor incidents. Other experts are directly lobbying journalists and politicians to moderate their tone.