Cyber Pearl Harbor: Analogy, fear, and the framing of cyber security threats in the United States, 1991-2016

  • Sean Lawson Department of Communication, University of Utah
  • Michael K. Middleton Department of Communication, University of Utah
Keywords: cybersecurity, rhetorical analysis, content analysis

Abstract

During the two and a half decades leading up to the Russian cyber attacks on the 2016 U.S. presidential election, public policy discourse about cybersecurity typically framed cybersecurity using metaphors and analogies to war and tended to focus on catastrophic doom scenarios involving cyber attacks against critical infrastructure. In this discourse, the so-called “cyber Pearl Harbor” attack was always supposedly just around the corner. Since 2016, however, many have argued that fixation on cyber Pearl Harbor-like scenarios was an inaccurate framing that left the United States looking in the wrong direction when Russia struck. This essay traces the use of the cyber Pearl Harbor analogy and metaphor over the 25-year period preceding the Russian cyber attacks of 2016. It argues that cyber Pearl Harbor has been a consistent feature of U.S. cybersecurity discourse with a largely stable meaning focused on catastrophic physical impacts. Government officials have been primarily responsible for driving these concerns with news media uncritically transmitting their claims. This is despite the fact that such claims were often ambiguous about just who might carry out such an attack and often lacked supporting evidence.

Author Biographies

Sean Lawson, Department of Communication, University of Utah
Associate Professor, Department of Communication, University of Utah
Michael K. Middleton, Department of Communication, University of Utah
Assistant Professor, Department of Communication, University of Utah
Published
2019-03-01
How to Cite
Lawson, S., & Middleton, M. K. (2019). Cyber Pearl Harbor: Analogy, fear, and the framing of cyber security threats in the United States, 1991-2016. First Monday, 24(3). https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v24i3.9623