Skip to navigationSkip to content
CYBERSTOP

Government officials just really like the word “cyber”

AP/Toby Talbot
Cyber sleuthing
Keith Collins
By Keith Collins

Tech Reporter

This article is more than 2 years old.

County prosecutors have offered a new reason Apple should help unlock the iPhone used by one of the alleged shooters in San Bernardino: a “dormant cyber pathogen.”

In a briefing filed on Thursday (March 3), the prosecutors suggested the phone may have been used to release the “pathogen” into San Bernardino’s local government computer network:

The iPhone is a county owned telephone that may have connected to the San Bernardino County computer network. The seized iPhone may contain evidence that can only be found on the seized phone that it was used as a weapon to introduce a lying dormant cyber pathogen that endangers San Bernardino’s infrastructure.

So what exactly is a cyber pathogen? Well, nothing. It’s not a thing. If you had Googled the phrase before the San Bernardino district attorney started using it earlier this year, you wouldn’t have gotten any results. Forensics expert Jonathan Zdziarski told Ars Technica “the district attorney is suggesting that a ‘magical unicorn might exist on this phone.'”

“It sounds like he’s making up these terms as he goes,” Zdziarski added. “We’ve never used these terms in computer science.”

Using the word “cyber” to make something sound more threatening or official or downright magical is not a new tactic, particularly for government officials. Hacking is not hacking—it’s cybercrime. If a nation state is involved, it’s cyberwar. When a company uses a firewall, it’s just a firewall. But when the government uses one, it’s cybersecurity. (There’s also a Cybersecurity Awareness Month, by the way. It’s October.)

In a 2013 deep-dive into the history of “cyber,” author Bruce Sterling told io9 he had a theory about the word’s use:

I think I know why the military calls it “cyber”—it’s because the metaphor of defending a “battlespace” made of “cyberspace” makes it easier for certain contractors to get Pentagon grants. If you call “cyberspace” by the alternate paradigm of “networks, wires, tubes and cables” then the NSA has already owned that for fifty years and the armed services can’t get a word in.

Whatever the reason, the government certainly uses the word a lot. We analyzed every mention of “cyber” on the congressional record since 2000, via Capitol Words by the Sunlight Foundation. We found 80 distinct uses of the word, which we’ve listed below. Some standouts include “cybersquatting,” “cyberpatriot,” and “cyber introverts.”

PhraseCount
cyber security268
cyber threat(s)123
cyber attack(s)87
cyber crime(s)56
cyber defense(s)30
cyber space22
cyber command20
cyber incident(s)15
cyber network(s)10
cyber bill7
cyber communications7
cyber infrastructure6
cyber intelligence6
cyber trespass5
cyber criminals4
cyber issue(s)4
cyber privacy4
cyber risk(s)4
cyber emergencies3
cyber espionage3
cyber future3
cyber intrusions3
cyber matters3
cyber organization3
cyberpiracy3
cyber scholarship3
cybersquatting3
cyber system(s)3
cyber terrorism3
cyber warfare3
cyber actor2
cyber breaches2
cyber center(s)2
cyber director2
cyber education2
cyber hygiene2
cyber intent2
cyber investigations2
cyber investigative2
cyber legislation2
cyber monday2
cyberpatriot2
cyber theft2
cyber week2
cyber workforce2
cyber academy1
cyber action1
cyber activities1
cyber area1
cyber attacked1
cyber authorities1
cyber bank1
cyber behavior1
cyber bullies1
cyber cafes1
cyber critical1
cyber curriculum1
cyber economic1
cyber hacks1
cyber information1
cyber initiative1
cyber insurance1
cyber introverts1
cyber means1
cyber pearl1
cyber penetrations1
cyber policy1
cyber predators1
cyber service1
cyber smuggling1
cyberspies1
cyber strategic1
cyber support1
cyber terrorists1
cyber tip1
cyber tipline1
cyber training1
cyber vulnerabilities1
cyber war1
cyber warrior1
cyber youth1

Note: Counts include instances of mentions with and without spaces.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.