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