The UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) presented a preliminary assessment (August 24) of the state of organization among UN member states when it comes to dealing with the possibility of cyber attacks.

The report, ‘Cybersecurity and Cyberwarfare’ identified those states which include cyber threats in their military planning and those where there is no public information available. The score was nearly an even split.

The US is at the top of the list with the creation of a ‘Cyber Command’ in 2009 which has both defensive and offensive missions: to secure national networks and to prepare offensive capabilities. China, North Korea and Iran are among the nations known to have military cyber organizations in the planning stage. There was no information available on Russia or Cuba.

The UNIDIR sees its role as providing an early warning system for trends that could emerge as serious threats to international peace and security. In February 2011 it started a project on the legal framework, transparency and confidence building needed to ensure “against unacceptable effects of cyber conflict.”

Despite the title of the draft report, several speakers at the public session in Geneva noted that ‘cyber warfare’ is a misnomer just like ‘ocean warfare’ since both are simply tools. “We need to know if the threat is greater than a teenager out there with Internet skills,” said one participant, “A serious threat needs to have three things: doctrine, organization and skills.”

Meanwhile, China’s state television (CCTV) recently presented a surprisingly candid picture of cyber hacking attacks launched by the country’s military despite long-standing denials of such activity.  Footage showed Chinese software apparently launching a cyber-attack against the main website of the Falun Gong spiritual organization.

The real threat from cyberspace at the moment, however, may be as much for economic purposes as military. The US Internet security firm McAfee has uncovered evidence that an unidentified government has for the past five years been hacking into the computer networks of thousands of companies and governmental organizations, stealing proprietary information but also military and state secrets.