In the wake of the Stuxnet virus, the topic of international "cyber war" split IT experts at the world's top tech fair, some seeing the idea as fanciful, others warning it was already here.
"'Cyber war' has already left the pages of the science-fiction books and has become a reality," August-Wilhelm Scheer, president of BITKOM, Germany's high-tech lobby group, told Agence Freance Presse on the sidelines of the CeBIT exposition.
Natalya Kaspersky, president of the Russian IT security firm of the same name, said: "Of course the time of the cyber war has come. Physical war is very expensive, it costs much less to launch attacks over the Internet."
The idea of "cyber war" -- or countries attacking each other over the web -- has been around for decades but shot to prominence in 2007 when Internet sites were hit in Estonia, at the time embroiled in a diplomatic spat with Russia.
And the concept really hit the headlines last year with the Stuxnet worm, which damaged Iranian nuclear facilities. Media reports in the United States later said the virus was created with the collaboration of the US and Israel.
Many experts at the time concluded the code of the worm was so complex, it could only have been the work of a nation state.
"Stuxnet is going to go down in history as the first cyber weapon of mass destruction," said Ralph Langner, a German cyber security specialist and one of the first scientists to analyze the crippling virus.
"It did not attack virtual targets but rather caused material damage to military objectives, in the same way a bomb attack might," he told AFP.
Sandro Gaycken, a researcher at Berlin's Free University, summed up the idea of "cyber war" in a recent article: "Attacks are no longer coming from teen tech addicts or delinquents, but from states, armies and secret services."
Others however dismissed the idea of virtual "war" as overblown.
Michael Hange, president of the German government's IT security agency (BSI) said: "'Cyber war' is a strong word that is nice for the media but I like to be more cautious."
"In cyber attacks, a country doesn't exactly leave its calling card. The classical model of war simply does not apply," added Hange.
This view was shared by international cyber defense expert Katharina Ziolkowski, who wrote in a recent editorial in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily that cyber war had "nothing to do with military conflict."
"One day maybe we could have things happening on the Internet that have such serious consequences in the real world that one could talk of armed conflict. But I think we will be safe from this for the next 100 years," she added.
Nevertheless, governments and some organizations are beginning to take the idea of international cyberwarfare very seriously.
In the United States, legislation has been drafted giving the president the power to disconnect the country from the Internet in the case of a major cyber attack.
And in Germany, the home of the CeBIT, the government last week announced the creation of a new national center for cyber defense to protect the country in the event of a virtual attack on, for example, its nuclear power stations.
Showing the potential damage a successful cyber attack could wreak, the American think-tank EastWest has envisaged the creation of "cyber war rights", based on the Geneva Convention, to protect civilians in the case of Web war.
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