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What about deterrence in an era of cyberwar?

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Moreover, for the purposes of deterrence, it’s not enough to trace an attack back to a computer or find out who was operating a specific computer. Strategically, we must know what political actor was responsible, in order to change their calculations.

This problem has made improving attribution (or at least making people think you have improved attribution) a key strategic priority for nations that believe themselves at risk of cyberattack. So, in addition to considering the massive retaliatory forces outlined by the Defense Science Board, the United States has grown its messaging efforts on this front. In 2012, for example, then Secretary of Defense Panetta laid down a public marker that “Potential aggressors should be aware that the United States has the capacity to locate them and to hold them accountable for their actions that may try to harm America.” In turn, these potential aggressors must now weigh whether it was bluster or real.

The “who” of deterrence is not just about identification but also context. The United States has approached deterrence very differently when facing terrorists, rogue nations, and major powers. While the theory often lays out a series of set actions and counteractions, the reality is that different actors can dictate very different responses. Imagine, for example, what the Bush administration’s reaction might have been if the groups attacking the United States’ NATO partner Estonia in 2007 had been linked to Tehran instead of Moscow.

If the actor is known, the next component in deterrence is the commitment to retaliate, a decision whether to match or escalate the use of force. Unlike when the United States and the Soviet Union pointed nuclear weapons at each other ’s territory, the players and stakes in the cyber realm are far more amorphous. Some even argue that if one wants to change an adversary’s “state of mind,” the “credible threat” against cyberattack needs to go beyond the cyber realm.

This is the essence of the Pentagon’s plan for a mixed cyber- and real-world retaliatory force, which has also been proposed even in situations of espionage. But going back to the issue of context, the challenge of intellectual property theft is that an in-kind response would not be effective; the very fact that your secrets are being stolen is a pretty good indicator that the enemy doesn’t have anything worth stealing back. Likewise, the traditional deterrence and retaliation model in espionage (they arrest your spies, you arrest theirs or deport some embassy staff) doesn’t translate well when the spy is thousands of miles away and likely outside of the government. Thus, some have argued that alternative means have to be found to influence an enemy’s calculations. Dmitri Alperovitch, who watched the massive Shady RAT attacks play out, argues that we should try to “raise the economic costs on the adversary through the use of such tools as sanctions, trade tariffs, and multilateral diplomatic pressure to impact their cost benefit analysis of these operations.”

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