May 20, 2020 11:28AM

Reflections on: “Dealing with Cyberattacks”

By James Knupp

Editor’s note: In 2014, Cato released A Dangerous World? Threat Perception and U.S. National Security an edited volume of papers originally presented at a Cato conference the previous year. In each chapter, experts assessed and put in context the supposed dangers to American security, from nuclear proliferation and a rising China to terrorism and climate change.

As part of our Project on Threat Inflation, Cato is republishing each chapter in an easily readable online format. Even six years after its publication, much of the book remains relevant. Policymakers and influencers continue to tout a dizzying range of threats, and Americans are still afraid. We invited each author to revisit their arguments and offer a few new observations in light of recent events. You can view previous entries here and here, and on the Project on Threat Inflation homepage.

This week’s entry comes from Martin Libicki, the Keyser Chair of cybersecurity studies at the U.S. Naval Academy. His reflections on his chapter are informed by his years teaching and researching the world of cybersecurity, including multiple books and monographs for the RAND Corporation.

No one would believe that a field as dynamic as cyberspace operations could undergo no change over the seven years since this chapter was written. Such incredulity would have been well‐​placed. There have been changes. But most of them have reinforced the lessons of this chapter: cyberspace is unlikely to be a national security problem. As with much in life, what has started as an acute problem (rare but intolerable) has continued to evolve into a chronic problem (common but tolerable).

Perhaps the largest change in cyberspace is one that is hard to miss but harder to assess: during national lockdowns, it is now possible for a large percentage of the labor force to get work done at home without encountering others face‐​to‐​face. It is hard to think of an event which so underscores the extent to which what was born as an academic plaything has become so essential to life.

But just as the uses of cyberspace have evolved so have its abuses. North Korea, which started out using cyberattacks to destabilize South Korea later concluded that stealing money produces more tangible results: hence its $81m theft from the Bank of Bangladesh and a later rash of cybercrimes against cryptocurrency depots. China has professionalized its cyberspace operations within its Ministry of State Security, trimming the ranks of its rogue and noisy hackers, and turning the PLA hackers back to military tasks. Iran continues its mischief, albeit with more of a regional focus. Russia’s hackers, by contrast, which as of 2013 were rarely heard from but considered highly talented, are now heard from a lot. Its cyberspace operations in 2016 against the integrity of the U.S. election were politically if not necessarily technically sophisticated. But many of its efforts were undertaken to support a civil war in Ukraine.

One such attack, NotPetya (2017), managed to take Ukrainian tax software and insert into it malware, which in turn trashed multiple corporate networks wreaking $5 to $10 billion in remediation costs. But, some sanctions tightening aside, there were few (known) reprisals from the United States and lack of any follow‐​on or copycat attack of that magnitude suggests that the results were not deemed a resounding victory in Moscow.

One element of added predictability has been in attribution. Rarely does a newsworthy cyberattack take place without one or more private cybersecurity companies jumping in to let us know which country – and often which group within the country – is responsible. Without knowing how correct they are, the competing cybersecurity companies are at least self‐​consistent. And while mistakes are made – many operations initially blamed on ISIS, North Korea, and Iran were later found to be Russian false flag operations – the notion of impunity via invisibility has seen better days.

As a whole, cyberspace operations have been increasingly professionalized. Many countries, not least being China and Germany, have assigned their hackers formal roles within their military organizations. The U.S. Cyber Command has announced its “persistent engagement” strategy, a way to do unto others before they have a chance to do unto us. In so doing, it is indicating that they see their most salient target as other hackers – following in the footsteps of tank, submarine, and fighter jet warriors, all of who also see their opposites as their most important foes.

Meanwhile, so far, Las Vegas rules seem to hold: what starts in cyberspace stays in cyberspace and does not escalate beyond. Recent academic research suggests that war game participants are less likely to raise the stakes in response to a cyber incident than to physical incidents with similar levels of damage. And U.S. actions in 2019 when physical attacks by Iran were (reportedly) met by cyberattacks from the United States indicates the latter can play an important de‐​escalatory role.

All this may change tomorrow. But the last seven years have only reinforced the arguments made in 2013.

-Martin Libicki