The Attribution Dilemma, False Flags, and Plausible Deniability in Cyber Warfare

WTF? Where are our cyber diplomats?

Yesterday President Obama expelled 35 Russian Diplomats from the United States located in Maryland and New York. Ironically, I had recently written an article about “reinvigorating the arts of deterrence, diplomacy, and de-escalation.” Not only are we not activating our cyber diplomatic resources, we are doing the opposite by de-activating diplomatic resources.

As media sources continuously report, 17 of our intelligence agencies have decided with virtual certainty that the malicious actor is the Russian Government and have now produced a report that outlines the indicators but still not the smoking gun, for obvious reasons. This inability to reveal our capabilities causes problems for deterrence and also causes challenges in building consensus for action. Surely if we could show everyone the smoking gun we could get consensus. Also, this is certainly causing problems for the incoming administration which is unabashedly dubious about the conclusions of our intelligence agencies.

The attribution dilemma poses three problems:

1.     Lack of 100% certainty of attribution. The ability to obfuscate is inherent in the architecture of the internet.

2.     Plausible deniability by the aggressor. As long as we can’t confirm why we are certain Russia was responsible, Russia continues to benefit from plausible deniability.

3.     Potential it is a false flag. There is always a shadow of doubt it is a false flag operation. I can think of a few actors that would benefit from a US/Russia conflict.

With information warfare it can be challenging to identify who the actors are and what the agenda is. There is no doubt that Russia relies heavily on information warfare to exert influence and power – but to build the consensus for sustained action and international cooperation we need to eliminate the shadows of doubt.

Article originally appeared on LinkedIn December 31, 2016.

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