Rethinking Cybersecurity

Strategy, Mass Effect, and States

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Despite all the attention, cyberspace is far from secure. Why this is so reflects conceptual weaknesses as much as imperfect technologies. Two questions highlight shortcomings in the discussion of cybersecurity. The first is why, after more than two decades, we have not seen anything like a cyber Pearl Harbor, cyber 9/11, or cyber catastrophe, despite constant warnings. The second is why, despite the increasing quantity of recommendations, there has been so little improvement, even when these recommendations are implemented.

These questions share an answer: the concepts underlying cybersecurity are an aggregation of ideas conceived in a different time, based on millennial expectations about governance and international security. Similarly, the internet of the 1990s has become “cyber,” a portmanteau term that encompassed the broad range of global economic, political, and military activities transformed by the revolution created by digital technologies.
If our perceptions of the nature of cybersecurity are skewed, so are our defenses. This report examines the accuracy of our perceptions of cybersecurity. It attempts to embed the problem of cyber attack (not crime or espionage) in the context of larger strategic calculations and effects. It argues that policies and perceptions of cybersecurity are determined by factors external to cyberspace, such as political trends affecting relations among states, by thinking on the role of government, and by public attitudes toward risk.
We can begin to approach the problem of cybersecurity by defining attack. While public usage calls every malicious action in cyberspace an attack, it is more accurate to define attacks as those actions using cyber techniques or tools for violence or coercion to achieve political effect. This places espionage and crime in a separate discussion (while noting that some states use crime for political ends and rampant espionage creates a deep sense of concern among states).

Cyber attack does not threaten crippling surprise or existential risk. This means that the incentives for improvement that might motivate governments and companies are, in fact, much smaller than we assume. Nor is cyber attack random and unpredictable. It reflects national policies for coercion and crime. Grounding policy in a more objective appreciation of risk and intent is a first step toward better security.

James Andrew Lewis
Senior Vice President; Pritzker Chair; and Director, Strategic Technologies Program