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Cybersecurity’s next phase: Cyber-deterrence

There are three things we can do to strengthen cyber deterrence: Improve cybersecurity, employ active defenses and establish international norms for cyberspace. The first two of these measures will significantly improve our cyber defenses so that even if an attack is not deterred, it will not succeed.

Stepping up protection
Cybersecurity aids deterrence primarily through the principle of denial. It stops attacks before they can achieve their goals. This includes beefing up login security, encrypting data and communications, fighting viruses and other malware, and keeping software updated to patch weaknesses when they’re found.

But even more important is developing products that have few if any security vulnerabilities when they are shipped and installed. The Mirai botnet, capable of generating massive data floods that overload internet servers, takes over devices that have gaping security holes, including default passwords hardcoded into firmware that users can’t change. While some companies such as Microsoft invest heavily in product security, others, including many Internet-of-Things vendors, do not.

Cybersecurity guru Bruce Schneier aptly characterizes the prevalence of insecure Internet-of-Things devices as a market failure akin to pollution. Simply put, the market favors cheap insecure devices over ones that are more costly but secure. His solution? Regulation, either by imposing basic security standards on manufacturers, or by holding them liable when their products are used in attacks.

Active defenses
When it comes to taking action against attackers, there are many ways to monitor, identify and counter adversary cyberattacks. These active cyber defenses are similar to air defense systems that monitor the sky for hostile aircraft and shoot down incoming missiles. Network monitors that watch for and block (“shoot down”) hostile packets are one example, as are honeypots that attract or deflect adversary packets into safe areas. There, they do not harm the targeted network, and can even be studied to reveal attackers’ techniques.

Another set of active defenses involves collecting, analyzing and sharing information about potential threats so that network operators can respond to the latest developments. For example, operators could regularly scan their systems looking for devices vulnerable to or compromised by the Mirai botnet or other malware. If they found some, they could disconnect the devices from the network and alert the devices’ owners to the danger.

Active cyber defense does more than just deny attackers opportunities. It can often unmask the people behind them, leading to punishment. Nongovernment attackers can be shut down, arrested and prosecuted; countries conducting or supporting cyberwarfare can be sanctioned by the international community.

Currently, however, the private sector is reluctant to employ many active defenses because of legal uncertainties. The Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University recommends several actions that the government and the private sector could take to enable more widespread use of active defenses, including clarifying regulations.

Setting international norms
Finally, international norms for cyberspace can aid deterrence if national governments believe they would be named and shamed within the international community for conducting a cyberattack. The U.S. brought charges in 2014 against five Chinese military hackers for targeting American companies. A year later, the U.S. and China agreed to not steal and exploit each other’s corporate secrets for commercial advantage. In the wake of those events, cyber espionage from China plummeted.

Also in 2015, a U.N. group of experts recommended banning cyberattacks against critical infrastructure, including a country’s computer emergency response teams. And later that year, the G20 issued a statement opposing the theft of intellectual property to benefit commercial entities. These norms might deter governments from conducting such attacks.

Cyberspace will never be immune to attack – no more than our streets will be immune to crime. But with stronger cybersecurity, increased use of active cyber defenses, and international cyber norms, we can hope to at least keep a lid on the problem.

Dorothy Denning is Distinguished Professor of Defense Analysis, Naval Postgraduate School. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation (under Creative Commons-Attribution / No derivative).