The Cybersecurity Dilemma in a Nutshell

by GentzelThe Consequentialist2 min read12th Dec 20195 comments


Book ReviewsSummariesWarPoliticsProgramming

The Cybersecurity Dilemma: Hacking, Trust, and Fear Between Nations organizes its arguments in a fairly no-nonsense, premise –> premise –> conclusion manner that I thought would be good to summarize with a blog post. You can buy the book here.

The argument:

Security dilemmas are dangerous because in seeking their own security, states often build capabilities and take actions that can directly threaten the security of other states: often creating impressions of imminent offensive intent and prompting escalation. This is especially true for cybersecurity for several main reasons:

States that desire options for future cyber operations must make intrusions in advance.

  • The sequential stages of cyber-attack (target acquisition, development, authorization, entry, establishing command and control (C2), pivoting, payload activation, and confirmation) can take a very long time.
    • E.g. time required to find zero-days, develop exploits and new tools, get authorization, get past defenses such as airgaps, set up C2 and to make pivots within networks all without revealing presence. 
  • There is little “momentum” between stages of a cyber-attack since the attacker has to reorient themselves, and this incentivizes early intrusion.
  • Options for persistence within networks incentivize early intrusion.
  • Without moving early, states miss-out on developing economies of scale in capability from re-using code and knowledge

States that desire options purely to defend themselves also have the incentive to intrude early as the defensive process of preparation, detection, data collection, analysis, containment, and decontamination benefit from making intrusions.

  • Intruding to learn the strategic intentions of potential intruders
  • Intruding to learn potential intruder’s means of intrusion and to develop countermeasures
  • Intruding to find out if intrusions have already been made and to discover operations in progress

Cyber intrusions for intelligence gathering will be perceived as more threatening than past intelligence operations

  • They provide means of deliberate targeted attacks as well as accidental disruption, since breaking a network can be easier than espionage
  • They provide a beachhead for future operations and intrusions
  • They change the conditions of conflict and competition via:
    • Enabling joint operations with cyber effects
    • Providing insight into the defender’s intentions, capabilities, and decision-making processes
    • Disclosing the defender’s capabilities in advance
    • Enabling economic espionage
  • They provide counterintelligence challenges via:
    • Intruding into intelligence agency networks to learn about their internal workings, operations, capabilities, communications, methods, and subject knowledge
    • Expanding operational opportunities to spread through other intelligence networks
    • Undermining intelligence efficiency with fears and paranoia

The traditional mitigations to the security dilemma are less effective for the cybersecurity dilemma

  • Cyberspace is perceived as an offense dominant domain of conflict, as it presents large attack surfaces that are difficult to defend since cyberspace is highly interconnected, allows nearly instant intrusion, lacks many parallels to natural “defensive geography” 
  • The differentiation between offensive and defensive measures and capabilities in cyberspace is not easy for cost-effective means of cyber defense
    • Successfully defending and monitoring entire networks and patching all vulnerabilities is prohibitively expensive, so means of defense intrusions into adversary networks to learn about intentions and capabilities are inevitable
    • Defensive intrusions can provide means for offensive operations in the future
  • It is difficult for states to send credible signals of restraint since the covert nature of cyber operations can conceal their scale and threat
  • Resolving uncertainty about motives via communication is more difficult with respect to cyber operations and cyber defenses since states have the incentive to keep secret their capabilities in order not to lose them.  

The cybersecurity dilemma is also more complex to solve than the normal security dilemma since cyber capabilities are harder to assess than military power and status quo behaviors are likely to change as norms for mutually acceptable behavior have yet to be ironed out. 


In response to these arguments establishing the “cybersecurity dilemma” as a serious problem in international relations, there are a few counter-arguments which the book seeks to address:

  • That attribution in cyberspace is impossible…
    • Which often is not true for well-resourced actors and even when true is likely to lead defensive forensic intrusions into suspect networks
  • That cyber threats are not existential…
    • But threats need not be existential to merit or incentivize responses
  • That cyber capabilities are so unevenly distributed that detecting a network intrusion does little to impact a state’s overall fears…
    • However, states with more symmetric capabilities will still face such dilemmas, and wealthy states face asymmetric threats that still prompt defensive intrusions

Ways to partially mitigate the cybersecurity dilemma:

  • Increasing short-term stability with baseline cyber defenses to remove vulnerabilities and increase the odds of purging intruders from networks
  • Building trust between states by improving bilateral relationships
  • Minimizing the risk of misinterpretation of intentions via unilateral actions to credibly demonstrate commitments to stability (E.g. disclosing zero-day vulnerabilities so they can be patched)
  • Establishing and communicating a status quo posture for responding to cyber intrusions 


5 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 7:48 PM
New Comment

This question sounds like it assumes that cyber capabilities are simply build for defensive purposes and not for offensive purposes. I think all the bigger nations that have build capabilities currently use them for offensive purposes.

If a state would actually care more about defensive they could invest more resources into making their own systems safer.

The book does assume from the start that states want offensive options. I guess it is useful to breakdown the motivations of offensive capabilities. Though the motivations aren’t fully distinct, it matters if a state is intruding as the prelude to or an opening round of a conflict, or if it is just trying to improve its ability to defend itself without necessarily trying to disrupt anything in the network being intruded into. There are totally different motives too, like North Korea installing cryptocurrency miners on other countries’ computers, but I guess you could analogize that to taxing territory from a foreign state without engaging its military.

The book basically argues that even if cybersecurity is your goal, a more cost-effective defense will almost always involve making intrusions for defensive purposes since it becomes prohibitively expensive to protect everything when the attacker can choose anywhere to strike.

I could see an argument that very small actors would do better to focus purely on defenses, since if their networks are small enough, it may be easier to map them and to protect everything extremely well, while it could require more talent to make useful intrusions into other networks. The larger an actor is, (like a state) the more complex its systems are, and the harder to centrally control and monitor those systems are, presumably the more effective going on the offensive becomes to counter intruders. I think states do make this calculation, and that's why they often also have smaller air-gapped systems that are easier to defend.

For defending the public though, it would be a nightmare to individually intervene in millions of online businesses, just as it would be a nightmare if the government had to post guards outside every business to prevent intrusion by foreign soldiers. When the landscape is like that: far more vulnerabilities than adversaries, potential adversaries are a rational point of focus.

If you are a large country like the US. You don't need to intervene manually in millions of online businesses. On a policy-level you need to setup legal liability for people who are uses practices that put users at risk.

Equifax should be liable in a way that bankrupts the company for what they did.

As a result of Julia Reda's work the EU recently decided to pay for bug bounties for important open source projects that are used a lot in it's infrastructure.

We should move to a world where we don't have bufferoverflows due to the problems of C and use more safe language like Rust for the lower part of our techstack.

To the extend we have dependencies that are twenty year old vulnerable C code the government should take a few billion into it's hand to get them rewritten in Rust when it's widely used open-source code or force companies through liability for breaches to rewrite their own closed source stuff.

Edit Note: I fixed some of the formatting in this post. Feel free to revert it. 

Edit: Note: I fixed some of the formatting in this post at the same time. We saved over each other and mine won, but now the editor is a bit broken. Will fix in the morning.