In Cyberwar, Attribution Can Be Impossible — and That’s OK

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For most of human history, battle lines have been clearly demarcated. Physical borders, trenches, and satellite imagery have shown us launch sites, front lines, and enemy targets. Technology has allowed opponents to trace every inch of a weapon’s path. Historically, we have been able to determine the source of a strike and know who we’re up against with clarity.

But the rules of cyberspace are different.

Acts of cyberwar continue to proliferate — defined by espionage, proxy battles, disinformation campaigns, and guerrilla tactics. Every day, it becomes more challenging to establish the source of an attack — and therefore, to establish an effective, proportional response.

An enemy you can neither see nor identify looms large. But it’s time to acknowledge a hard truth: In today’s world, attack attribution in cyberspace can be impossible for all but the best-resourced governments and organizations. A recent analysis of more than 200 cybersecurity incidents associated with nation-state activity since 2009 found that

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