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The Cyber Defense & Cyber Attack Weapons in the hands of the private sector



Would equipping the private sector with active cyber defenses to impact national and international security positively or negatively?


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In examining the consequences of the private sector having cyber defense weapons under their hands, we need to consider effects on the defending players, their parent governments, potential cybercrime, innocent third parties, and international surveillance.


The development of private-sector arms may yield at least four positive consequences:

improvement of strategic depth; closer civil-military integration; new options for plausible

deniability by states; and a reduced defensive burden.


Strategic depth. Ordinarily, strategic depth in the cyber domain in the absence of active

the defense is very poor. The defender must wait until the attacker has made his move, after which the time to mount an effective defense is extremely short because the threat travels between machines at the speed of electrons and can achieve tactical results within a matter of seconds or even milliseconds. By contrast, the defensive response, unless it is automated, may require cumbersome procedures such as information-sharing and coordination with law enforcement agencies, which in turn must take time to evaluate the legal, ethical, and tactical appropriateness of different policy options.


Faced with limited capacity and resources, governments need to develop a complementary, legitimate space for private sector active cyber defense.


For instance, it took the U.S. government several weeks simply to identify North Korea as

the source of the attack against Sony Pictures in December 2014. (The attackers activated the

“Wiper” malware on 24 November; the FBI publicly attributed the attack to North Korea on 19

December. The policy process from the time that investigators identified North Korea as the

culprit to publicly outing it took longer than the time between when investigators first learned of

the breach and when they identified North Korea.) Moreover, detection itself may be very difficult

to achieve. According to a report by Verizon, companies take an average of 240 days to spot

network intrusions. (This figure is a simplification. The lag time between compromise and detection depends on the class and the effects of hostile action.


The cyber revolution and the ever-growing transfer of human activities into the virtual world are undermining the social contract between modern states and their citizens. Most governments are becoming unable and unwilling to protect citizens and private enterprises against numerous, sophisticated cyber predators seeking to disrupt, manipulate, or destroy their digital equities. Inevitably, states are focused on protecting governmental assets and national infrastructure, leaving themselves with modest residual capacity and resolve to underwrite other cybersecurity risks. Faced with this reality, private entities are reluctantly but increasingly complementing their passive cybersecurity practices with more assertive “active cyber defense” (ACD) measures. This approach carries substantial risks, but if guided by bounding principles and industry models, it also has the potential for long-term, cumulative benefits.


A higher figure applies to cyber exploitation than to cyberattacks. Indeed, some attacks—such as ransomware, which incapacitates the target machine—may be discovered immediately.


The civilian sector owns or operates approximately 80–90 percent of critical computer systems and networks. Ninety-eight percent of U.S. government communications, including classified information, travel over these networks.


It is therefore plausible to assume that some form of attack code permanently resides

undiscovered within the majority of the civilian sector’s essential computer infrastructures.


Many firms, especially those with global commercial enterprises, may find the reputational

costs of collusion with government unacceptable, especially in a post-Snowden world. Indeed,

Google, Facebook, and other U.S. technology companies have sought to distance themselves from the perception that they work with the government to develop joint surveillance capabilities. But the alleged collusion of RSA and Microsoft proves that at least some level of complicity is acceptable even to large multinational firms with vast commercial interests abroad


Most likely to succeed in the Israeli model of integrating the private sector into the national cyber establishment, which relies on the cultivation of ties with small start-ups that operate mostly in small domestic markets—for example, NSO Group and Kaymera, which develop exploitative tools that allow the remote manipulation of smartphones.


Possible Risks


The use of cyber arms by the private sector entails at least three risks: foreign government penalties; innocent third-party harm; and inadvertent or accelerating international conflict. The last directly involve state interests and is potentially the gravest.


A proliferation and commodification of cyber offensive capabilities is reshaping the cyber balance of power, enabling an expanded array of actors to use cyber for geopolitical impact or economic gain.


From the use of offensive cyberattacks by nation-states directly against another or by coopting cybercriminals, this trend has blurred the line between spies and non-state malicious

hackers. An expanding array of new entrants - both nation-states and non-state actors - with significant capabilities is reshaping the cyber threat landscape. The tools at their disposal allow for unprecedented espionage and surveillance capabilities, which often are the precursors for criminal financial gain, destruction, and disruption operations. Just as the vulnerability surface for cyber is marked by being mostly civilian infrastructure, so increasingly are we seeing non-state actors, including commercial entities, building capabilities that years ago were solely held by a handful of state actors.


The proliferation of cyber tools, which are hard to control and contain, is lowering the barriers to

entry. The ability to buy capabilities off the shelf, to bridge gaps in capabilities, or to build tailored

tools organically ensures the complex dynamics of the current cyber threat landscape will continue to challenge national security, the commercial sector, and civilians, particularly, vulnerable populations.


The increasing ability to buy cyber tools on a commercial basis allows both nation-state and nonstate actors to leapfrog by crossing the line from emerging threat to an established threat quickly; thus leapfrogging is seen as a key driver in the cyber threat landscape. When combined with the challenges of definitive and timely attribution, a threat actor that emerges quickly could inject a high level of geopolitical instability into a conflict that would be more difficult to anticipate than traditional military changes in the balance of power, such as acquisitions of new weapons.



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