The Fog of (Cyber) War: The Attribution Problem and Jus ad Bellum

The Sony Pictures Classics film The Fog of War is a comprehensive and seemingly unfiltered examination of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, highlighting the key lessons he learned during his time as a central figure in US national security from WWII through the Cold War. The biopic calls particular attention to jus ad bellum – the criteria for engaging in conflict. Over a decade later, Sony itself is now at the center of a national security debate. As the US government ponders a “proportional response” – a key tenet of Just War theory – in retribution for the Sony hack, and many in the security community continue to question the government’s attribution of the breach to North Korea, it is time to return to many of McNamara’s key lessons and consider how the difficulty of cyber attribution – and the prospect of misattribution – can only exacerbate the already tenuous decision-making process in international relations.

  • Misperception: The misperception and miscalculation that stem from incomplete information are perhaps the most omnipresent instigators across all forms of conflict. McNamara addresses this through the notion that “seeing and belief” are often wrong. Similarly, given the difficulty of positively attributing a cyber attack, victims and governments often resort to confirmation bias, selecting the circumstantial evidence which best confirms their beliefs. Cyber attacks aggravate the misguided role of incomplete information, leaving victims to formulate a response without fully knowing: 1) the financial and national security magnitude of the breach; 2) what the perpetrator will do with the information; 3) the perpetrator’s identity. Absent this information, a victim may respond disproportionally and target the wrong adversary in response.
  • Empathize with your Enemy: McNamara’s lesson draws from Sun Tzu’s “know thy enemy” and describes the need to evaluate an adversary’s intent by seeing the situation through their eyes. Understanding the adversary and their incentives is an effective way to help identify the perpetrator, given the technical challenges with attribution. To oversimplify, code can be recycled from previous attacks, purchased through black markets for malware, and can be socially engineered to deflect investigations towards other actors. Moreover, states can outsource the attack to further redirect suspicions. A technical approach can limit the realm of potential actors responsible, such as to nation-states due to the scope and complexity of the malware. But it is even more beneficial to marry the technical approach with an understanding of adversarial intent to help gain greater certainty in attribution.
  • Proportionality: Proportionality is a key component both of jus ad bellum, as well as jus in bello (criteria for behavior once in war). Given his role in the carpet-bombing of Japan, McNamara somewhat surprisingly stresses the role of a proportional response. President Obama’s promise of a proportional response to the Sony breach draws specifically on this Just War mentality. But the attribution problem coupled with misperception and incomplete information make it exceedingly difficult to formulate a proportional response to a cyber attack. Clearly, a response would be more straightforward if there were a kinetic effect of a cyber attack, such as was recently revealed in theTurkey attack that occurred six years ago. But even this still begs the question of what a proportional response looks like after so many years. It could similarly be years before the complete magnitude of the Sony breach is realized, or exactly what that ‘red line’ might be that would trigger a kinetic or non-kinetic response to a cyber attack.
  • Rational choice: A key theory in international relations, rational choice theory assumes actors logically make decisions based on weighing potential costs and benefits of an action. While this continues to be debated, McNamara notes that with the advent of nuclear weapons, human error can lead to unprecedented destruction despite rational behavior. This is yet again magnified in the cyber domain, especially if misattribution leads to retaliation against the wrong adversary, or human error in a cyber response has unintended consequences. Rational choice decisions are only as good as the data at hand, and therefore seemingly “rational” decisions can inadvertently result in unintended results due to limited data or misguided data interpretations. Moreover, similar to the nuclear era, human error can also lead to unprecedented destruction in the cyber domain. However, cyber retaliatory responses are not limited to a select few high level officials, but rather the capabilities are much more dispersed across agencies and leadership levels, expanding the scope for potential human error.
  • Data-driven Analyses: McNamara’s decision to bring in a team of quants to take a more innovative approach to national security analysis is a milestone in international relations. However, like all forms of analyses, quantitative and computational analyses must not be accepted at face value, but rather must be subjected to rigorous inspection of the data and methodologies employed to produce the findings. The last few weeks have seen a range of analyses used to either validate or add skepticism to the attribution of North Korea to the Sony breach. These clearly range significantly in the level of analytic rigor, but many are plagued with limited data which produces analytic problems such as: 1) a small-N, meaning any results should be met with skepticism and are not statistically significant; 2) natural language processing analyses using models that are trained on different language structures and so do not travel well to coding languages; 3) selection bias wherein the sample of potential actors analyzed is not a representative sample; 4) poor data sampling, wherein analysis of different subsets of the data lead to differing conclusions. Because of these different analytic hurdles, various analyses point unequivocally to actors as diverse as North Korea, the Lizard Squad, Russia, Guardians of Peace, and an insider threat. Clearly, attributing the attack is a key goal of the analyses, but limited data exacerbates the ability to confirm prior beliefs. Data-driven analyses provide solid footing when making claims, but the various forms of data gaps inherent in cyber make it much more vulnerable to misinterpretation.

Beyond a Cold War Framework: Each of these lessons highlights how the digital age amplifies the already complex and opaque circumstances surrounding jus ad bellum. As we begin another year, we are yet again reminded not only of the seemingly cyclical nature of history, but also of just how distinct the modern era is from its predecessors. It’s time for a framework that builds upon past knowledge while also adapting to the realities of the cyber domain. Too often, decision-making remains relegated to a Cold War framework, such as the frameworks for conventional warfare, mutually assured destruction, and a known adversary. It would be devastating if the complexity of the cyber domain led to misattribution and a response against the wrong adversary – and all of the unintended consequences that would entail. If nothing else, let’s hope the Sony breach serves as a wake up call for a new policy framework rigorous enough to handle the fog of cyber war.