Does deterrence work in cyberspace? | University of Oxford

Does deterrence work in cyberspace?

Professor Joseph Nye
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Blavatnik School of Government
Radcliffe Observatory Quarter
Woodstock Road
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Lectures and seminars
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Understanding deterrence and dissuasion in cyberspace is often difficult because our minds are captured by Cold War images of massive retaliation to a nuclear attack by nuclear means. The analogy to nuclear deterrence is misleading, however, because many aspects of cyber behaviour are more like other behaviours such as crime that states try (imperfectly) to deter. Preventing harm in cyberspace involves four complex mechanisms: threats of punishment, denial, entanglement, and norms. Even when punishment is used, deterrent threats need not be limited to cyber responses, and they may address general behaviour as well as specific acts. Cyber threats are plentiful, often ambiguous, and difficult to attribute. Problems of attribution are said to limit deterrence and dissuasion in the cyber domain, but three of the major means – denial by defence, entanglement; and normative taboos – are not strongly hindered by the attribution problem. The effectiveness of different mechanisms depends on context, and the question of whether deterrence works in cyberspace depends on “who and what.” Not all cyber attacks are of equal importance; not all can be deterred; and not all rise to the level of significant national security threats. The lesson for policymakers is to focus on the most important attacks and to understand the full range of mechanisms and contexts in which they can be prevented.