The pattern has become disturbingly regular. Every few years, evidence surfaces of a major cyber penetration of U.S. networks, and each instance prompts a wave of indignant American calls for tough retaliation.
Last week’s report of the “Solar Winds” operation, a massive new hack of multiple public and private U.S. organizations that has gone undetected for perhaps a year or even longer, is in many ways a repetition of the detection, attribution, and retaliation cycle that has been on endless replay since our discovery of Russia’s infamous “Moonlight Maze” intrusion in the 1990s kicked off a new era of cyber-espionage. Congressmen have called Solar Winds an enormous intelligence failure. President-elect Joe Biden has vowed that he will not stand by idly while our country is being attacked. This time, we say, the Russians (or whoever is behind the intrusion) will pay.
But preventing this kind of thing was exactly what we vowed to do after the last intrusion. In the wake of Russia’s cyber-targeting of American political campaigns and voting systems in 2016, which was followed by signs that Russians had also penetrated the control systems of some American power plants, U.S. strategists decided that merely playing cyber defense and imposing economic and legal penalties on foreign adversaries was not getting the job done. The gap between the capabilities of cyber attackers and cyber defenders was simply too wide for a strategy based on defense and after-the-fact punishment to be effective. Protecting American networks required a new approach, known as “defending forward” or “persistent engagement.”
This meant going on cyber offense to dismantle foreign botnets, to implant sensors and malware inside Russian networks, and force our digital adversaries to play defense against us. Seizing the initiative would, according to the strategists, render our opponents less able to attack us and more concerned that the costs of unbridled offensive operations might outweigh the benefits. In theory, persistent cyber competition between each side’s attackers would eventually produce a stable equilibrium, wherein we all would recognize where the redlines were drawn and respect those boundaries.
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