At Machine Speed in Cyber – Leadership Actions Close to Nullified

In my view, one of the major weaknesses in cyber defense planning is the perception that there is time to lead a cyber defense while under attack. It is likely that a major attack is automated and premeditated. If it is automated the systems will execute the attacks at computational speed. In that case, no political or military leadership would be able to lead of one simple reason – it has already happened before they react.

A premeditated attack is planned for a long time, maybe years, and if automated, the execution of a massive number of exploits will be limited to minutes. Therefore, the future cyber defense would rely on components of artificial intelligence that can assess, act, and mitigate at computational speed. Naturally, this is a development that does not happen overnight.

In an environment where the actual digital interchange occurs at computational speed, the only thing the government can do is to prepare, give guidelines, set rules of engagement, disseminate knowledge to ensure a cyber-resilient society, and let the coders prepare the systems to survive in a degraded environment.

Another important factor is how these cyber defense measures can be reversed engineered and how visible they are in a pre-conflict probing wave of cyber attacks. If the preset cyber defense measures can be “measured up” early in a probing phase of a cyber conflict it is likely that the defense measures can through reverse engineering become a force multiplier for the future attacks – instead of bulwarks against the attacks.

So we enter the land of “damned if you do-damned if you don’t” because if we pre-stage the conflict with artificial intelligence supported decision systems that lead the cyber defense at the computational speed we are also vulnerable by being reverse engineered and the artificial intelligence becomes tangible stupidity.

We are in the early dawn of cyber conflicts, we can see the silhouettes of what is coming, but one thing becomes very clear – the time factor. Politicians and military leadership will have no factual impact on the actual events in real time in conflicts occurring at computational speed, so the focus has then to be at the front end. The leadership is likely to have the highest impact by addressing what has to be done pre-conflict to ensure resilience when under attack.

Jan Kallberg

Jan Kallberg is a research scientist at the Army Cyber Institute at West Point and an assistant professor in the department of social sciences at the United States Military Academy. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Army Cyber Institute at West Point, the United States Military Academy or the Department of Defense.

Private Hackbacks can be Blowbacks

The demands for legalizing corporate hack backs are growing – and there is significant interest by private actors to utilize hack back if it was lawful. If private companies were able to obtain the right to hack back legally, the risks for blowback is likely more significant than the opportunity and potential gains from private hackbacks. The proponents of private hackback tend to build their case on a set of assumptions. If these assumptions are not valid, private hackback is likely becoming a federal problem through uncontrolled escalation and spillover from these private counterstrikes.

-The private companies can attribute.

The idea of legalizing hack back operations is based on the assumption that the defending company can attribute the initial attack with pin-point precision. If a defending company is given the right to strike back, it is based on the assumption that the counterstrike can beyond doubt determine which entity was the initial attacker. If attribution is not achieved with satisfactory granularity and precision, a right to cyber counterstrike would be a right to strike anyone based on suspicion of involvement. Very few private entities can as of today with high granularity determine who attacked them and can trace back the attack so the counterstrike can be accurate. The lack of norms and a right to strike back, even if the precision in the counterstrike is not perfect, would increase entropy and deviation from emerging norms and international governance.

-The counterstriking corporations can engage a state-sponsored organization.

Things might spin out of control.  The old small tactics rule – anyone can open fire, only geniuses can get out unharmed. The counterstriking corporation perceives that they can handle the adversaries believing that it is an underfunded group of college students that hacks for fun – and later finds out that it is a heavily funded and highly able foreign state agency. The counterstriking company would have limited means to before a counterstrike determines the exact size of the initial attacker and the full spectrum of resources available for the initial attacker. A probing counterattack would not be enough to determine the operational strength, ability, and intent of the potential adversary. Following the assumption that the counterstriking corporation can handle any adversary is embedded the assumption that there will be no uncontrolled escalation.

-The whole engagement is locked in between parties A and B.

If there is an assumption of no uncontrolled escalation, then a follow-up assumption is that ,the engagement creates a deterrence that prevents the initial attacker from continuing attacking. The defending company needs to be able to counterattack with the magnitude that the initial attacker is deterred from further attacks. Once deterrence is established then the digital interchange will cease. The question is how to establish deterrence – and deterring from which array of cyber operations – without causing any damages. If deterrence cannot be establish it would likely lead to escalation or to a strict tit-for-tat game without any decisive conclusion and continue until the initial attacker decides to end the interchange.

-The initial attacker has no second strike option.

The interchange will occur with a specific set of cyber weapons and aim points. So the interchange cannot lead to further damages. Even if the initial striker had the intent to rearrange the targets, aims, and potential impacts there will be no option to do so. A new set of second strikes would not be an uncontrolled escalation as long as the targeting occurred within the same realm and values as the earlier strikes. The second strike option for the initial attacker could target unprecedented targets at the initial attackers discretion. Instead, it is more likely that the initial attacker has second strike options that the initial target is unaware of at the moment of counterstrike.

-The counterstriking company has no interests or assets in the initial attacker’s jurisdiction.

If a multi-national company (MNC) counterstrikes a state agency or state sponsored attacker the MNC could face the risk of repercussions if there are MNC assets in the jurisdiction of the initial attacker. Major MNC companies have interests, subsidiaries, and assets in hundreds of jurisdictions. The Fortune 500 companies have assets in the US, China, Russia, India, and numerous other jurisdictions. The question is then if MNC “A” counterstrike a cyberattack from China, what will the risks be for the “A” MNC subsidiary “A in China”? Related is the issue if by improper attribution MNC “A” counterstrikes from the US targeting foreign digital assets when these foreign assets had no connection with the initial attack, which constitutes a new unjustifiable and illegal attack on foreign digital assets. The majority of the potential source countries for hacking attacks are totalitarian and authoritarian states. A totalitarian state can easily, and it is in their reach, switch domain and seize property, arrest innocent business travels, and act in other ways as a result of corporate hackback. I am not saying that we should let totalitarian regimes act any way they want – I am only saying that it is not for private corporations to engage and seeking to resolve. It is a government domain to interact with foreign governments.

The idea to legalize corporate hack backs could lead to increased distrust, entropy, and be contra-productive to the long-term goal of a secure and safe Internet.

Jan Kallberg, PhD

Jan Kallberg is a research scientist at the Army Cyber Institute at West Point and an assistant professor in the department of social sciences at the United States Military Academy.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Army Cyber Institute at West Point, the United States Military Academy or the Department of Defense.

The Zero Domain – Cyber Space Superiority through Acceleration beyond the Adversary’s Comprehension


In the upcoming Fall 2018 issue of the Cyber Defense Review, I present a concept – the Zero Domain. The Zero Domain concept is battlespace singularity through acceleration. There is a point along the trajectory of accelerated warfare where only one warfighting nation comprehend what is unfolding and the sees the cyber terrain; it is an upper barrier for comprehension where the acceleration makes the cyber engagement unilateral.

I intentionally use the word accelerated warfare, because it has a driver and a command of the events unfolding, even if it is only one actor of two, meanwhile hyperwar suggests events unfolding without control or ability to steer the engagement fully.

It is questionable and even unlikely that cyber supremacy can be reached by overwhelming capabilities manifested by stacking more technical capacity and adding attack vectors. The alternative is to use time as the vehicle to supremacy by accelerating the velocity in the engagements beyond the speed at which the enemy can target, precisely execute and comprehend the events unfolding. The space created beyond the adversary’s comprehension is titled the Zero Domain. Military traditionally sees the battles space as land, sea, air, space and cyber domains. When fighting the battle beyond the adversary’s comprehension, no traditional warfighting domain that serves as a battle space; it is a not a vacuum nor an unclaimed terra nullius, but instead the Zero Domain. In the Zero Domain, cyberspace superiority surface as the outfall of the accelerated time and a digital space-separated singularity that benefit the more rapid actor. The Zero Domain has a time space that is only accessible by the rapid actor and a digital landscape that is not accessible to the slower actor due to the execution velocity in the enhanced accelerated warfare. Velocity achieves cyber Anti Access/Area Denial (A2/AD), which can be achieved without active initial interchanges by accelerating the execution and cyber ability in a solitaire state. During this process, any adversarial probing engagements only affect the actor on the approach to the Comprehension Barrier and once arrived in the Zero Domain there is a complete state of Anti Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) present. From that point forward, the actor that reached the Zero Domain has cyberspace singularity where the accelerated actor is the only actor that can understand the digital landscape, engage unilaterally without an adversarial ability to counterattack or interfere, and hold the ability to decide when, how, and where to attack. In the Zero Domain, the accelerated singularity forges the battlefield gravity and thrust into a single power that denies adversarial cyber operations and acts as one force of destruction, extraction, corruption, and exploitation of targeted adversarial digital assets.

When breaking the Comprehension Barrier the first of the adversary’s final points of comprehension is human deliberation, directly followed by pre-authorization and machine learning, and then these final points of comprehension are passed, and the rapid actor enters the Zero Domain.

Key to victory has been the concept of being able to be inside the opponents OODA-loop, and thereby distort, degrade, and derail any of the opponent’s OODA. In accelerated warfare beyond the Comprehension Barrier, there is no need to be inside the opponent’s OODA loop because the accelerated warfare concept is to remove the OODA loop for the opponent and by doing so decapitate the opponent’s ability to coordinate, seek effect, and command. In the Zero Domain, the opposing force has no contact with their enemy, and their OODA loop is evaporated.

The Zero Domain is the warfighting domain where accelerated velocity in the warfighting operations removes the enemy’s presence. It is the domain with zero opponents. It is not an area denial, because the enemy is unable to accelerate to the level that they can enter the battle space, and it is not access denial because the enemy has never been a part of the later fight since the Comprehension Barrier was broken through.

Even if adversarial nations invest heavily in quantum, machine learning, and artificial intelligence, I am not convinced that these adversarial authoritarian regimes can capitalize on their potential technological peer-status to America. The Zero Domain concept has an American advantage because we are less afraid of allowing degrees of freedom in operations, whereas the totalitarian and authoritarian states are slowed down by their culture of fear and need for control. An actor that is slowed down will lower the threshold for the Comprehension Barrier and enable the American force to reach the Zero Domain earlier in the future fight and establish information superiority as confluency of cyber and information operations.

Jan Kallberg, PhD

Jan Kallberg is a research scientist at the Army Cyber Institute at West Point and an assistant professor in the department of social sciences at the United States Military Academy.The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Army Cyber Institute at West Point, the United States Military Academy or the Department of Defense.