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.

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