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Restraint under conditions of uncertainty: Why the United States tolerates cyberattacks

This new article by Monica Kaminska is part of a special issue for Journal of Cybersecurity, based on a selection of contributions from THe Hague Program for Cyber Norms' 2019 Conference.

Monica Kaminska
10 March 2021
Link to article (available open access)


The United States struggles to impose meaningful costs for destructive or disruptive cyber operations. This article argues that the United States' restrained responses stem from a desire to avoid risk in an inherently uncertain operational environment. The societal desire for risk avoidance is the prism through which policymakers address the cyber domain and deliberate responses to attacks. The article shows that two particular operational characteristics of cyberspace—its complex adaptiveness and the ease of proliferation—combine to increase the risk of misattribution and the risk of unintended effects, including collateral damage, inadvertent escalation and blowback. These characteristics present a particular obstacle for risk societies such as the United States in the application of meaningful punishments. In addition to establishing the roots of US restraint, the article traces the application of risk management practices, including preventive action, increasing resilience and consequence management, from the Obama administration to the Trump administration. The analysis reveals that risk management has underpinned the overall US approach to the cyber domain.

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