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How the United States Is Preparing Defensively to Counter Cyber-Attacks?

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America’s prosperity and security depend on how we respond to the opportunities and challenges in cyberspace. Critical infrastructure, national defense, and the daily lives of Americans rely on computer-driven and interconnected information technologies

As all facets of American life have become more dependent on a secure cyberspace, new vulnerabilities have been revealed and new threats continue to emerge.

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In fact, such activity can magnify the damage cyberattacks cause to legitimacy if indictments are unlikely to result in extradition and trial. The U.S. should abandon legal proceedings it knows will be toothless as a means of foreign policy because they undermine public confidence and governing institutions while raising the perceived influence of the targeted individual’s country. In light of the inefficacy of current non-military policy tools, Sen. Ben Sasse’s “Cyber Solarium” proposal to find all-spectrum deterrence options to cyber threats merits serious consideration—if only to end tit-for-tat scenarios in which the United States, because of its greater wealth and reliance on information technology, consistently loses. While legal and practical concerns persist—I predict that hand-wringing, particularly among European allies and lawyers, will subside as the consequences grow—failure to act is effectively choosing to cede control not only of cyberspace but of domestic governing legitimacy

By attacking citizens and exploiting bureaucratic and strategic failures, cyber adversaries will eventually call into question both the legitimacy and ability of the U.S. government to do its job. That threat should be the guiding principle when officials decide what pace of change and risk of failure they can tolerate.

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Yannakogeorgos refers to actions that fall below the threshold of cyber attack as aggressive incidents. For instance, he categorizes the distributed denial-of-service disruptions to US financial services as aggression and the incidents of Chinese hackers stealing US intellectual property as cyber espionage—not as cyber attacks (Rosenzweig, Paul, 2010). Yannakogeorgos concludes that while the acts of disrupting business services or stealing data are not an armed attack, they may—under the right political circumstances— cause the national leadership to act. The United States Cyber Command groups cyber activity into the three categories of access, disruption, and attack. Based on these categories, therefore, a cyber attack must cause physical damage to property or injury to persons. I agree with Dr. Yannakogeorgos’s and USCYBERCOM’s definition of an attack. However, some activities categorized as a “disruption” or “aggressive incident” could also rise to the level of a cyber attack, depending on the economic impact of the disruption. In 2015 Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told the Senate Committee on Armed Services that a “cyber attack on critical infrastructure, the economy or U.S. military operations” is “an act of cyber warfare” and that “theft of intellectual property through cyber means” jeopardizes our national security and economic prosperity (Nye Joseph S., 2010).

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In the final analysis, Miller and DSB coauthors believe vulnerabilities are still worsening today and that they will likely continue to get worse until we take the problem much more seriously

In their eyes, a sustained effort in cyber protection is urgently needed. A number of other key points were made. Again, Ramcharan emphasized the importance of protecting civilian infrastructure. He explained that the tactics and techniques being applied to cyber warfare today are widely accessible and often fairly easy to employ. Today, low-cost, low-entry, and often low skill-set methods are used to attack.

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Nye Joseph S., Jr. Cyber Power. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Kennedy School, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, May 2010.

“Nuclear Lessons for Cyber Security?” Strategic Studies Quarterly 5, no. 4 (Winter 2011): 18–38.

Rosenzweig, Paul. “The Organization of the United States Government and Private Sector for Achieving Cyber Deterrence.” In National Research Council, Proceedings of a Workshop on Deterring Cyber Attacks: Informing Strategies and Developing Options for U.S. Policy, 245–69. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2010.

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