• MOOC coordinators Manuel Gértrudix Barrio & Rubén Arcos Martín
  • Content written by Irena Chiru
  • Multimedia design by Alejandro Carbonell Alcocer
  • Visual Identity by Juan Romero Luis

The complicated “attribution” problem

Covert influence and the challenge of attribution. Communication-led covert actions. Plausible deniability. To what extent is attribution possible?

  1. Without the ability to identify an attacker, effectively responding is hard
  2. Obtaining complete certainty concerning the source of an attack is often difficult in the cyber realm; traces can be wiped quite effectively, or even be manipulated, seemingly pointing to an innocent third party. Examples of such false flag operations are the cyber-attack on the French broadcaster TV5 in 2015 and on the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in 2018.
  3. This complication entails the risk that any means of retaliation may subsequently appear to have been targeted at an innocent party. Moreover, detailed investigations into the attack may take so much time that the ‘momentum’ for an effective response may have already passed – ideally, an attacker is retaliated against immediately, and not after several months.
  4. In the past few years the technical possibilities of cyber forensics have developed rapidly, and indisputable attribution seems to become increasingly feasible. Nevertheless, even if compelling evidence on the cyber-attacker is found by investigators, it may not always be possible to bring this into the open without harming the future use of the intelligence instruments that were used. Especially if the accused party publicly denies any involvement (for example, claiming that the accusation is completely false or that it must have been a false-flag operation), retaliating without making public detailed evidence may risk an escalation as well as international condemnation of the retaliatory action.