The Illogic of Plausible Deniability: Why Proxy Conflict in Cyberspace May No Longer Pay
Canfil, Justin Key. “The Illogic of Plausible Deniability: Why Proxy Conflict in Cyberspace May No Longer Pay.” Journal of Cybersecurity 8, no. 1 (2022).
16 Pages Posted: 9 Nov 2022
Date Written: September 1, 2022
Cyber proxies—whether mercenaries, patriotic zealots, pranksters, or simply allies of convenience—are thought to be widespread. By outsourcing to proxies, this logic goes, a host government can plausibly deny its involvement in operations that advance its military and foreign policy aims. This presents central challenge to empirical researchers. If the value of proxies derives from their deniability, this same quality should mean that implausibly deniable types—the types sponsors supposedly wish to avoid—receive disproportionate attention in data and discourse. Accordingly, proxy activity appears to have flagged across several widely used datasets, depending on how the data are parsed. Do proxies still pay? A formal model is used to hypothesize about how new norms of attribution (specifically, the willingness of victims to make accusations on the basis of circumstantial evidence) can encourage capable states to insource more than they outsource. In the model, victims have the power to decide whether denials are plausible. “Usual suspects” who learn that they will take the heat regardless have fewer incentives to rely on proxies. Empirical evidence on insourcing patterns offers backdoor support for this proposition. The findings should decrease our confidence in plausible deniability as a logic for why states outsource to proxies. The paper joins an emerging body of research that has questioned the role of plausible deniability in covert action, including cyber conflict.
Keywords: cybersecurity, cyber proxies, attribution, plausible deniability, cyber conflict
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