27 August 2017



Cold War culture produced some enduring witticisms, but few are wiser than this gem from Dr. Strangelove: “The whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret.” In a recent War on the Rocks article, Joshua Rovner portrays cyber capabilities as the anti-Doomsday machine: nations use them in public but see little blowback. Rovner bases his conclusions off empirical work he’s done with Tyler Moore, published in a new journal article.

I don’t buy the argument (at least as it was written up for War on the Rocks). Before I get to why, though, one important caveat: I applaud Rovner and Moore for trying to bring more data-driven research methods to the intersection of cyber-security and international affairs. Too often, the research in this area lacks empirical observation. But data, especially in a field that’s mostly hidden from public view and which requires technical knowledge to understand, has its limits. Incomplete numbers lie.

Rovner’s most important argument is straightforward: “There may be good reasons to eschew offensive cyber operations … but officials need not be deterred by the fear of extensive and lasting collateral damage.” To get there, he argues that Stuxnet and the operations revealed by Edward Snowden did not cause much blowback, even though each went public in a way that the United States did not intend.

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