Private active cyber defense and (international) cyber security—pushing the line?

Article by Dennis Broeders as part of a special issue for Journal of Cybersecurity.

The article is available under open access here.


Private sector Active Cyber Defence (ACD) lies on the intersection of domestic security and international security and is a recurring subject, often under the more provocative flag of ‘hack back’, in the American debate about cyber security. This article looks at the theory and practice of private cyber security provision and analyses in more detail a number of recent reports and publications on ACD by Washington DC based commissions and think tanks. Many of these propose legalizing forms of active cyber defence, in which private cyber security companies would be allowed to operate beyond their own, or their clients’ networks, and push beyond American law as it currently stands. Generally, public-private governance solutions for security problems have to manage a balance between (i) questions of capacity and assigning responsibilities, (ii) the political legitimacy of public–private security solutions and (iii) the mitigation of their external effects. The case of private active cyber defence reveals a strong emphasis on addressing the domestic security (and political) problem, while failing to convincingly address the international security problems. The proposals aim to create a legitimate market for active cyber defence, anchored to the state through regulation and certification as a way to balance capacity, responsibilities and domestic political legitimacy. A major problem is that even though these reports anticipate international repercussions and political pushback, against what is likely be received internationally as an escalatory and provocative policy, they offer little to mitigate it.

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Private active cyber defense and (international) cyber security—pushing the line?