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Nobody Knows Where the Red Line Is for Cyberwarfare

Is offense the best defense? Or would threats of retaliation keep an enemy in check?
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Illustration: Inkee Wang for Bloomberg Businessweek

A common explanation for why the Soviet Union never used nuclear weapons during the Cold War was the expectation that any attack would likely prompt a devastating nuclear response. The fear of mutually assured destruction was enough to keep both the USSR and the U.S. from launching a nuclear attack, even as they spent decades building up huge stockpiles of weapons.

Cyberweapons are different. Cyberattacks by both governments and private hackers have exploded in recent years. Many of these are financially motivated, but others involve espionage or, in several high-profile cases, the sabotage of physical infrastructure. There’s broad agreement that at some point a cyberattack would be considered an act of war. Yet no one knows quite where the line is.