What does it mean for a cyber attack to be plausibly deniable? And, more to the point, how can states engineer plausible deniability? This chapter makes two related arguments that run against common assumptions in the literature. Firstly, states engineer plausible deniability by relying not on foreign and distant hacking groups, but usually on domestic proxies. Although this reliance increases the state’s likelihood of being exposed, it also gives the state a greater ability to control the hired group. Secondly, connecting a state to an attack makes the state open to retaliation and largely accounts for why a state can be zealous in plausibly denying its involvement. Strategically, however, it does not make sense for states to seek plausible deniability for all types of attack. Espionage operations almost always prompt a backlash and can warrant special precautionary measures. But sabotage operations aimed at coercing an actor into a change of behavior require clarity. The instigator needs to ensure that the victim is cognizant of the motive behind the attack so that the threat can inform their potential decision to change policy. By revealing its identity while leaving room for ambiguity, a state can simultaneously send this signal and avoid retaliation.
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