Axelrod publishes study on strategic aspects of cyberattack, attribution and blame

February 27, 2017

A new study by Benjamin Edwards, Alexander Furnas, Stephanie Forrest, and Robert Axelrod, titled “Strategic aspects of cyberattack, attribution and blame” was published on February 27 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Cyber conflict is now a common and potentially dangerous occurrence. The target typically faces a strategic choice based on its ability to attribute the attack to a specific perpetrator and whether it has a viable punishment at its disposal. We present a game-theoretic model, in which the best strategic choice for the victim depends on the vulnerability of the attacker, the knowledge level of the victim, payoffs for different outcomes, and the beliefs of each player about their opponent. The resulting blame game allows analysis of four policy-relevant questions: the conditions under which peace (i.e., no attacks) is stable, when attacks should be tolerated, the consequences of asymmetric technical attribution capabilities, and when a mischievous third party or an accident can undermine peace. Numerous historical examples illustrate how the theory applies to cases of cyber or kinetic conflict involving the United States, Russia, China, Japan, North Korea, Estonia, Israel, Iran, and Syria.