Torey McMurdo GRD ’20, a Yale doctoral candidate studying American foreign policy and international security, gave a presentation on Tuesday afternoon about theories on cybersecurity and cyber conflict, as Americans continue to debate how to respond to hacking efforts during the 2016 election.

The hour-long presentation in Luce Hall examined the effectiveness of current cybersecurity theory, which relies on historical precedents. McMurdo also discussed the nexus between industry and the U.S. government in addressing cyber policy.

“To answer the question of how we should respond to cyber attacks is like saying, to me, how should we respond to war? We need to define who’s involved, what level they are involved, what’s being compromised, what’s being harmed,” McMurdo said. “I think that’s one reason we need to start looking back historically: Is it really the technology that matters? Is it the countries involved that matter? Is it the consequences that matter?”

McMurdo discussed academic theories on cyber conflict, including cyber deterrence, though she noted that little academic literature has been published on the subject.

Traditional military deterrence relies on established strategies, McMurdo said, such as clear and open communication about the state’s military intent. In cyber-deterrence theory, however, the cyber capabilities of a government must remain ambiguous and intentions vague.

“It is extremely difficult to signal intent in cyber,” she said. “You can essentially infiltrate a system and launder that system without actually destroying that system. You don’t really see that with other types of military weapons … once they’re employed it’s pretty clear what their intention is, it’s destruction.”

McMurdo discussed and refuted other ideas from the literature at length. One theory contrasts the cyber situation with the threat of nuclear war, while another, called the security dilemma, says that defensive actions by one government may be interpreted by other governments as acts of aggression.

McMurdo also offered challenges to existing cyber theories. She said that this dual-use technology can blur lines between the actions of a state and a civilian group. Cyber attacks can also make it difficult to take hard stances on the issue.

“Is stealing $100 out of someone’s Venmo account the same as undermining a local election, and is that the same as undermining a national election?” McMurdo said.

The tech industry has recently played a growing role in crafting cybersecurity policy. McMurdo said that the ideological gap between Silicon Valley and the U.S. government has decreased in recent years, though the two tend to have different beliefs about freedom and liberty. The Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, a startup company mentioned in the talk, has attempted to bridge the gap between Silicon Valley companies and the government in tackling cybersecurity issues.

McMurdo, in addition to holding research positions at Yale and the Air Force Academy, is a graduate affiliate in Davenport College.

Marisa Peryer | marisa.peryer@yale.edu