The Cybersecurity Dilemma

Hacking, Trust, and Fear Between Nations

January 2017 9781849047135 296pp


Why do nations break into one another’s most important computer networks? There is an obvious answer: to steal valuable information or to attack. But this isn’t the full story. This book draws on often-overlooked documents leaked by Edward Snowden, real-world case studies of cyber operations, and policymaker perspectives to show that intruding into other countries’ networks has enormous defensive value as well. Two nations, neither of which seeks to harm the other but neither of which trusts the other, will often find it prudent to penetrate each other’s systems. This general problem, in which a nation’s means of securing itself threatens the security of others and risks escalating tension, is a bedrock concept in international relations and is called the ‘security dilemma’.

This book shows not only that the security dilemma applies to cyber operations, but also that the particular characteristics of the digital domain mean that the effects are deeply pronounced. The cybersecurity dilemma is both a vital concern of modern statecraft and a means of accessibly understanding the essential components of cyber operations.


‘Ben Buchanan provides a carefully researched and balanced account of the increasing intrusions into cyber networks. He also suggests some practical steps to mitigate the effects. This is an important analysis of the difficult problem of cyber insecurity we all face.’ — Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Distinguished Service Professor, Harvard University, and author of Is the American Century Over?

‘What do the great NSA leaks of 2013 mean for cyber security? Buchanan delivers a fresh and brilliant strategic analysis of computer network operations in the twenty-first century, powered by a rare blend of down-in-the-weeds technical insight and bird’s-eye-view conceptual clarity — a must-read for scholars and practitioners in the private and public sectors.’ — Thomas Rid, Professor in Security Studies, King’s College London, and author of Cyber War Will Not Take Place 

‘Buchanan offers technically-grounded, policy-savvy analysis in his groundbreaking book. He demonstrates that international relations are as relevant to the digital world as they are to the physical. Policymakers are grappling with the security dilemma now; they and their constituents will benefit greatly from the lessons in this book.’ — Richard Bejtlich, Chief Security Strategist, FireEye

‘Cyber instruments are increasingly important but not well understood. With a sure grasp of relevant concepts and deep knowledge of events, Buchanan cuts to the core of the issues and offers well-grounded ideas for how to reduce the looming danger of great but potentially avoidable conflict. Both theoretical and practical, The Cybersecurity Dilemma offers insights for scholars, policy-makers, and members of the interested public alike.’ — Robert Jervis, Adlai E Stevenson Professor of International Politics, Columbia University

‘As we move from the era of nuclear deterrence doctrine to the age of cyberwarfare doctrine, The Cybersecurity Dilemma clearly outlines the revolution in strategic thinking that must occur. Ben Buchanan demonstrates that the unique character of cyber intrusions raises the danger of miscalculation and overreaction , and he lays out a roadmap for defusing these risks.’ — Michael Chertoff, former United States Secretary of Homeland Security and co-author of the USA Patriot Act

‘An essential book for understanding modern cyber operations. In an accessible but rigorous manner, Buchanan shows how nations play offence and defence in cyberspace — and the dangers that result.’ — Bruce Schneier, author of Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World


Ben Buchanan is an Assistant Teaching Professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, where he conducts research on the intersection of cybersecurity and statecraft. He is a regular contributor to War on the Rocks and Lawfare, and has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other outlets. Ben received his PhD in War Studies from King’s College London, where he was a Marshall Scholar. He earned masters and undergraduate degrees from Georgetown University.

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