A Matter of Time: On the Transitory Nature of Cyberweapons

Max Smeets is a lecturer in Politics at Keble College, University of Oxford, and a DPhil Candidate in International Relations at St. John’s College, University of Oxford. He was previously a visiting research scholar at Columbia University SIPA and Sciences Po CERI. Max’s current research focuses on the proliferation of cyberweapons. More information is available on his website: http://maxsmeets.com

Abstract

This article examines the transitory nature of cyberweapons. Shedding light on this highly understudied facet is important both for grasping how cyberspace affects international security and policymakers’ efforts to make accurate decisions regarding the deployment of cyberweapons. First, laying out the life cycle of a cyberweapon, I argue that these offensive capabilities are both different in ‘degree’ and in ‘kind’ compared with other regarding their temporary ability to cause harm or damage. Second, I develop six propositions which indicate that not only technical features, inherent to the different types of cyber capabilities – that is, the type of exploited vulnerability, access and payload – but also offender and defender characteristics explain differences in transitoriness between cyberweapons. Finally, drawing out the implications, I reveal that the transitory nature of cyberweapons benefits great powers, changes the incentive structure for offensive cyber cooperation and induces a different funding structure for (military) cyber programs compared with conventional weapon programs. I also note that the time-dependent dynamic underlying cyberweapons potentially explains the limited deployment of cyberweapons compared to espionage capabilities.