Attributing Cyber Attacks

Thomas Rid*, Benjamin Buchanan

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

294 Citations (Scopus)


Who did it? Attribution is fundamental. Human lives and the security of the state may depend on ascribing agency to an agent. In the context of computer network intrusions, attribution is commonly seen as one of the most intractable technical problems, as either solvable or not solvable, and as dependent mainly on the available forensic evidence. But is it? Is this a productive understanding of attribution? — This article argues that attribution is what states make of it. To show how, we introduce the Q Model: designed to explain, guide, and improve the making of attribution. Matching an offender to an offence is an exercise in minimising uncertainty on three levels: tactically, attribution is an art as well as a science; operationally, attribution is a nuanced process not a black-and-white problem; and strategically, attribution is a function of what is at stake politically. Successful attribution requires a range of skills on all levels, careful management, time, leadership, stress-testing, prudent communication, and recognising limitations and challenges.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4-37
Number of pages34
JournalJournal of Strategic Studies
Issue number1-2
Publication statusPublished - 2 Jan 2015


  • Attribution
  • Cyber Security
  • Information Security
  • Signals Intelligence
  • Traceability


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