Blog April 20, 2020

Stanford Internet Observatory launches attribution.news with First Draft

Today the Stanford Internet Observatory and First Draft launched attribution.news, a joint initiative to provide journalists with tools to effectively cover the origins of both cyber incidents and information operations. In the cybersecurity realm, attribution provides an answer to the critical question: who was behind the operation? This question applies to both cyberattacks in which adversaries target networks and computers, and to influence operations, where adversaries target people’s minds and emotions. Identifying who is behind an attack is complex not only from a technical perspective, as researchers analyze what occurred and how, but also at times on a political level, as governments find themselves weighing the costs and benefits of publicly naming the culpable adversary. Journalists play a critical role in helping readers understand the facts of an operation.

Attribution.news aims to unpack some of these complexities by providing a glossary of important terms, recommending best practices for journalists, creating case studies examining media coverage of recent attribution cases, and explaining models and frameworks that shape how researchers make attribution.

Why create attribution.news?

This project breaks down the layers of attribution in a way that is accessible, and specifically tailored to media communicators. To date, most of the information about attribution methodologies is found in scholarly literature or professional investigative reports with minimal emphasis on how findings are communicated to the public. This website aims to provide more accessible background explanations that assist journalists and others in understanding the information they’re receiving, what questions to probe on, and what the evidence says (and doesn’t say). Accurate reporting isn’t the sole responsibility of one party; the onus is also on researchers, governments, and cybersecurity firms to follow best practices in communicating attribution to the public.  

The Stanford Internet Observatory combined its investigative analysis skills with First Draft’s understanding of newsrooms’ needs to develop a set of resources that takes into account both the most salient information on attribution and the fast-paced demands of a newsroom.

What’s to come

We will continue to update the website with case studies on cyber incidents, influence operations, and attribution claims, as well as interviews with experts. With each new case study, we hope the intricacies and nuances of assigning responsibility and reporting on attribution come to light in the context of specific scenarios. If there is a particular instance of media coverage you wish to see featured or discussed, please reach out to us at internetobservatory@stanford.edu.

We would like to thank the experts who provided invaluable feedback on the resources and material for this project. Thank you especially to Ben Buchanan, Andrew Grotto, Janine Zacharia and Kim Zetter.