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Hackers Expose Russian FSB Cyberattack Projects

More nation-state activity in cyberspace, this time from Russia:

Per the different reports in Russian media, the files indicate that SyTech had worked since 2009 on a multitude of projects since 2009 for FSB unit 71330 and for fellow contractor Quantum. Projects include:

  • Nautilus — a project for collecting data about social media users (such as Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn).

  • Nautilus-S — a project for deanonymizing Tor traffic with the help of rogue Tor servers.

  • Reward — a project to covertly penetrate P2P networks, like the one used for torrents.

  • Mentor — a project to monitor and search email communications on the servers of Russian companies.

  • Hope — a project to investigate the topology of the Russian internet and how it connects to other countries’ network.

  • Tax-3 — a project for the creation of a closed intranet to store the information of highly-sensitive state figures, judges, and local administration officials, separate from the rest of the state’s IT networks.

BBC Russia, who received the full trove of documents, claims there were other older projects for researching other network protocols such as Jabber (instant messaging), ED2K (eDonkey), and OpenFT (enterprise file transfer).

Other files posted on the Digital Revolution Twitter account claimed that the FSB was also tracking students and pensioners.

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First Physical Retaliation for a Cyberattack

Israel has acknowledged that its recent airstrikes against Hamas were a real-time response to an ongoing cyberattack. From Twitter:

CLEARED FOR RELEASE: We thwarted an attempted Hamas cyber offensive against Israeli targets. Following our successful cyber defensive operation, we targeted a building where the Hamas cyber operatives work.

HamasCyberHQ.exe has been removed. pic.twitter.com/AhgKjiOqS7

­Israel Defense Forces (@IDF) May 5, 2019

I expect this sort of thing to happen more — not against major countries, but by larger countries against smaller powers. Cyberattacks are too much of a nation-state equalizer otherwise.

Another article.

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What Happened to Cyber 9/11?

A recent article in the Atlantic asks why we haven’t seen a”cyber 9/11″ in the past fifteen or so years. (I, too, remember the increasingly frantic and fearful warnings of a “cyber Peal Harbor,” “cyber Katrina” — when that was a thing — or “cyber 9/11.” I made fun of those warnings back then.) The author’s answer:

Three main barriers are likely preventing this. For one, cyberattacks can lack the kind of drama and immediate physical carnage that terrorists seek. Identifying the specific perpetrator of a cyberattack can also be difficult, meaning terrorists might have trouble reaping the propaganda benefits of clear attribution. Finally, and most simply, it’s possible that they just can’t pull it off.

Commenting on the article, Rob Graham adds:

I think there are lots of warning from so-called “experts” who aren’t qualified to make such warnings, that the press errs on the side of giving such warnings credibility instead of challenging them.

I think mostly the reason why cyberterrorism doesn’t happen is that which motivates violent people is different than what which motivates technical people, pulling apart the groups who would want to commit cyberterrorism from those who can.

These are all good reasons, but I think both authors missed the most important one: there simply aren’t a lot of terrorists out there. Let’s ask the question more generally: why hasn’t there been another 9/11 since 2001? I also remember dire predictions that large-scale terrorism was the new normal, and that we would see 9/11-scale attacks regularly. But since then, nothing. We could credit the fantastic counterterrorism work of the US and other countries, but a more reasonable explanation is that there are very few terrorists and even fewer organized ones. Our fear of terrorism is far greater than the actual risk.

This isn’t to say that cyberterrorism can never happen. Of course it will, sooner or later. But I don’t foresee it becoming a preferred terrorism method anytime soon. Graham again:

In the end, if your goal is to cause major power blackouts, your best bet is to bomb power lines and distribution centers, rather than hack them.

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How to Punish Cybercriminals

Interesting policy paper by Third Way: “To Catch a Hacker: Toward a comprehensive strategy to identify, pursue, and punish malicious cyber actors“:

In this paper, we argue that the United States currently lacks a comprehensive overarching strategic approach to identify, stop and punish cyberattackers. We show that:

  • There is a burgeoning cybercrime wave: A rising and often unseen crime wave is mushrooming in America. There are approximately 300,000 reported malicious cyber incidents per year, including up to 194,000 that could credibly be called individual or system-wide breaches or attempted breaches. This is likely a vast undercount since many victims don’t report break-ins to begin with. Attacks cost the US economy anywhere from $57 billion to $109 billion annually and these costs are increasing.

  • There is a stunning cyber enforcement gap: Our analysis of publicly available data shows that cybercriminals can operate with near impunity compared to their real-world counterparts. We estimate that cyber enforcement efforts are so scattered that less than 1% of malicious cyber incidents see an enforcement action taken against the attackers.

  • There is no comprehensive US cyber enforcement strategy aimed at the human attacker: Despite the recent release of a National Cyber Strategy, the United States still lacks a comprehensive strategic approach to how it identifies, pursues, and punishes malicious human cyberattackers and the organizations and countries often behind them. We believe that the United States is as far from this human attacker strategy as the nation was toward a strategic approach to countering terrorism in the weeks and months before 9/11.

In order to close the cyber enforcement gap, we argue for a comprehensive enforcement strategy that makes a fundamental rebalance in US cybersecurity policies: from a heavy focus on building better cyber defenses against intrusion to also waging a more robust effort at going after human attackers. We call for ten US policy actions that could form the contours of a comprehensive enforcement strategy to better identify, pursue and bring to justice malicious cyber actors that include building up law enforcement, enhancing diplomatic efforts, and developing a measurable strategic plan to do so.

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Future Cyberwar

A report for the Center for Strategic and International Studies looks at surprise and war. One of the report’s cyberwar scenarios is particularly compelling. It doesn’t just map cyber onto today’s tactics, but completely reimagines future tactics that include a cyber component (quote starts on page 110).

The U.S. secretary of defense had wondered this past week when the other shoe would drop. Finally, it had, though the U.S. military would be unable to respond effectively for a while.

The scope and detail of the attack, not to mention its sheer audacity, had earned the grudging respect of the secretary. Years of worry about a possible Chinese “Assassin’s Mace” — a silver bullet super-weapon capable of disabling key parts of the American military — turned out to be focused on the wrong thing.

The cyber attacks varied. Sailors stationed at the 7th Fleet’ s homeport in Japan awoke one day to find their financial accounts, and those of their dependents, empty. Checking, savings, retirement funds: simply gone. The Marines based on Okinawa were under virtual siege by the populace, whose simmering resentment at their presence had boiled over after a YouTube video posted under the account of a Marine stationed there had gone viral. The video featured a dozen Marines drunkenly gang-raping two teenaged Okinawan girls. The video was vivid, the girls’ cries heart-wrenching the cheers of Marines sickening And all of it fake. The National Security Agency’s initial analysis of the video had uncovered digital fingerprints showing that it was a computer-assisted lie, and could prove that the Marine’s account under which it had been posted was hacked. But the damage had been done.

There was the commanding officer of Edwards Air Force Base whose Internet browser history had been posted on the squadron’s Facebook page. His command turned on him as a pervert; his weak protestations that he had not visited most of the posted links could not counter his admission that he had, in fact, trafficked some of them. Lies mixed with the truth. Soldiers at Fort Sill were at each other’s throats thanks to a series of text messages that allegedly unearthed an adultery ring on base.

The variations elsewhere were endless. Marines suddenly owed hundreds of thousands of dollars on credit lines they had never opened; sailors received death threats on their Twitter feeds; spouses and female service members had private pictures of themselves plastered across the Internet; older service members received notifications about cancerous conditions discovered in their latest physical.

Leadership was not exempt. Under the hashtag # PACOMMUSTGO a dozen women allegedly described harassment by the commander of Pacific command. Editorial writers demanded that, under the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, he step aside while Congress held hearings.

There was not an American service member or dependent whose life had not been digitally turned upside down. In response, the secretary had declared “an operational pause,” directing units to stand down until things were sorted out.

Then, China had made its move, flooding the South China Sea with its conventional forces, enforcing a sea and air identification zone there, and blockading Taiwan. But the secretary could only respond weakly with a few air patrols and diversions of ships already at sea. Word was coming in through back channels that the Taiwanese government, suddenly stripped of its most ardent defender, was already considering capitulation.

I found this excerpt here. The author is Mark Cancian.

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Free Societies are at a Disadvantage in National Cybersecurity

Jack Goldsmith and Stuart Russell just published an interesting paper, making the case that free and democratic nations are at a structural disadvantage in nation-on-nation cyberattack and defense. From a blog post:

It seeks to explain why the United States is struggling to deal with the “soft” cyber operations that have been so prevalent in recent years: cyberespionage and cybertheft, often followed by strategic publication; information operations and propaganda; and relatively low-level cyber disruptions such as denial-of-service and ransomware attacks. The main explanation is that constituent elements of U.S. society — a commitment to free speech, privacy and the rule of law; innovative technology firms; relatively unregulated markets; and deep digital sophistication — create asymmetric vulnerabilities that foreign adversaries, especially authoritarian ones, can exploit. These asymmetrical vulnerabilities might explain why the United States so often appears to be on the losing end of recent cyber operations and why U.S. attempts to develop and implement policies to enhance defense, resiliency, response or deterrence in the cyber realm have been ineffective.

I have long thought this to be true. There are defensive cybersecurity measures that a totalitarian country can take that a free, open, democratic country cannot. And there are attacks against a free, open, democratic country that just don’t matter to a totalitarian country. That makes us more vulnerable. (I don’t mean to imply — and neither do Russell and Goldsmith — that this disadvantage implies that free societies are overall worse, but it is an asymmetry that we should be aware of.)

I do worry that these disadvantages will someday become intolerable. Dan Geer often said that “the price of freedom is the probability of crime.” We are willing to pay this price because it isn’t that high. As technology makes individual and small-group actors more powerful, this price will get higher. Will there be a point in the future where free and open societies will no longer be able to survive? I honestly don’t know.

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An Example of Deterrence in Cyberspace

In 2016, the US was successfully deterred from attacking Russia in cyberspace because of fears of Russian capabilities against the US.

I have two citations for this. The first is from the book Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump, by Michael Isikoff and David Corn. Here’s the quote:

The principals did discuss cyber responses. The prospect of hitting back with cyber caused trepidation within the deputies and principals meetings. The United States was telling Russia this sort of meddling was unacceptable. If Washington engaged in the same type of covert combat, some of the principals believed, Washington’s demand would mean nothing, and there could be an escalation in cyber warfare. There were concerns that the United States would have more to lose in all-out cyberwar.

“If we got into a tit-for-tat on cyber with the Russians, it would not be to our advantage,” a participant later remarked. “They could do more to damage us in a cyber war or have a greater impact.” In one of the meetings, Clapper said he was worried that Russia might respond with cyberattacks against America’s critical infrastructure¬≠ — and possibly shut down the electrical grid.

The second is from the book The World as It Is, by President Obama’s deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes. Here’s the New York Times writing about the book.

Mr. Rhodes writes he did not learn about the F.B.I. investigation until after leaving office, and then from the news media. Mr. Obama did not impose sanctions on Russia in retaliation for the meddling before the election because he believed it might prompt Moscow into hacking into Election Day vote tabulations. Mr. Obama did impose sanctions after the election but Mr. Rhodes’s suggestion that the targets include President Vladimir V. Putin was rebuffed on the theory that such a move would go too far.

When people try to claim that there’s no such thing as deterrence in cyberspace, this serves as a counterexample.

EDITED TO ADD: Remember the blog rules. Comments that are not about the narrow topic of deterrence in cyberspace will be deleted. Please take broader discussions of the 2016 US election elsewhere.

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