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cyberterrorism

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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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Attributing Cyberattacks

New paper: “Attributing Cyber Attacks,” by Thomas Rid and Ben Buchanan:

Abstract: 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.

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2008 Cyberattack Against Turkish Oil Pipeline

Interesting article talks about the 2008 cyberattack against a Turkish oil pipeline:

For western intelligence agencies, the blowout was a watershed event. Hackers had shut down alarms, cut off communications and super-pressurized the crude oil in the line, according to four people familiar with the incident who asked not to be identified because details of the investigation are confidential. The main weapon at valve station 30 on Aug. 5, 2008, was a keyboard.

Kurdish separatists in Turkey claimed that they did it. The whole article is worth reading.

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Reacting to the Sony Hack

First we thought North Korea was behind the Sony cyberattacks. Then we thought it was a couple of hacker guys with an axe to grind. Now we think North Korea is behind it again, but the connection is still tenuous. There have been accusations of cyberterrorism, and even cyberwar. I’ve heard calls for us to strike back, with actual missiles and bombs. We’re collectively pegging the hype meter, and the best thing we can do is calm down and take a deep breath.

First, this is not an act of terrorism. There has been no senseless violence. No innocents are coming home in body bags. Yes, a company is seriously embarrassed–and financially hurt–by all of its information leaking to the public. But posting unreleased movies online is not terrorism. It’s not even close.

Nor is this an act of war. Stealing and publishing a company’s proprietary information is not an act of war. We wouldn’t be talking about going to war if someone snuck in and photocopied everything, and it makes equally little sense to talk about it when someone does it over the internet. The threshold of war is much, much higher, and we’re not going to respond to this militarily. Over the years, North Korea has performed far more aggressive acts against US and South Korean soldiers. We didn’t go to war then, and we’re not going to war now.

Finally, we don’t know these attacks were sanctioned by the North Korean government. The US government has made statements linking the attacks to North Korea, but hasn’t officially blamed the government, nor have officials provided any evidence of the linkage. We’ve known about North Korea’s cyberattack capabilities long before this attack, but it might not be the government at all. This wouldn’t be the first time a nationalistic cyberattack was launched without government sanction. We have lots of examples of these sorts of attacks being conducted by regular hackers with nationalistic pride. Kids playing politics, I call them. This may be that, and it could also be a random hacker who just has it out for Sony.

Remember, the hackers didn’t start talking about The Interview until the press did. Maybe the NSA has some secret information pinning this attack on the North Korean government, but unless the agency comes forward with the evidence, we should remain skeptical. We don’t know who did this, and we may never find out. I personally think it is a disgruntled ex-employee, but I don’t have any more evidence than anyone else does.

What we have is a very extreme case of hacking. By “extreme” I mean the quantity of the information stolen from Sony’s networks, not the quality of the attack. The attackers seem to have been good, but no more than that. Sony made its situation worse by having substandard security.

Sony’s reaction has all the markings of a company without any sort of coherent plan. Near as I can tell, every Sony executive is in full panic mode. They’re certainly facing dozens of lawsuits: from shareholders, from companies who invested in those movies, from employees who had their medical and financial data exposed, from everyone who was affected. They’re probably facing government fines, for leaking financial and medical information, and possibly for colluding with other studios to attack Google.

If previous major hacks are any guide, there will be multiple senior executives fired over this; everyone at Sony is probably scared for their jobs. In this sort of situation, the interests of the corporation are not the same as the interests of the people running the corporation. This might go a long way to explain some of the reactions we’ve seen.

Pulling The Interview was exactly the wrong thing to do, as there was no credible threat and it just emboldens the hackers. But it’s the kind of response you get when you don’t have a plan.

Politically motivated hacking isn’t new, and the Sony hack is not unprecedented. In 2011 the hacker group Anonymous did something similar to the internet-security company HBGary Federal, exposing corporate secrets and internal emails. This sort of thing has been possible for decades, although it’s gotten increasingly damaging as more corporate information goes online. It will happen again; there’s no doubt about that.

But it hasn’t happened very often, and that’s not likely to change. Most hackers are garden-variety criminals, less interested in internal emails and corporate secrets and more interested in personal information and credit card numbers that they can monetize. Their attacks are opportunistic, and very different from the targeted attack Sony fell victim to.

When a hacker releases personal data on an individual, it’s called doxing. We don’t have a name for it when it happens to a company, but it’s what happened to Sony. Companies need to wake up to the possibility that a whistleblower, a civic-minded hacker, or just someone who is out to embarrass them will hack their networks and publish their proprietary data. They need to recognize that their chatty private emails and their internal memos might be front-page news.

In a world where everything happens online, including what we think of as ephemeral conversation, everything is potentially subject to public scrutiny. Companies need to make sure their computer and network security is up to snuff, and their incident response and crisis management plans can handle this sort of thing. But they should also remember how rare this sort of attack is, and not panic.

This essay previously appeared on Vice Motherboard.

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