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Estonia’s Volunteer Cyber Militia

Interesting — although short and not very detailed — article about Estonia’s volunteer cyber-defense militia.

Padar’s militia of amateur IT workers, economists, lawyers, and other white-hat types are grouped in the city of Tartu, about 65 miles from the Russian border, and in the capital, Tallinn, about twice as far from it. The volunteers, who’ve inspired a handful of similar operations around the world, are readying themselves to defend against the kind of sustained digital attack that could cause mass service outages at hospitals, banks, and military bases, and with other critical operations, including voting systems. Officially, the team is part of Estonia’s 26,000-strong national guard, the Defense League.

[…]

Formally established in 2011, Padar’s unit mostly runs on about €150,000 ($172,000) in annual state funding, plus salaries for him and four colleagues. (If that sounds paltry, remember that the country’s median annual income is about €12,000.) Some volunteers oversee a website that calls out Russian propaganda posing as news directed at Estonians in Estonian, Russian, English, and German. Other members recently conducted forensic analysis on an attack against a military system, while yet others searched for signs of a broader campaign after discovering vulnerabilities in the country’s electronic ID cards, which citizens use to check bank and medical records and to vote. (The team says it didn’t find anything, and the security flaws were quickly patched.)

Mostly, the volunteers run weekend drills with troops, doctors, customs and tax agents, air traffic controllers, and water and power officials. “Somehow, this model is based on enthusiasm,” says Andrus Ansip, who was prime minister during the 2007 attack and now oversees digital affairs for the European Commission. To gauge officials’ responses to realistic attacks, the unit might send out emails with sketchy links or drop infected USB sticks to see if someone takes the bait.

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Cyberinsurance and Acts of War

I had not heard about this case before. Zurich Insurance has refused to pay Mondelez International’s claim of $100 million in damages from NotPetya. It claims it is an act of war and therefor not covered. Mondelez is suing.

Those turning to cyber insurance to manage their exposure presently face significant uncertainties about its promise. First, the scope of cyber risks vastly exceeds available coverage, as cyber perils cut across most areas of commercial insurance in an unprecedented manner: direct losses to policyholders and third-party claims (clients, customers, etc.); financial, physical and IP damages; business interruption, and so on. Yet no cyber insurance policies cover this entire spectrum. Second, the scope of cyber-risk coverage under existing policies, whether traditional general liability or property policies or cyber-specific policies, is rarely comprehensive (to cover all possible cyber perils) and often unclear (i.e., it does not explicitly pertain to all manifestations of cyber perils, or it explicitly excludes some).

But it is in the public interest for Zurich and its peers to expand their role in managing cyber risk. In its ideal state, a mature cyber insurance market could go beyond simply absorbing some of the damage of cyberattacks and play a more fundamental role in engineering and managing cyber risk. It would allow analysis of data across industries to understand risk factors and develop common metrics and scalable solutions. It would allow researchers to pinpoint sources of aggregation risk, such as weak spots in widely relied-upon software and hardware platforms and services. Through its financial levers, the insurance industry can turn these insights into action, shaping private-sector behavior and promoting best practices internationally. Such systematic efforts to improve and incentivize cyber-risk management would redress the conditions that made NotPetya possible in the first place. This, in turn, would diminish the onus on governments to retaliate against attacks.

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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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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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Attack vs. Defense in Nation-State Cyber Operations

I regularly say that, on the Internet, attack is easier than defense. There are a bunch of reasons for this, but primarily it’s 1) the complexity of modern networked computer systems and 2) the attacker’s ability to choose the time and method of the attack versus the defender’s necessity to secure against every type of attack. This is true, but how this translates to military cyber-operations is less straightforward. Contrary to popular belief, government cyberattacks are not bolts out of the blue, and the attack/defense balance is more…well…balanced.

Rebecca Slayton has a good article in International Security that tries to make sense of this: “What is the Cyber Offense-Defense Balance? Conceptions, Causes, and Assessment.” In it, she points out that launching a cyberattack is more than finding and exploiting a vulnerability, and it is those other things that help balance the offensive advantage.

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Incident Response as “Hand-to-Hand Combat”

NSA Deputy Director Richard Ledgett described a 2014 Russian cyberattack against the US State Department as “hand-to-hand” combat:

“It was hand-to-hand combat,” said NSA Deputy Director Richard Ledgett, who described the incident at a recent cyber forum, but did not name the nation behind it. The culprit was identified by other current and former officials. Ledgett said the attackers’ thrust-and-parry moves inside the network while defenders were trying to kick them out amounted to “a new level of interaction between a cyber attacker and a defender.”

[…]

Fortunately, Ledgett said, the NSA, whose hackers penetrate foreign adversaries’ systems to glean intelligence, was able to spy on the attackers’ tools and tactics. “So we were able to see them teeing up new things to do,” Ledgett said. “That’s a really useful capability to have.”

I think this is the first public admission that we spy on foreign governments’ cyberwarriors for defensive purposes. He’s right: being able to spy on the attackers’ networks and see what they’re doing before they do it is a very useful capability. It’s something that was first exposed by the Snowden documents: that the NSA spies on enemy networks for defensive purposes.

Interesting is that another country first found out about the intrusion, and that they also have offensive capabilities inside Russia’s cyberattack units:

The NSA was alerted to the compromises by a Western intelligence agency. The ally had managed to hack not only the Russians’ computers, but also the surveillance cameras inside their workspace, according to the former officials. They monitored the hackers as they maneuvered inside the U.S. systems and as they walked in and out of the workspace, and were able to see faces, the officials said.

There’s a myth that it’s hard for the US to attribute these sorts of cyberattacks. It used to be, but for the US — and other countries with this kind of intelligence gathering capabilities — attribution is not hard. It’s not fast, which is its own problem, and of course it’s not perfect: but it’s not hard.

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