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UK Admitting "Offensive Cyber" Against ISIS/Daesh

I think this might be the first time it has been openly acknowledged:

Sir Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, has said Britain is using cyber warfare in the bid to retake Mosul from Islamic State. Speaking at an international conference on waging war through advanced technology, Fallon made it clear Britain was unleashing its cyber capability on IS, also known as Daesh. Asked if the UK was launching cyber attacks in the bid to take the northern Iraqi city from IS, he replied:

I’m not going into operational specifics, but yes, you know we are conducting military operations against Daesh as part of the international coalition, and I can confirm that we are using offensive cyber for the first time in this campaign.

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Someone Is Learning How to Take Down the Internet

Over the past year or two, someone has been probing the defenses of the companies that run critical pieces of the Internet. These probes take the form of precisely calibrated attacks designed to determine exactly how well these companies can defend themselves, and what would be required to take them down. We don’t know who is doing this, but it feels like a large a large nation state. China or Russia would be my first guesses.

First, a little background. If you want to take a network off the Internet, the easiest way to do it is with a distributed denial-of-service attack (DDoS). Like the name says, this is an attack designed to prevent legitimate users from getting to the site. There are subtleties, but basically it means blasting so much data at the site that it’s overwhelmed. These attacks are not new: hackers do this to sites they don’t like, and criminals have done it as a method of extortion. There is an entire industry, with an arsenal of technologies, devoted to DDoS defense. But largely it’s a matter of bandwidth. If the attacker has a bigger fire hose of data than the defender has, the attacker wins.

Recently, some of the major companies that provide the basic infrastructure that makes the Internet work have seen an increase in DDoS attacks against them. Moreover, they have seen a certain profile of attacks. These attacks are significantly larger than the ones they’re used to seeing. They last longer. They’re more sophisticated. And they look like probing. One week, the attack would start at a particular level of attack and slowly ramp up before stopping. The next week, it would start at that higher point and continue. And so on, along those lines, as if the attacker were looking for the exact point of failure.

The attacks are also configured in such a way as to see what the company’s total defenses are. There are many different ways to launch a DDoS attacks. The more attack vectors you employ simultaneously, the more different defenses the defender has to counter with. These companies are seeing more attacks using three or four different vectors. This means that the companies have to use everything they’ve got to defend themselves. They can’t hold anything back. They’re forced to demonstrate their defense capabilities for the attacker.

I am unable to give details, because these companies spoke with me under condition of anonymity. But this all is consistent with what Verisign is reporting. Verisign is the registrar for many popular top-level Internet domains, like .com and .net. If it goes down, there’s a global blackout of all websites and e-mail addresses in the most common top-level domains. Every quarter, Verisign publishes a DDoS trends report. While its publication doesn’t have the level of detail I heard from the companies I spoke with, the trends are the same: “in Q2 2016, attacks continued to become more frequent, persistent, and complex.”

There’s more. One company told me about a variety of probing attacks in addition to the DDoS attacks: testing the ability to manipulate Internet addresses and routes, seeing how long it takes the defenders to respond, and so on. Someone is extensively testing the core defensive capabilities of the companies that provide critical Internet services.

Who would do this? It doesn’t seem like something an activist, criminal, or researcher would do. Profiling core infrastructure is common practice in espionage and intelligence gathering. It’s not normal for companies to do that. Furthermore, the size and scale of these probes — and especially their persistence — points to state actors. It feels like a nation’s military cybercommand trying to calibrate its weaponry in the case of cyberwar. It reminds me of the US’s Cold War program of flying high-altitude planes over the Soviet Union to force their air-defense systems to turn on, to map their capabilities.

What can we do about this? Nothing, really. We don’t know where the attacks come from. The data I see suggests China, an assessment shared by the people I spoke with. On the other hand, it’s possible to disguise the country of origin for these sorts of attacks. The NSA, which has more surveillance in the Internet backbone than everyone else combined, probably has a better idea, but unless the US decides to make an international incident over this, we won’t see any attribution.

But this is happening. And people should know.

This essay previously appeared on Lawfare.com.

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Attack Attribution in Cyberspace

When you’re attacked by a missile, you can follow its trajectory back to where it was launched from. When you’re attacked in cyberspace, figuring out who did it is much harder. The reality of international aggression in cyberspace will change how we approach defense.

Many of us in the computer-security field are skeptical of the US government’s claim that it has positively identified North Korea as the perpetrator of the massive Sony hack in November 2014. The FBI’s evidence is circumstantial and not very convincing. The attackers never mentioned the movie that became the centerpiece of the hack until the press did. More likely, the culprits are random hackers who have loved to hate Sony for over a decade, or possibly a disgruntled insider.

On the other hand, most people believe that the FBI would not sound so sure unless it was convinced. And President Obama would not have imposed sanctions against North Korea if he weren’t convinced. This implies that there’s classified evidence as well. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote for the Atlantic, “The NSA has been trying to eavesdrop on North Korea’s government communications since the Korean War, and it’s reasonable to assume that its analysts are in pretty deep. The agency might have intelligence on the planning process for the hack. It might, say, have phone calls discussing the project, weekly PowerPoint status reports, or even Kim Jong Un’s sign-off on the plan. On the other hand, maybe not. I could have written the same thing about Iraq’s weapons-of-mass-destruction program in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of that country, and we all know how wrong the government was about that.”

The NSA is extremely reluctant to reveal its intelligence capabilities — or what it refers to as “sources and methods” — against North Korea simply to convince all of us of its conclusion, because by revealing them, it tips North Korea off to its insecurities. At the same time, we rightly have reason to be skeptical of the government’s unequivocal attribution of the attack without seeing the evidence. Iraq’s mythical weapons of mass destruction is only the most recent example of a major intelligence failure. American history is littered with examples of claimed secret intelligence pointing us toward aggression against other countries, only for us to learn later that the evidence was wrong.

Cyberspace exacerbates this in two ways. First, it is very difficult to attribute attacks in cyberspace. Packets don’t come with return addresses, and you can never be sure that what you think is the originating computer hasn’t itself been hacked. Even worse, it’s hard to tell the difference between attacks carried out by a couple of lone hackers and ones where a nation-state military is responsible. When we do know who did it, it’s usually because a lone hacker admitted it or because there was a months-long forensic investigation.

Second, in cyberspace, it is much easier to attack than to defend. The primary defense we have against military attacks in cyberspace is counterattack and the threat of counterattack that leads to deterrence.

What this all means is that it’s in the US’s best interest to claim omniscient powers of attribution. More than anything else, those in charge want to signal to other countries that they cannot get away with attacking the US: If they try something, we will know. And we will retaliate, swiftly and effectively. This is also why the US has been cagey about whether it caused North Korea’s Internet outage in late December.

It can be an effective bluff, but only if you get away with it. Otherwise, you lose credibility. The FBI is already starting to equivocate, saying others might have been involved in the attack, possibly hired by North Korea. If the real attackers surface and can demonstrate that they acted independently, it will be obvious that the FBI and NSA were overconfident in their attribution. Already, the FBI has lost significant credibility.

The only way out of this, with respect to the Sony hack and any other incident of cyber-aggression in which we’re expected to support retaliatory action, is for the government to be much more forthcoming about its evidence. The secrecy of the NSA’s sources and methods is going to have to take a backseat to the public’s right to know. And in cyberspace, we’re going to have to accept the uncomfortable fact that there’s a lot we don’t know.

This essay previously appeared in Time.

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Attributing the Sony Attack

No one has admitted taking down North Korea’s Internet. It could have been an act of retaliation by the US government, but it could just as well have been an ordinary DDoS attack. The follow-on attack against Sony PlayStation definitely seems to be the work of hackers unaffiliated with a government.

Not knowing who did what isn’t new. It’s called the “attribution problem,” and it plagues Internet security. But as governments increasingly get involved in cyberspace attacks, it has policy implications as well. Last year, I wrote:

Ordinarily, you could determine who the attacker was by the weaponry. When you saw a tank driving down your street, you knew the military was involved because only the military could afford tanks. Cyberspace is different. In cyberspace, technology is broadly spreading its capability, and everyone is using the same weaponry: hackers, criminals, politically motivated hacktivists, national spies, militaries, even the potential cyberterrorist. They are all exploiting the same vulnerabilities, using the same sort of hacking tools, engaging in the same attack tactics, and leaving the same traces behind. They all eavesdrop or steal data. They all engage in denial-of-service attacks. They all probe cyberdefences and do their best to cover their tracks.

Despite this, knowing the attacker is vitally important. As members of society, we have several different types of organizations that can defend us from an attack. We can call the police or the military. We can call on our national anti-terrorist agency and our corporate lawyers. Or we can defend ourselves with a variety of commercial products and services. Depending on the situation, all of these are reasonable choices.

The legal regime in which any defense operates depends on two things: who is attacking you and why. Unfortunately, when you are being attacked in cyberspace, the two things you often do not know are who is attacking you and why. It is not that everything can be defined as cyberwar; it is that we are increasingly seeing warlike tactics used in broader cyberconflicts. This makes defence and national cyberdefence policy difficult.

In 2007, the Israeli Air Force bombed and destroyed the al-Kibar nuclear facility in Syria. The Syrian government immediately knew who did it, because airplanes are hard to disguise. In 2010, the US and Israel jointly damaged Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility. But this time they used a cyberweapon, Stuxnet, and no one knew who did it until details were leaked years later. China routinely denies its cyberespionage activities. And a 2009 cyberattack against the United States and South Korea was blamed on North Korea even though it may have originated from either London or Miami.

When it’s possible to identify the origins of cyberattacks­ — like forensic experts were able to do with many of the Chinese attacks against US networks­ — it’s as a result of months of detailed analysis and investigation. That kind of time frame doesn’t help at the moment of attack, when you have to decide within milliseconds how your network is going to react and within days how your country is going to react. This, in part, explains the relative disarray within the Obama administration over what to do about North Korea. Officials in the US government and international institutions simply don’t have the legal or even the conceptual framework to deal with these types of scenarios.

The blurring of lines between individual actors and national governments has been happening more and more in cyberspace. What has been called the first cyberwar, Russia vs. Estonia in 2007, was partly the work of a 20-year-old ethnic Russian living in Tallinn, and partly the work of a pro-Kremlin youth group associated with the Russian government. Many of the Chinese hackers targeting Western networks seem to be unaffiliated with the Chinese government. And in 2011, the hacker group Anonymous threatened NATO.

It’s a strange future we live in when we can’t tell the difference between random hackers and major governments, or when those same random hackers can credibly threaten international military organizations.

This is why people around the world should care about the Sony hack. In this future, we’re going to see an even greater blurring of traditional lines between police, military, and private actions as technology broadly distributes attack capabilities across a variety of actors. This attribution difficulty is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future.

If North Korea is responsible for the cyberattack, how is the situation different than a North Korean agent breaking into Sony’s office, photocopying a lot of papers, and making them available to the public? Is Chinese corporate espionage a problem for governments to solve, or should we let corporations defend themselves? Should the National Security Agency defend US corporate networks, or only US military networks? How much should we allow organizations like the NSA to insist that we trust them without proof when they claim to have classified evidence that they don’t want to disclose? How should we react to one government imposing sanctions on another based on this secret evidence? More importantly, when we don’t know who is launching an attack or why, who is in charge of the response and under what legal system should those in charge operate?

We need to figure all of this out. We need national guidelines to determine when the military should get involved and when it’s a police matter, as well as what sorts of proportional responses are available in each instance. We need international agreements defining what counts as cyberwar and what does not. And, most of all right now, we need to tone down all the cyberwar rhetoric. Breaking into the offices of a company and photocopying their paperwork is not an act of war, no matter who did it. Neither is doing the same thing over the Internet. Let’s save the big words for when it matters.

This essay previously appeared on TheAtlantic.com.

Jack Goldsmith responded to this essay.

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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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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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Corporate Abuse of Our Data

Last week, we learned about a striking piece of malware called Regin that has been infecting computer networks worldwide since 2008. It’s more sophisticated than any known criminal malware, and everyone believes a government is behind it. No country has taken credit for Regin, but there’s substantial evidence that it was built and operated by the United States.

This isn’t the first government malware discovered. GhostNet is believed to be Chinese. Red October and Turla are believed to be Russian. The Mask is probably Spanish. Stuxnet and Flame are probably from the U.S. All these were discovered in the past five years, and named by researchers who inferred their creators from clues such as who the malware targeted.

I dislike the “cyberwar” metaphor for espionage and hacking, but there is a war of sorts going on in cyberspace. Countries are using these weapons against each other. This affects all of us not just because we might be citizens of one of these countries, but because we are all potentially collateral damage. Most of the varieties of malware listed above have been used against nongovernment targets, such as national infrastructure, corporations, and NGOs. Sometimes these attacks are accidental, but often they are deliberate.

For their defense, civilian networks must rely on commercial security products and services. We largely rely on antivirus products from companies such as Symantec, Kaspersky, and F-Secure. These products continuously scan our computers, looking for malware, deleting it, and alerting us as they find it. We expect these companies to act in our interests, and never deliberately fail to protect us from a known threat.

This is why the recent disclosure of Regin is so disquieting. The first public announcement of Regin was from Symantec, on November 23. The company said that its researchers had been studying it for about a year, and announced its existence because they knew of another source that was going to announce it. That source was a news site, the Intercept, which described Regin and its U.S. connections the following day. Both Kaspersky and F-Secure soon published their own findings. Both stated that they had been tracking Regin for years. All three of the antivirus companies were able to find samples of it in their files since 2008 or 2009.

So why did these companies all keep Regin a secret for so long? And why did they leave us vulnerable for all this time?

To get an answer, we have to disentangle two things. Near as we can tell, all the companies had added signatures for Regin to their detection database long before last month. The VirusTotal website has a signature for Regin as of 2011. Both Microsoft security and F-Secure started detecting and removing it that year as well. Symantec has protected its users against Regin since 2013, although it certainly added the VirusTotal signature in 2011.

Entirely separately and seemingly independently, all of these companies decided not to publicly discuss Regin’s existence until after Symantec and the Intercept did so. Reasons given vary. Mikko Hyponnen of F-Secure said that specific customers asked him not to discuss the malware that had been found on their networks. Fox IT, which was hired to remove Regin from the Belgian phone company Belgacom’s website, didn’t say anything about what it discovered because it “didn’t want to interfere with NSA/GCHQ operations.”

My guess is that none of the companies wanted to go public with an incomplete picture. Unlike criminal malware, government-grade malware can be hard to figure out. It’s much more elusive and complicated. It is constantly updated. Regin is made up of multiple modules — Fox IT called it “a full framework of a lot of species of malware” — making it even harder to figure out what’s going on. Regin has also been used sparingly, against only a select few targets, making it hard to get samples. When you make a press splash by identifying a piece of malware, you want to have the whole story. Apparently, no one felt they had that with Regin.

That is not a good enough excuse, though. As nation-state malware becomes more common, we will often lack the whole story. And as long as countries are battling it out in cyberspace, some of us will be targets and the rest of us might be unlucky enough to be sitting in the blast radius. Military-grade malware will continue to be elusive.

Right now, antivirus companies are probably sitting on incomplete stories about a dozen more varieties of government-grade malware. But they shouldn’t. We want, and need, our antivirus companies to tell us everything they can about these threats as soon as they know them, and not wait until the release of a political story makes it impossible for them to remain silent.

This essay previously appeared in the MIT Technology Review.

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