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The Security of Data Deletion

Thousands of articles have called the December attack against Sony Pictures a wake-up call to industry. Regardless of whether the attacker was the North Korean government, a disgruntled former employee, or a group of random hackers, the attack showed how vulnerable a large organization can be and how devastating the publication of its private correspondence, proprietary data, and intellectual property can be.

But while companies are supposed to learn that they need to improve their security against attack, there’s another equally important but much less discussed lesson here: companies should have an aggressive deletion policy.

One of the social trends of the computerization of our business and social communications tools is the loss of the ephemeral. Things we used to say in person or on the phone we now say in e-mail, by text message, or on social networking platforms. Memos we used to read and then throw away now remain in our digital archives. Big data initiatives mean that we’re saving everything we can about our customers on the remote chance that it might be useful later.

Everything is now digital, and storage is cheap­ — why not save it all?

Sony illustrates the reason why not. The hackers published old e-mails from company executives that caused enormous public embarrassment to the company. They published old e-mails by employees that caused less-newsworthy personal embarrassment to those employees, and these messages are resulting in class-action lawsuits against the company. They published old documents. They published everything they got their hands on.

Saving data, especially e-mail and informal chats, is a liability.

It’s also a security risk: the risk of exposure. The exposure could be accidental. It could be the result of data theft, as happened to Sony. Or it could be the result of litigation. Whatever the reason, the best security against these eventualities is not to have the data in the first place.

If Sony had had an aggressive data deletion policy, much of what was leaked couldn’t have been stolen and wouldn’t have been published.

An organization-wide deletion policy makes sense. Customer data should be deleted as soon as it isn’t immediately useful. Internal e-mails can probably be deleted after a few months, IM chats even more quickly, and other documents in one to two years. There are exceptions, of course, but they should be exceptions. Individuals should need to deliberately flag documents and correspondence for longer retention. But unless there are laws requiring an organization to save a particular type of data for a prescribed length of time, deletion should be the norm.

This has always been true, but many organizations have forgotten it in the age of big data. In the wake of the devastating leak of terabytes of sensitive Sony data, I hope we’ll all remember it now.

This essay previously appeared on ArsTechnica.com, which has comments from people who strongly object to this idea.

Slashdot thread.

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Further Evidence Pointing to North Korea as Sony Hacker

The FBI has provided more evidence:

Speaking at a Fordham Law School cybersecurity conference Wednesday, Comey said that he has “very high confidence” in the FBI’s attribution of the attack to North Korea. And he named several of the sources of his evidence, including a “behavioral analysis unit” of FBI experts trained to psychologically analyze foes based on their writings and actions. He also said that the FBI compared the Sony attack with their own “red team” simulations to determine how the attack could have occurred. And perhaps most importantly, Comey now says that the hackers in the attack failed on multiple occasions to use the proxy servers that bounce their Internet connection through an obfuscating computer somewhere else in the world, revealing IP addresses that tied them to North Koreans.

“In nearly every case, [the Sony hackers known as the Guardians of Peace] used proxy servers to disguise where they were coming from in sending these emails and posting these statements. But several times they got sloppy,” Comey said. “Several times, either because they forgot or because of a technical problem, they connected directly and we could see that the IPs they were using…were exclusively used by the North Koreans.”

“They shut it off very quickly once they saw the mistake,” he added. “But not before we saw where it was coming from.”

Here’s the full text of the FBI director’s remarks. More news stories. Commentary from Just Security. Slashdot thread. Hacker News thread.

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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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More Data on Attributing the Sony Attack

An analysis of the timestamps on some of the leaked documents shows that they were downloaded at USB 2.0 speeds — which implies an insider.

Our Gotnews.com investigation into the data that has been released by the “hackers” shows that someone at Sony was copying 182GB at minimum the night of the 21st — the very same day that Sony Pictures’ head of corporate communications, Charles Sipkins, publicly resigned from a $600,000 job. This could be a coincidence but it seems unlikely. Sipkins’s former client was NewsCorp and Sipkins was officially fired by Pascal’s husband over a snub by the Hollywood Reporter.

Two days later a malware bomb occurred.

We are left with several conclusions about the malware incident:

  1. The “hackers” did this leak physically at a Sony LAN workstation. Remember Sony’s internal security is hard on the outside squishy in the center and so it wouldn’t be difficult for an insider to harm Sony by downloading the material in much the same way Bradley Manning or Edward Snowden did at their respective posts.

  2. If the “hackers” already had copies, then it’s possible they made a local copy the night of the 21st to prepare for publishing them as a link in the malware screens on the 24th.

Sony CEO Michael Lynton’s released emails go up to November 21, 2014. Lynton got the “God’sApstls” email demand for money on the 21st at 12:44pm.

Other evidence implies insiders as well:

Working on the premise that it would take an insider with detailed knowledge of the Sony systems in order to gain access and navigate the breadth of the network to selectively exfiltrate the most sensitive of data, researchers from Norse Corporation are focusing on this group based in part on leaked human resources documents that included data on a series of layoffs at Sony that took place in the Spring of 2014.

The researchers tracked the activities of the ex-employee on underground forums where individuals in the U.S., Europe and Asia may have communicated prior to the attack.

The investigators believe the disgruntled former employee or employees may have joined forces with pro-piracy hacktivists, who have long resented the Sony’s anti-piracy stance, to infiltrate the company’s networks.

I have been skeptical of the insider theory. It requires us to postulate the existence of a single person who has both insider knowledge and the requisite hacking skill. And since I don’t believe that insider knowledge was required, it seemed unlikely that the hackers had it. But these results point in that direction.

Pointing in a completely different direction, a linguistic analysis of the grammatical errors in the hacker communications implies that they are Russian speakers:

Taia Global, Inc. has examined the written evidence left by the attackers in an attempt to scientifically determine nationality through Native Language Identification (NLI). We tested for Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, and German using an analysis of L1 interference. Our preliminary results show that Sony’s attackers were most likely Russian, possibly but not likely Korean and definitely not Mandarin Chinese or German.

The FBI still blames North Korea:

The FBI said Monday it was standing behind its assessment, adding that evidence doesn’t support any other explanations.

“The FBI has concluded the government of North Korea is responsible for the theft and destruction of data on the network of Sony Pictures Entertainment. Attribution to North Korea is based on intelligence from the FBI, the U.S. intelligence community, DHS, foreign partners and the private sector,” a spokeswoman said in a statement. “There is no credible information to indicate that any other individual is responsible for this cyber incident.”

Although it is now thinking that the North Koreans hired outside hackers:

U.S. investigators believe that North Korea likely hired hackers from outside the country to help with last month’s massive cyberattack against Sony Pictures, an official close to the investigation said on Monday.

As North Korea lacks the capability to conduct some elements of the sophisticated campaign by itself, the official said, U.S. investigators are looking at the possibility that Pyongyang “contracted out” some of the cyber work.

This is nonsense. North Korea has had extensive offensive cyber capabilities for years. And it has extensive support from China.

Even so, lots of security experts don’t believe that it’s North Korea. Marc Rogers picks the FBI’s evidence apart pretty well.

So in conclusion, there is NOTHING here that directly implicates the North Koreans. In fact, what we have is one single set of evidence that has been stretched out into 3 separate sections, each section being cited as evidence that the other section is clear proof of North Korean involvement. As soon as you discredit one of these pieces of evidence, the whole house of cards will come tumbling down.

But, as I wrote earlier this month:

Tellingly, the FBI’s press release says that the bureau’s conclusion is only based “in part” on these clues. This leaves open the possibility that the government has classified evidence that North Korea is behind the attack. 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.

I also wrote that bluffing about this is a smart strategy for the US government:

…from a diplomatic perspective, it’s a smart strategy for the US to be overconfident in assigning blame for the cyberattacks. Beyond the politics of this particular attack, the long-term US interest is to discourage other nations from engaging in similar behavior. If the North Korean government continues denying its involvement, no matter what the truth is, and the real attackers have gone underground, then the US decision to claim omnipotent powers of attribution serves as a warning to others that they will get caught if they try something like this.

Of course, this strategy completely backfires if the attackers can be definitely shown to be not from North Korea. Stay tuned for more.

EDITED TO ADD (12/31): Lots of people in the comments are doubting the USB claim.

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Did North Korea Really Attack Sony?

I am deeply skeptical of the FBI’s announcement on Friday that North Korea was behind last month’s Sony hack. The agency’s evidence is tenuous, and I have a hard time believing it. But I also have trouble believing that the US government would make the accusation this formally if officials didn’t believe it.

Clues in the hackers’ attack code seem to point in all directions at once. The FBI points to reused code from previous attacks associated with North Korea, as well as similarities in the networks used to launch the attacks. Korean language in the code also suggests a Korean origin, though not necessarily a North Korean one, since North Koreans use a unique dialect. However you read it, this sort of evidence is circumstantial at best. It’s easy to fake, and it’s even easier to interpret it incorrectly. In general, it’s a situation that rapidly devolves into storytelling, where analysts pick bits and pieces of the “evidence” to suit the narrative they already have worked out in their heads.

In reality, there are several possibilities to consider:

  • This is an official North Korean military operation. We know that North Korea has extensive cyberattack capabilities.

  • This is the work of independent North Korean nationals. Many politically motivated hacking incidents in the past have not been government-controlled. There’s nothing special or sophisticated about this hack that would indicate a government operation. In fact, reusing old attack code is a sign of a more conventional hacker being behind this.

  • This is the work of hackers who had no idea that there was a North Korean connection to Sony until they read about it in the media. Sony, after all, is a company that hackers have loved to hate for a decade. The most compelling evidence for this scenario is that the explicit North Korean connection — threats about the movie The Interview — were only made by the hackers after the media picked up on the possible links between the film release and the cyberattack. There is still the very real possibility that the hackers are in it just for the lulz, and that this international geopolitical angle simply makes the whole thing funnier.

  • It could have been an insider — Sony’s Snowden — who orchestrated the breach. I doubt this theory, because an insider wouldn’t need all the hacker tools that were used. I’ve also seen speculation that the culprit was a disgruntled ex-employee. It’s possible, but that employee or ex-employee would have also had to possess the requisite hacking skills, which seems unlikely.

  • The initial attack was not a North Korean government operation, but was co-opted by the government. There’s no reason to believe that the hackers who initially stole the information from Sony are the same ones who threatened the company over the movie. Maybe there are several attackers working independently. Maybe the independent North Korean hackers turned their work over to the government when the job got too big to handle. Maybe the North Koreans hacked the hackers.

I’m sure there are other possibilities that I haven’t thought of, and it wouldn’t surprise me if what’s really going on isn’t even on my list. North Korea’s offer to help with the investigation doesn’t clear matters up at all.

Tellingly, the FBI’s press release says that the bureau’s conclusion is only based “in part” on these clues. This leaves open the possibility that the government has classified evidence that North Korea is behind the attack. 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.

Allan Friedman, a research scientist at George Washington University’s Cyber Security Policy Research Institute, told me that, from a diplomatic perspective, it’s a smart strategy for the US to be overconfident in assigning blame for the cyberattacks. Beyond the politics of this particular attack, the long-term US interest is to discourage other nations from engaging in similar behavior. If the North Korean government continues denying its involvement, no matter what the truth is, and the real attackers have gone underground, then the US decision to claim omnipotent powers of attribution serves as a warning to others that they will get caught if they try something like this.

Sony also has a vested interest in the hack being the work of North Korea. The company is going to be on the receiving end of a dozen or more lawsuits — from employees, ex-employees, investors, partners, and so on. Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain opined that having this attack characterized as an act of terrorism or war, or the work of a foreign power, might earn the company some degree of immunity from these lawsuits.

I worry that this case echoes the “we have evidence — trust us” story that the Bush administration told in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. Identifying the origin of a cyberattack is very difficult, and when it is possible, the process of attributing responsibility can take months. While I am confident that there will be no US military retribution because of this, I think the best response is to calm down and be skeptical of tidy explanations until more is known.

This essay originally appeared on The Atlantic.

Lots more doubters. And Ed Felten has also written about the Sony breach.

EDITED TO ADD (12/24): Nicholas Weaver analyzes how the NSA could determine if North Korea was behind the Sony hack. And Jack Goldsmith discusses the US government’s legal and policy confusion surrounding the attack.

EDITED TO ADD: Slashdot thread. Hacker News thread.

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North Korea DDoSed Off the Internet

North Korea has been knocked off the Internet by a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack. Maybe the US did it, and maybe not.

This whole incident is a perfect illustration of how technology is equalizing capability. In both the original attack against Sony, and this attack against North Korea, we can’t tell the difference between a couple of hackers and a government.

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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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Lessons from the Sony Hack

Earlier this month, a mysterious group that calls itself Guardians of Peace hacked into Sony Pictures Entertainment’s computer systems and began revealing many of the Hollywood studio’s best-kept secrets, from details about unreleased movies to embarrassing emails (notably some racist notes from Sony bigwigs about President Barack Obama’s presumed movie-watching preferences) to the personnel data of employees, including salaries and performance reviews. The Federal Bureau of Investigation now says it has evidence that North Korea was behind the attack, and Sony Pictures pulled its planned release of “The Interview,” a satire targeting that country’s dictator, after the hackers made some ridiculous threats about terrorist violence.

Your reaction to the massive hacking of such a prominent company will depend on whether you’re fluent in information-technology security. If you’re not, you’re probably wondering how in the world this could happen. If you are, you’re aware that this could happen to any company (though it is still amazing that Sony made it so easy).

To understand any given episode of hacking, you need to understand who your adversary is. I’ve spent decades dealing with Internet hackers (as I do now at my current firm), and I’ve learned to separate opportunistic attacks from targeted ones.

You can characterize attackers along two axes: skill and focus. Most attacks are low-skill and low-focus — people using common hacking tools against thousands of networks world-wide. These low-end attacks include sending spam out to millions of email addresses, hoping that someone will fall for it and click on a poisoned link. I think of them as the background radiation of the Internet.

High-skill, low-focus attacks are more serious. These include the more sophisticated attacks using newly discovered “zero-day” vulnerabilities in software, systems and networks. This is the sort of attack that affected Target, J.P. Morgan Chase and most of the other commercial networks that you’ve heard about in the past year or so.

But even scarier are the high-skill, high-focus attacks­ — the type that hit Sony. This includes sophisticated attacks seemingly run by national intelligence agencies, using such spying tools as Regin and Flame, which many in the IT world suspect were created by the U.S.; Turla, a piece of malware that many blame on the Russian government; and a huge snooping effort called GhostNet, which spied on the Dalai Lama and Asian governments, leading many of my colleagues to blame China. (We’re mostly guessing about the origins of these attacks; governments refuse to comment on such issues.) China has also been accused of trying to hack into the New York Times in 2010, and in May, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the indictment of five Chinese military officials for cyberattacks against U.S. corporations.

This category also includes private actors, including the hacker group known as Anonymous, which mounted a Sony-style attack against the Internet-security firm HBGary Federal, and the unknown hackers who stole racy celebrity photos from Apple’s iCloud and posted them. If you’ve heard the IT-security buzz phrase “advanced persistent threat,” this is it.

There is a key difference among these kinds of hacking. In the first two categories, the attacker is an opportunist. The hackers who penetrated Home Depot’s networks didn’t seem to care much about Home Depot; they just wanted a large database of credit-card numbers. Any large retailer would do.

But a skilled, determined attacker wants to attack a specific victim. The reasons may be political: to hurt a government or leader enmeshed in a geopolitical battle. Or ethical: to punish an industry that the hacker abhors, like big oil or big pharma. Or maybe the victim is just a company that hackers love to hate. (Sony falls into this category: It has been infuriating hackers since 2005, when the company put malicious software on its CDs in a failed attempt to prevent copying.)

Low-focus attacks are easier to defend against: If Home Depot’s systems had been better protected, the hackers would have just moved on to an easier target. With attackers who are highly skilled and highly focused, however, what matters is whether a targeted company’s security is superior to the attacker’s skills, not just to the security measures of other companies. Often, it isn’t. We’re much better at such relative security than we are at absolute security.

That is why security experts aren’t surprised by the Sony story. We know people who do penetration testing for a living — real, no-holds-barred attacks that mimic a full-on assault by a dogged, expert attacker — and we know that the expert always gets in. Against a sufficiently skilled, funded and motivated attacker, all networks are vulnerable. But good security makes many kinds of attack harder, costlier and riskier. Against attackers who aren’t sufficiently skilled, good security may protect you completely.

It is hard to put a dollar value on security that is strong enough to assure you that your embarrassing emails and personnel information won’t end up posted online somewhere, but Sony clearly failed here. Its security turned out to be subpar. They didn’t have to leave so much information exposed. And they didn’t have to be so slow detecting the breach, giving the attackers free rein to wander about and take so much stuff.

For those worried that what happened to Sony could happen to you, I have two pieces of advice. The first is for organizations: take this stuff seriously. Security is a combination of protection, detection and response. You need prevention to defend against low-focus attacks and to make targeted attacks harder. You need detection to spot the attackers who inevitably get through. And you need response to minimize the damage, restore security and manage the fallout.

The time to start is before the attack hits: Sony would have fared much better if its executives simply hadn’t made racist jokes about Mr. Obama or insulted its stars — or if their response systems had been agile enough to kick the hackers out before they grabbed everything.

My second piece of advice is for individuals. The worst invasion of privacy from the Sony hack didn’t happen to the executives or the stars; it happened to the blameless random employees who were just using their company’s email system. Because of that, they’ve had their most personal conversations — gossip, medical conditions, love lives — exposed. The press may not have divulged this information, but their friends and relatives peeked at it. Hundreds of personal tragedies must be unfolding right now.

This could be any of us. We have no choice but to entrust companies with our intimate conversations: on email, on Facebook, by text and so on. We have no choice but to entrust the retailers that we use with our financial details. And we have little choice but to use cloud services such as iCloud and Google Docs.

So be smart: Understand the risks. Know that your data are vulnerable. Opt out when you can. And agitate for government intervention to ensure that organizations protect your data as well as you would. Like many areas of our hyper-technical world, this isn’t something markets can fix.

This essay previously appeared on the Wall Street Journal CIO Journal.

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Not Enough CISOs to Go Around

This article is reporting that the demand for Chief Information Security Officers far exceeds supply:

Sony and every other company that realizes the need for a strong, senior-level security officer are scrambling to find talent, said Kris Lovejoy, general manager of IBM’s security service and former IBM chief security officer.

CISOs are “almost impossible to find these days,” she said. “It’s a bit like musical chairs; there’s a finite number of CISOs and they tend to go from job to job in similar industries.”

I’m not surprised, really. This is a tough job: never enough budget, and you’re the one blamed when the inevitable attacks occur. And it’s a tough skill set: enough technical ability to understand cybersecurity, and sufficient management skill to navigate senior management. I would never want a job like that in a million years.

Here’s a tip: if you want to make your CISO happy, here’s her holiday wish list.

“My first wish is for companies to thoroughly test software releases before release to customers….”

Can we get that gift wrapped?

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