Bruce Schneier: "We're in Early Years of a Cyber Arms Race"

Security guru Bruce Schneier says there’s a kind of cold war now being waged in cyberspace, only the trouble is we don’t always know who we’re waging it against.

Schneier appeared onscreen via Google Hangouts at the LinuxCon/CloudOpen/ContainerCon conference in Seattle on Tuesday to warn attendees that the modern security landscape is becoming increasingly complex and dangerous.

"We know, on the internet today, that attackers have the advantage," Schneier said. "A sufficiently funded, skilled, motivated adversary will get in. And we have to figure out how to deal with that."

Using the example of last November’s crippling online attack against Sony Pictures, Schneier said it was clear that many of these new attacks were the work of well-funded nation-states.

"Many of us, including myself, were skeptical for several months. By now it does seem obvious that it was North Korea, as amazing as that sounds," he said.

But what’s troubling about many of these new attacks, he added, is that they can be hard to spot when they don’t come in the form that security experts typically expect.

"The target [in the Sony hack] was not critical infrastructure," Schneier said. "I think if you made a list of what we thought were foreign targets, a movie company wouldn’t be in our top 100. Yet it seems that the first destructive attack by a nation-state against the United States was against a movie company."

What makes that problematic, he said, is that while we’re getting pretty good at making financially motivated cyberattacks less profitable for the attackers, we’re less well equipped to deal with politically or ideologically motivated attacks. And that goes double when the targets of the attacks are not government resources or critical infrastructure but "soft targets" like large businesses.

What’s more, Schneier said, even though the evidence in the Sony case appears to point to North Korea, in other cases it can be difficult to pinpoint the attacker. In the case of the Stuxnet worm that crippled Iranian nuclear enrichment facilities, for example, Iran didn’t even seem to be aware that the damage was the result of an attack until the media started reporting that story.

‘A lot of attacks from the Western countries go through China’

"It’s easy to false-flag. It’s easy to pretend your attack comes from somewhere else," Schneier said. "My belief is a lot of attacks from the Western countries go through China, simply because everyone knows a lot of attacks go through China, and that’s a perfect way to hide where you’re from."

Equally troubling, he said, is that what looks like an attack by a nation-state might not actually be one, because on the internet, so many potential actors have access to the same tools, tactics, and techniques.

"Last December, with respect to Sony, we were actually having legitimate discussions about whether the attack was the result of a nation with a $20m annual military budget or a couple of guys in a basement somewhere," Schneier said. "That is extraordinary, that we actually don’t know who the attacker is."

In turn, that uncertainty makes it difficult to know who should be responsible for defending against such attacks, he said. Certainly, Sony must shoulder much of the blame for the failure of its security systems. But at what point should the government get involved?

If the attacker is two guys in a basement, as Schneier says, then most likely it’s a matter for the police. If, on the other hand, the attacker is North Korea, then the military should probably get involved. Little wonder, then, that hackers’ efforts to conceal themselves and prevent attribution of attacks are accelerating.

"Unfortunately, we’re in the early years of a cyber arms race. We’re seeing a lot of stockpiling cyber weapons, both by the United States and Western countries … by China, Russia, other countries. A lot of rhetoric about cyberwar," Schneier said. "What concerns me is that we’re all going to be in the blast radius."

Categories: Articles, Text

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.