Entries Tagged "cyberattack"

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Expeditionary Cyberspace Operations

Cyberspace operations now officially has a physical dimension, meaning that the United States has official military doctrine about cyberattacks that also involve an actual human gaining physical access to a piece of computing infrastructure.

A revised version of Joint Publication 3-12 Cyberspace Operations—published in December 2022 and while unclassified, is only available to those with DoD common access cards, according to a Joint Staff spokesperson—officially provides a definition for “expeditionary cyberspace operations,” which are “[c]yberspace operations that require the deployment of cyberspace forces within the physical domains.”


“Developing access to targets in or through cyberspace follows a process that can often take significant time. In some cases, remote access is not possible or preferable, and close proximity may be required, using expeditionary [cyber operations],” the joint publication states. “Such operations are key to addressing the challenge of closed networks and other systems that are virtually isolated. Expeditionary CO are often more regionally and tactically focused and can include units of the CMF or special operations forces … If direct access to the target is unavailable or undesired, sometimes a similar or partial effect can be created by indirect access using a related target that has higher-order effects on the desired target.”


“Allowing them to support [combatant commands] in this way permits faster adaptation to rapidly changing needs and allows threats that initially manifest only in one [area of responsibility] to be mitigated globally in near real time. Likewise, while synchronizing CO missions related to achieving [combatant commander] objectives, some cyberspace capabilities that support this activity may need to be forward-deployed; used in multiple AORs simultaneously; or, for speed in time-critical situations, made available via reachback,” it states. “This might involve augmentation or deployment of cyberspace capabilities to forces already forward or require expeditionary CO by deployment of a fully equipped team of personnel and capabilities.”

Posted on May 26, 2023 at 7:12 AMView Comments

Swatting as a Service

Motherboard is reporting on AI-generated voices being used for “swatting”:

In fact, Motherboard has found, this synthesized call and another against Hempstead High School were just one small part of a months-long, nationwide campaign of dozens, and potentially hundreds, of threats made by one swatter in particular who has weaponized computer generated voices. Known as “Torswats” on the messaging app Telegram, the swatter has been calling in bomb and mass shooting threats against highschools and other locations across the country. Torswat’s connection to these wide ranging swatting incidents has not been previously reported. The further automation of swatting techniques threatens to make an already dangerous harassment technique more prevalent.

Posted on April 17, 2023 at 7:15 AMView Comments

Mass Ransomware Attack

A vulnerability in a popular data transfer tool has resulted in a mass ransomware attack:

TechCrunch has learned of dozens of organizations that used the affected GoAnywhere file transfer software at the time of the ransomware attack, suggesting more victims are likely to come forward.

However, while the number of victims of the mass-hack is widening, the known impact is murky at best.

Since the attack in late January or early February—the exact date is not known—Clop has disclosed less than half of the 130 organizations it claimed to have compromised via GoAnywhere, a system that can be hosted in the cloud or on an organization’s network that allows companies to securely transfer huge sets of data and other large files.

Posted on March 23, 2023 at 7:05 AMView Comments

Prompt Injection Attacks on Large Language Models

This is a good survey on prompt injection attacks on large language models (like ChatGPT).

Abstract: We are currently witnessing dramatic advances in the capabilities of Large Language Models (LLMs). They are already being adopted in practice and integrated into many systems, including integrated development environments (IDEs) and search engines. The functionalities of current LLMs can be modulated via natural language prompts, while their exact internal functionality remains implicit and unassessable. This property, which makes them adaptable to even unseen tasks, might also make them susceptible to targeted adversarial prompting. Recently, several ways to misalign LLMs using Prompt Injection (PI) attacks have been introduced. In such attacks, an adversary can prompt the LLM to produce malicious content or override the original instructions and the employed filtering schemes. Recent work showed that these attacks are hard to mitigate, as state-of-the-art LLMs are instruction-following. So far, these attacks assumed that the adversary is directly prompting the LLM.

In this work, we show that augmenting LLMs with retrieval and API calling capabilities (so-called Application-Integrated LLMs) induces a whole new set of attack vectors. These LLMs might process poisoned content retrieved from the Web that contains malicious prompts pre-injected and selected by adversaries. We demonstrate that an attacker can indirectly perform such PI attacks. Based on this key insight, we systematically analyze the resulting threat landscape of Application-Integrated LLMs and discuss a variety of new attack vectors. To demonstrate the practical viability of our attacks, we implemented specific demonstrations of the proposed attacks within synthetic applications. In summary, our work calls for an urgent evaluation of current mitigation techniques and an investigation of whether new techniques are needed to defend LLMs against these threats.

Posted on March 7, 2023 at 7:13 AMView Comments

Cyberwar Lessons from the War in Ukraine

The Aspen Institute has published a good analysis of the successes, failures, and absences of cyberattacks as part of the current war in Ukraine: “The Cyber Defense Assistance Imperative ­ Lessons from Ukraine.”

Its conclusion:

Cyber defense assistance in Ukraine is working. The Ukrainian government and Ukrainian critical infrastructure organizations have better defended themselves and achieved higher levels of resiliency due to the efforts of CDAC and many others. But this is not the end of the road—the ability to provide cyber defense assistance will be important in the future. As a result, it is timely to assess how to provide organized, effective cyber defense assistance to safeguard the post-war order from potential aggressors.

The conflict in Ukraine is resetting the table across the globe for geopolitics and international security. The US and its allies have an imperative to strengthen the capabilities necessary to deter and respond to aggression that is ever more present in cyberspace. Lessons learned from the ad hoc conduct of cyber defense assistance in Ukraine can be institutionalized and scaled to provide new approaches and tools for preventing and managing cyber conflicts going forward.

I am often asked why where weren’t more successful cyberattacks by Russia against Ukraine. I generally give four reasons: (1) Cyberattacks are more effective in the “grey zone” between peace and war, and there are better alternatives once the shooting and bombing starts. (2) Setting these attacks up takes time, and Putin was secretive about his plans. (3) Putin was concerned about attacks spilling outside the war zone, and affecting other countries. (4) Ukrainian defenses were good, aided by other countries and companies. This paper gives a fifth reason: they were technically successful, but keeping them out of the news made them operationally unsuccessful.

Posted on February 23, 2023 at 7:27 AMView Comments

Attacking Machine Learning Systems

The field of machine learning (ML) security—and corresponding adversarial ML—is rapidly advancing as researchers develop sophisticated techniques to perturb, disrupt, or steal the ML model or data. It’s a heady time; because we know so little about the security of these systems, there are many opportunities for new researchers to publish in this field. In many ways, this circumstance reminds me of the cryptanalysis field in the 1990. And there is a lesson in that similarity: the complex mathematical attacks make for good academic papers, but we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that insecure software will be the likely attack vector for most ML systems.

We are amazed by real-world demonstrations of adversarial attacks on ML systems, such as a 3D-printed object that looks like a turtle but is recognized (from any orientation) by the ML system as a gun. Or adding a few stickers that look like smudges to a stop sign so that it is recognized by a state-of-the-art system as a 45 mi/h speed limit sign. But what if, instead, somebody hacked into the system and just switched the labels for “gun” and “turtle” or swapped “stop” and “45 mi/h”? Systems can only match images with human-provided labels, so the software would never notice the switch. That is far easier and will remain a problem even if systems are developed that are robust to those adversarial attacks.

At their core, modern ML systems have complex mathematical models that use training data to become competent at a task. And while there are new risks inherent in the ML model, all of that complexity still runs in software. Training data are still stored in memory somewhere. And all of that is on a computer, on a network, and attached to the Internet. Like everything else, these systems will be hacked through vulnerabilities in those more conventional parts of the system.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has been working with Internet security. Cryptography has similar vulnerabilities. There is a robust field of cryptanalysis: the mathematics of code breaking. Over the last few decades, we in the academic world have developed a variety of cryptanalytic techniques. We have broken ciphers we previously thought secure. This research has, in turn, informed the design of cryptographic algorithms. The classified world of the NSA and its foreign counterparts have been doing the same thing for far longer. But aside from some special cases and unique circumstances, that’s not how encryption systems are exploited in practice. Outside of academic papers, cryptosystems are largely bypassed because everything around the cryptography is much less secure.

I wrote this in my book, Data and Goliath:

The problem is that encryption is just a bunch of math, and math has no agency. To turn that encryption math into something that can actually provide some security for you, it has to be written in computer code. And that code needs to run on a computer: one with hardware, an operating system, and other software. And that computer needs to be operated by a person and be on a network. All of those things will invariably introduce vulnerabilities that undermine the perfection of the mathematics…

This remains true even for pretty weak cryptography. It is much easier to find an exploitable software vulnerability than it is to find a cryptographic weakness. Even cryptographic algorithms that we in the academic community regard as “broken”—meaning there are attacks that are more efficient than brute force—are usable in the real world because the difficulty of breaking the mathematics repeatedly and at scale is much greater than the difficulty of breaking the computer system that the math is running on.

ML systems are similar. Systems that are vulnerable to model stealing through the careful construction of queries are more vulnerable to model stealing by hacking into the computers they’re stored in. Systems that are vulnerable to model inversion—this is where attackers recover the training data through carefully constructed queries—are much more vulnerable to attacks that take advantage of unpatched vulnerabilities.

But while security is only as strong as the weakest link, this doesn’t mean we can ignore either cryptography or ML security. Here, our experience with cryptography can serve as a guide. Cryptographic attacks have different characteristics than software and network attacks, something largely shared with ML attacks. Cryptographic attacks can be passive. That is, attackers who can recover the plaintext from nothing other than the ciphertext can eavesdrop on the communications channel, collect all of the encrypted traffic, and decrypt it on their own systems at their own pace, perhaps in a giant server farm in Utah. This is bulk surveillance and can easily operate on this massive scale.

On the other hand, computer hacking has to be conducted one target computer at a time. Sure, you can develop tools that can be used again and again. But you still need the time and expertise to deploy those tools against your targets, and you have to do so individually. This means that any attacker has to prioritize. So while the NSA has the expertise necessary to hack into everyone’s computer, it doesn’t have the budget to do so. Most of us are simply too low on its priorities list to ever get hacked. And that’s the real point of strong cryptography: it forces attackers like the NSA to prioritize.

This analogy only goes so far. ML is not anywhere near as mathematically sound as cryptography. Right now, it is a sloppy misunderstood mess: hack after hack, kludge after kludge, built on top of each other with some data dependency thrown in. Directly attacking an ML system with a model inversion attack or a perturbation attack isn’t as passive as eavesdropping on an encrypted communications channel, but it’s using the ML system as intended, albeit for unintended purposes. It’s much safer than actively hacking the network and the computer that the ML system is running on. And while it doesn’t scale as well as cryptanalytic attacks can—and there likely will be a far greater variety of ML systems than encryption algorithms—it has the potential to scale better than one-at-a-time computer hacking does. So here again, good ML security denies attackers all of those attack vectors.

We’re still in the early days of studying ML security, and we don’t yet know the contours of ML security techniques. There are really smart people working on this and making impressive progress, and it’ll be years before we fully understand it. Attacks come easy, and defensive techniques are regularly broken soon after they’re made public. It was the same with cryptography in the 1990s, but eventually the science settled down as people better understood the interplay between attack and defense. So while Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Tesla have all faced adversarial ML attacks on their production systems in the last three years, that’s not going to be the norm going forward.

All of this also means that our security for ML systems depends largely on the same conventional computer security techniques we’ve been using for decades. This includes writing vulnerability-free software, designing user interfaces that help resist social engineering, and building computer networks that aren’t full of holes. It’s the same risk-mitigation techniques that we’ve been living with for decades. That we’re still mediocre at it is cause for concern, with regard to both ML systems and computing in general.

I love cryptography and cryptanalysis. I love the elegance of the mathematics and the thrill of discovering a flaw—or even of reading and understanding a flaw that someone else discovered—in the mathematics. It feels like security in its purest form. Similarly, I am starting to love adversarial ML and ML security, and its tricks and techniques, for the same reasons.

I am not advocating that we stop developing new adversarial ML attacks. It teaches us about the systems being attacked and how they actually work. They are, in a sense, mechanisms for algorithmic understandability. Building secure ML systems is important research and something we in the security community should continue to do.

There is no such thing as a pure ML system. Every ML system is a hybrid of ML software and traditional software. And while ML systems bring new risks that we haven’t previously encountered, we need to recognize that the majority of attacks against these systems aren’t going to target the ML part. Security is only as strong as the weakest link. As bad as ML security is right now, it will improve as the science improves. And from then on, as in cryptography, the weakest link will be in the software surrounding the ML system.

This essay originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of IEEE Computer. I forgot to reprint it here.

Posted on February 6, 2023 at 6:02 AMView Comments

US Cyber Command Operations During the 2022 Midterm Elections

The head of both US Cyber Command and the NSA, Gen. Paul Nakasone, broadly discussed that first organization’s offensive cyber operations during the runup to the 2022 midterm elections. He didn’t name names, of course:

We did conduct operations persistently to make sure that our foreign adversaries couldn’t utilize infrastructure to impact us,” said Nakasone. “We understood how foreign adversaries utilize infrastructure throughout the world. We had that mapped pretty well. And we wanted to make sure that we took it down at key times.”

Nakasone noted that Cybercom’s national mission force, aided by NSA, followed a “campaign plan” to deprive the hackers of their tools and networks. “Rest assured,” he said. “We were doing operations well before the midterms began, and we were doing operations likely on the day of the midterms.” And they continued until the elections were certified, he said.

We know Cybercom did similar things in 2018 and 2020, and presumably will again in two years.

Posted on January 25, 2023 at 7:00 AMView Comments

Arresting IT Administrators

This is one way of ensuring that IT keeps up with patches:

Albanian prosecutors on Wednesday asked for the house arrest of five public employees they blame for not protecting the country from a cyberattack by alleged Iranian hackers.

Prosecutors said the five IT officials of the public administration department had failed to check the security of the system and update it with the most recent antivirus software.

The next step would be to arrest managers at software companies for not releasing patches fast enough. And maybe programmers for writing buggy code. I don’t know where this line of thinking ends.

Posted on December 27, 2022 at 7:01 AMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.