Entries Tagged "cyberterrorism"

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What Happened to Cyber 9/11?

A recent article in the Atlantic asks why we haven’t seen a”cyber 9/11″ in the past fifteen or so years. (I, too, remember the increasingly frantic and fearful warnings of a “cyber Peal Harbor,” “cyber Katrina” — when that was a thing — or “cyber 9/11.” I made fun of those warnings back then.) The author’s answer:

Three main barriers are likely preventing this. For one, cyberattacks can lack the kind of drama and immediate physical carnage that terrorists seek. Identifying the specific perpetrator of a cyberattack can also be difficult, meaning terrorists might have trouble reaping the propaganda benefits of clear attribution. Finally, and most simply, it’s possible that they just can’t pull it off.

Commenting on the article, Rob Graham adds:

I think there are lots of warning from so-called “experts” who aren’t qualified to make such warnings, that the press errs on the side of giving such warnings credibility instead of challenging them.

I think mostly the reason why cyberterrorism doesn’t happen is that which motivates violent people is different than what which motivates technical people, pulling apart the groups who would want to commit cyberterrorism from those who can.

These are all good reasons, but I think both authors missed the most important one: there simply aren’t a lot of terrorists out there. Let’s ask the question more generally: why hasn’t there been another 9/11 since 2001? I also remember dire predictions that large-scale terrorism was the new normal, and that we would see 9/11-scale attacks regularly. But since then, nothing. We could credit the fantastic counterterrorism work of the US and other countries, but a more reasonable explanation is that there are very few terrorists and even fewer organized ones. Our fear of terrorism is far greater than the actual risk.

This isn’t to say that cyberterrorism can never happen. Of course it will, sooner or later. But I don’t foresee it becoming a preferred terrorism method anytime soon. Graham again:

In the end, if your goal is to cause major power blackouts, your best bet is to bomb power lines and distribution centers, rather than hack them.

Posted on November 19, 2018 at 6:50 AMView Comments

The 2016 National Threat Assessment

It’s National Threat Assessment Day. Published annually by the Director of National Intelligence, the “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community” is the US intelligence community’s one time to publicly talk about the threats in general. The document is the results of weeks of work and input from lots of people. For Clapper, it’s his chance to shape the dialog, set up priorities, and prepare Congress for budget requests. The document is an unclassified summary of a much longer classified document. And the day also includes Clapper testifying before the Senate Armed Service Committee. (You’ll remember his now-famous lie to the committee in 2013.)

The document covers a wide variety of threats, from terrorism to organized crime, from energy politics to climate change. Although the document clearly says “The order of the topics presented in this statement does not necessarily indicate the relative importance or magnitude of the threat in the view of the Intelligence Community,” it does. And like 2015 and 2014, cyber threats are #1 — although this year it’s called “Cyber and Technology.”

The consequences of innovation and increased reliance on information technology in the next few years on both our society’s way of life in general and how we in the Intelligence Community specifically perform our mission will probably be far greater in scope and impact than ever. Devices, designed and fielded with minimal security requirements and testing, and an ever — increasing complexity of networks could lead to widespread vulnerabilities in civilian infrastructures and US Government systems. These developments will pose challenges to our cyber defenses and operational tradecraft but also create new opportunities for our own intelligence collectors.

Especially note that last clause. The FBI might hate encryption, but the intelligence community is not going dark.

The document then calls out a few specifics like the Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence — no surprise, considering other recent statements from government officials. This is the “…and Technology” part of the category.

More specifically:

Future cyber operations will almost certainly include an increased emphasis on changing or manipulating data to compromise its integrity (i.e., accuracy and reliability) to affect decisionmaking, reduce trust in systems, or cause adverse physical effects. Broader adoption of IoT devices and AI ­– in settings such as public utilities and health care — will only exacerbate these potential effects. Russian cyber actors, who post disinformation on commercial websites, might seek to alter online media as a means to influence public discourse and create confusion. Chinese military doctrine outlines the use of cyber deception operations to conceal intentions, modify stored data, transmit false data, manipulate the flow of information, or influence public sentiments -­ all to induce errors and miscalculation in decisionmaking.

Russia is the number one threat, followed by China, Iran, North Korea, and non-state actors:

Russia is assuming a more assertive cyber posture based on its willingness to target critical infrastructure systems and conduct espionage operations even when detected and under increased public scrutiny. Russian cyber operations are likely to target US interests to support several strategic objectives: intelligence gathering to support Russian decisionmaking in the Ukraine and Syrian crises, influence operations to support military and political objectives, and continuing preparation of the cyber environment for future contingencies.

Comments on China refer to the cybersecurity agreement from last September:

China continues to have success in cyber espionage against the US Government, our allies, and US companies. Beijing also selectively uses cyberattacks against targets it believes threaten Chinese domestic stability or regime legitimacy. We will monitor compliance with China’s September 2015 commitment to refrain from conducting or knowingly supporting cyber — enabled theft of intellectual property with the intent of providing competitive advantage to companies or commercial sectors. Private — sector security experts have identified limited ongoing cyber activity from China but have not verified state sponsorship or the use of exfiltrated data for commercial gain.

Also interesting are the comments on non-state actors, which discuss both propaganda campaigns from ISIL, criminal ransomware, and hacker tools.

Posted on February 9, 2016 at 3:25 PMView Comments

Attack Attribution and Cyber Conflict

The vigorous debate after the Sony Pictures breach pitted the Obama administration against many of us in the cybersecurity community who didn’t buy Washington’s claim that North Korea was the culprit.

What’s both amazing — and perhaps a bit frightening — about that dispute over who hacked Sony is that it happened in the first place.

But what it highlights is the fact that we’re living in a world where we can’t easily tell the difference between a couple of guys in a basement apartment and the North Korean government with an estimated $10 billion military budget. And that ambiguity has profound implications for how countries will conduct foreign policy in the Internet age.

Clandestine military operations aren’t new. Terrorism can be hard to attribute, especially the murky edges of state-sponsored terrorism. What’s different in cyberspace is how easy it is for an attacker to mask his identity — and the wide variety of people and institutions that can attack anonymously.

In the real world, you can often identify the attacker by the weaponry. In 2006, Israel attacked a Syrian nuclear facility. It was a conventional attack — military airplanes flew over Syria and bombed the plant — and there was never any doubt who did it. That shorthand doesn’t work in cyberspace.

When the US and Israel attacked an Iranian nuclear facility in 2010, they used a cyberweapon and their involvement was a secret for years. On the Internet, technology broadly disseminates capability. Everyone from lone hackers to criminals to hypothetical cyberterrorists to nations’ spies and soldiers are using the same tools and the same tactics. Internet traffic doesn’t come with a return address, and it’s easy for an attacker to obscure his tracks by routing his attacks through some innocent third party.

And while it now seems that North Korea did indeed attack Sony, the attack it most resembles was conducted by members of the hacker group Anonymous against a company called HBGary Federal in 2011. In the same year, other members of Anonymous threatened NATO, and in 2014, still others announced that they were going to attack ISIS. Regardless of what you think of the group’s capabilities, it’s a new world when a bunch of hackers can threaten an international military alliance.

Even when a victim does manage to attribute a cyberattack, the process can take a long time. It took the US weeks to publicly blame North Korea for the Sony attacks. That was relatively fast; most of that time was probably spent trying to figure out how to respond. Attacks by China against US companies have taken much longer to attribute.

This delay makes defense policy difficult. Microsoft’s Scott Charney makes this point: When you’re being physically attacked, you can call on a variety of organizations to defend you — the police, the military, whoever does antiterrorism security in your country, your lawyers. The legal structure justifying that defense depends on knowing two things: who’s attacking you, and why. Unfortunately, when you’re being attacked in cyberspace, the two things you often don’t know are who’s attacking you, and why.

Whose job was it to defend Sony? Was it the US military’s, because it believed the attack to have come from North Korea? Was it the FBI, because this wasn’t an act of war? Was it Sony’s own problem, because it’s a private company? What about during those first weeks, when no one knew who the attacker was? These are just a few of the policy questions that we don’t have good answers for.

Certainly Sony needs enough security to protect itself regardless of who the attacker was, as do all of us. For the victim of a cyberattack, who the attacker is can be academic. The damage is the same, whether it’s a couple of hackers or a nation-state.

In the geopolitical realm, though, attribution is vital. And not only is attribution hard, providing evidence of any attribution is even harder. Because so much of the FBI’s evidence was classified—and probably provided by the National Security Agency — it was not able to explain why it was so sure North Korea did it. As I recently wrote: “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.” Making any of this public would reveal the NSA’s “sources and methods,” something it regards as a very important secret.

Different types of attribution require different levels of evidence. In the Sony case, we saw the US government was able to generate enough evidence to convince itself. Perhaps it had the additional evidence required to convince North Korea it was sure, and provided that over diplomatic channels. But if the public is expected to support any government retaliatory action, they are going to need sufficient evidence made public to convince them. Today, trust in US intelligence agencies is low, especially after the 2003 Iraqi weapons-of-mass-destruction debacle.

What all of this means is that we are in the middle of an arms race between attackers and those that want to identify them: deception and deception detection. It’s an arms race in which the US — and, by extension, its allies — has a singular advantage. We spend more money on electronic eavesdropping than the rest of the world combined, we have more technology companies than any other country, and the architecture of the Internet ensures that most of the world’s traffic passes through networks the NSA can eavesdrop on.

In 2012, then US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said publicly that the US — presumably the NSA — has “made significant advances in … identifying the origins” of cyberattacks. We don’t know if this means they have made some fundamental technological advance, or that their espionage is so good that they’re monitoring the planning processes. Other US government officials have privately said that they’ve solved the attribution problem.

We don’t know how much of that is real and how much is bluster. It’s actually in America’s best interest to confidently accuse North Korea, even if it isn’t sure, because it sends a strong message to the rest of the world: “Don’t think you can hide in cyberspace. If you try anything, we’ll know it’s you.”

Strong attribution leads to deterrence. The detailed NSA capabilities leaked by Edward Snowden help with this, because they bolster an image of an almost-omniscient NSA.

It’s not, though — which brings us back to the arms race. A world where hackers and governments have the same capabilities, where governments can masquerade as hackers or as other governments, and where much of the attribution evidence intelligence agencies collect remains secret, is a dangerous place.

So is a world where countries have secret capabilities for deception and detection deception, and are constantly trying to get the best of each other. This is the world of today, though, and we need to be prepared for it.

This essay previously appeared in the Christian Science Monitor.

Posted on March 9, 2015 at 7:09 AMView Comments

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.

Posted on January 6, 2015 at 6:50 AMView Comments

2008 Cyberattack Against Turkish Oil Pipeline

Interesting article talks about the 2008 cyberattack against a Turkish oil pipeline:

For western intelligence agencies, the blowout was a watershed event. Hackers had shut down alarms, cut off communications and super-pressurized the crude oil in the line, according to four people familiar with the incident who asked not to be identified because details of the investigation are confidential. The main weapon at valve station 30 on Aug. 5, 2008, was a keyboard.

Kurdish separatists in Turkey claimed that they did it. The whole article is worth reading.

Posted on December 23, 2014 at 7:02 AMView Comments

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.

EDITED TO ADD (12/25): Reddit thread.

Posted on December 22, 2014 at 6:08 AMView Comments

Understanding the Threats in Cyberspace

The primary difficulty of cyber security isn’t technology — it’s policy. The Internet mirrors real-world society, which makes security policy online as complicated as it is in the real world. Protecting critical infrastructure against cyber-attack is just one of cyberspace’s many security challenges, so it’s important to understand them all before any one of them can be solved.

The list of bad actors in cyberspace is long, and spans a wide range of motives and capabilities. At the extreme end there’s cyberwar: destructive actions by governments during a war. When government policymakers like David Omand think of cyber-attacks, that’s what comes to mind. Cyberwar is conducted by capable and well-funded groups and involves military operations against both military and civilian targets. Along much the same lines are non-nation state actors who conduct terrorist operations. Although less capable and well-funded, they are often talked about in the same breath as true cyberwar.

Much more common are the domestic and international criminals who run the gamut from lone individuals to organized crime. They can be very capable and well-funded and will continue to inflict significant economic damage.

Threats from peacetime governments have been seen increasingly in the news. The US worries about Chinese espionage against Western targets, and we’re also seeing US surveillance of pretty much everyone in the world, including Americans inside the US. The National Security Agency (NSA) is probably the most capable and well-funded espionage organization in the world, and we’re still learning about the full extent of its sometimes illegal operations.

Hacktivists are a different threat. Their actions range from Internet-age acts of civil disobedience to the inflicting of actual damage. This is hard to generalize about because the individuals and groups in this category vary so much in skill, funding and motivation. Hackers falling under the “anonymous” aegis — it really isn’t correct to call them a group — come under this category, as does WikiLeaks. Most of these attackers are outside the organization, although whistleblowing — the civil disobedience of the information age — generally involves insiders like Edward Snowden.

This list of potential network attackers isn’t exhaustive. Depending on who you are and what your organization does, you might be also concerned with espionage cyber-attacks by the media, rival corporations or even the corporations we entrust with our data.

The issue here, and why it affects policy, is that protecting against these various threats can lead to contradictory requirements. In the US, the NSA’s post-9/11 mission to protect the country from terrorists has transformed it into a domestic surveillance organization. The NSA’s need to protect its own information systems from outside attack opened it up to attacks from within. Do the corporate security products we buy to protect ourselves against cybercrime contain backdoors that allow for government spying? European countries may condemn the US for spying on its own citizens, but do they do the same thing?

All these questions are especially difficult because military and security organizations along with corporations tend to hype particular threats. For example, cyberwar and cyberterrorism are greatly overblown as threats — because they result in massive government programs with huge budgets and power — while cybercrime is largely downplayed.

We need greater transparency, oversight and accountability on both the government and corporate sides before we can move forward. With the secrecy that surrounds cyber-attack and cyberdefense it’s hard to be optimistic.

This essay previously appeared in Europe’s World.

Posted on October 28, 2013 at 6:39 AMView Comments

Syrian Electronic Army Cyberattacks

The Syrian Electronic Army attacked again this week, compromising the websites of the New York Times, Twitter, the Huffington Post, and others.

Political hacking isn’t new. Hackers were breaking into systems for political reasons long before commerce and criminals discovered the Internet. Over the years, we’ve seen U.K. vs. Ireland, Israel vs. Arab states, Russia vs. its former Soviet republics, India vs. Pakistan, and US vs. China.

There was a big one in 2007, when the government of Estonia was attacked in cyberspace following a diplomatic incident with Russia. It was hyped as the first cyberwar, but the Kremlin denied any Russian government involvement. The only individuals positively identified were young ethnic Russians living in Estonia.

Poke at any of these international incidents, and what you find are kids playing politics. The Syrian Electronic Army doesn’t seem to be an actual army. We don’t even know if they’re Syrian. And — to be fair — I don’t know their ages. Looking at the details of their attacks, it’s pretty clear they didn’t target the New York Times and others directly. They reportedly hacked into an Australian domain name registrar called Melbourne IT, and used that access to disrupt service at a bunch of big-name sites.

We saw this same tactic last year from Anonymous: hack around at random, then retcon a political reason why the sites they successfully broke into deserved it. It makes them look a lot more skilled than they actually are.

This isn’t to say that cyberattacks by governments aren’t an issue, or that cyberwar is something to be ignored. Attacks from China reportedly are a mix of government-executed military attacks, government-sponsored independent attackers, and random hacking groups that work with tacit government approval. The US also engages in active cyberattacks around the world. Together with Israel, the US employed a sophisticated computer virus (Stuxnet) to attack Iran in 2010.

For the typical company, defending against these attacks doesn’t require anything different than what you’ve been traditionally been doing to secure yourself in cyberspace. If your network is secure, you’re secure against amateur geopoliticians who just want to help their side.

This essay originally appeared on the Wall Street Journal’s website.

Posted on September 3, 2013 at 1:45 PMView Comments

Stoking Cyber Fears

A lot of the debate around President Obama’s cybsersecurity initiative centers on how much of a burden it would be on industry, and how that should be financed. As important as that debate is, it obscures some of the larger issues surrounding cyberwar, cyberterrorism, and cybersecurity in general.

It’s difficult to have any serious policy discussion amongst the fear mongering. Secretary Panetta’s recent comments are just the latest; search the Internet for “cyber 9/11,” “cyber Pearl-Harbor,” “cyber Katrina,” or — my favorite — “cyber Armageddon.”

There’s an enormous amount of money and power that results from pushing cyberwar and cyberterrorism: power within the military, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Justice Department; and lucrative government contracts supporting those organizations. As long as cyber remains a prefix that scares, it’ll continue to be used as a bugaboo.

But while scare stories are more movie-plot than actual threat, there are real risks. The government is continually poked and probed in cyberspace, from attackers ranging from kids playing politics to sophisticated national intelligence gathering operations. Hackers can do damage, although nothing like the cyberterrorism rhetoric would lead you to believe. Cybercrime continues to rise, and still poses real risks to those of us who work, shop, and play on the Internet. And cyberdefense needs to be part of our military strategy.

Industry has definitely not done enough to protect our nation’s critical infrastructure, and federal government may need more involvement. This should come as no surprise; the economic externalities in cybersecurity are so great that even the freest free market would fail.

For example, the owner of a chemical plant will protect that plant from cyber attack up to the value of that plant to the owner; the residual risk to the community around the plant will remain. Politics will color how government involvement looks: market incentives, regulation, or outright government takeover of some aspects of cybersecurity.

None of this requires heavy-handed regulation. Over the past few years we’ve heard calls for the military to better control Internet protocols; for the United States to be able to “kill” all or part of the Internet, or to cut itself off from the greater Internet; for increased government surveillance; and for limits on anonymity. All of those would be dangerous, and would make us less secure. The world’s first military cyberweapon, Stuxnet, was used by the United States and Israel against Iran.

In all of this government posturing about cybersecurity, the biggest risk is a cyber-war arms race; and that’s where remarks like Panetta’s lead us. Increased government spending on cyberweapons and cyberdefense, and an increased militarization of cyberspace, is both expensive and destabilizing. Fears lead to weapons buildups, and weapons beg to be used.

I would like to see less fear mongering, and more reasoned discussion about the actual threats and reasonable countermeasures. Pushing the fear button benefits no one.

This essay originally appeared in the New York Times “Room for Debate” blog. Here are the other essays on the topic.

Posted on October 19, 2012 at 7:45 AMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.