Entries Tagged "cyberwar"

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Attack vs. Defense in Nation-State Cyber Operations

I regularly say that, on the Internet, attack is easier than defense. There are a bunch of reasons for this, but primarily it’s 1) the complexity of modern networked computer systems and 2) the attacker’s ability to choose the time and method of the attack versus the defender’s necessity to secure against every type of attack. This is true, but how this translates to military cyber-operations is less straightforward. Contrary to popular belief, government cyberattacks are not bolts out of the blue, and the attack/defense balance is more…well…balanced.

Rebecca Slayton has a good article in International Security that tries to make sense of this: “What is the Cyber Offense-Defense Balance? Conceptions, Causes, and Assessment.” In it, she points out that launching a cyberattack is more than finding and exploiting a vulnerability, and it is those other things that help balance the offensive advantage.

Posted on April 13, 2017 at 5:45 AMView Comments

Incident Response as "Hand-to-Hand Combat"

NSA Deputy Director Richard Ledgett described a 2014 Russian cyberattack against the US State Department as “hand-to-hand” combat:

“It was hand-to-hand combat,” said NSA Deputy Director Richard Ledgett, who described the incident at a recent cyber forum, but did not name the nation behind it. The culprit was identified by other current and former officials. Ledgett said the attackers’ thrust-and-parry moves inside the network while defenders were trying to kick them out amounted to “a new level of interaction between a cyber attacker and a defender.”


Fortunately, Ledgett said, the NSA, whose hackers penetrate foreign adversaries’ systems to glean intelligence, was able to spy on the attackers’ tools and tactics. “So we were able to see them teeing up new things to do,” Ledgett said. “That’s a really useful capability to have.”

I think this is the first public admission that we spy on foreign governments’ cyberwarriors for defensive purposes. He’s right: being able to spy on the attackers’ networks and see what they’re doing before they do it is a very useful capability. It’s something that was first exposed by the Snowden documents: that the NSA spies on enemy networks for defensive purposes.

Interesting is that another country first found out about the intrusion, and that they also have offensive capabilities inside Russia’s cyberattack units:

The NSA was alerted to the compromises by a Western intelligence agency. The ally had managed to hack not only the Russians’ computers, but also the surveillance cameras inside their workspace, according to the former officials. They monitored the hackers as they maneuvered inside the U.S. systems and as they walked in and out of the workspace, and were able to see faces, the officials said.

There’s a myth that it’s hard for the US to attribute these sorts of cyberattacks. It used to be, but for the US — and other countries with this kind of intelligence gathering capabilities — attribution is not hard. It’s not fast, which is its own problem, and of course it’s not perfect: but it’s not hard.

Posted on April 7, 2017 at 8:06 AMView Comments

WikiLeaks Releases CIA Hacking Tools

WikiLeaks just released a cache of 8,761 classified CIA documents from 2012 to 2016, including details of its offensive Internet operations.

I have not read through any of them yet. If you see something interesting, tell us in the comments.

EDITED TO ADD: There’s a lot in here. Many of the hacking tools are redacted, with the tar files and zip archives replaced with messages like:



Hopefully we’ll get them eventually. The documents say that the CIA — and other intelligence services — can bypass Signal, WhatsApp and Telegram. It seems to be by hacking the end-user devices and grabbing the traffic before and after encryption, not by breaking the encryption.

New York Times article.

EDITED TO ADD: Some details from The Guardian:

According to the documents:

  • CIA hackers targeted smartphones and computers.
  • The Center for Cyber Intelligence is based at the CIA headquarters in Virginia but it has a second covert base in the US consulate in Frankfurt which covers Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
  • A programme called Weeping Angel describes how to attack a Samsung F8000 TV set so that it appears to be off but can still be used for monitoring.

I just noticed this from the WikiLeaks page:

Recently, the CIA lost control of the majority of its hacking arsenal including malware, viruses, trojans, weaponized “zero day” exploits, malware remote control systems and associated documentation. This extraordinary collection, which amounts to more than several hundred million lines of code, gives its possessor the entire hacking capacity of the CIA. The archive appears to have been circulated among former U.S. government hackers and contractors in an unauthorized manner, one of whom has provided WikiLeaks with portions of the archive.

So it sounds like this cache of documents wasn’t taken from the CIA and given to WikiLeaks for publication, but has been passed around the community for a while — and incidentally some part of the cache was passed to WikiLeaks. So there are more documents out there, and others may release them in unredacted form.

Wired article. Slashdot thread. Two articles from the Washington Post.

EDITED TO ADD: This document talks about Comodo version 5.X and version 6.X. Version 6 was released in Feb 2013. Version 7 was released in Apr 2014. This gives us a time window of that page, and the cache in general. (WikiLeaks says that the documents cover 2013 to 2016.)

If these tools are a few years out of date, it’s similar to the NSA tools released by the “Shadow Brokers.” Most of us thought the Shadow Brokers were the Russians, specifically releasing older NSA tools that had diminished value as secrets. Could this be the Russians as well?

EDITED TO ADD: Nicholas Weaver comments.

EDITED TO ADD (3/8): These documents are interesting:

The CIA’s hand crafted hacking techniques pose a problem for the agency. Each technique it has created forms a “fingerprint” that can be used by forensic investigators to attribute multiple different attacks to the same entity.

This is analogous to finding the same distinctive knife wound on multiple separate murder victims. The unique wounding style creates suspicion that a single murderer is responsible. As soon one murder in the set is solved then the other murders also find likely attribution.

The CIA’s Remote Devices Branch‘s UMBRAGE group collects and maintains a substantial library of attack techniques ‘stolen’ from malware produced in other states including the Russian Federation.

With UMBRAGE and related projects the CIA cannot only increase its total number of attack types but also misdirect attribution by leaving behind the “fingerprints” of the groups that the attack techniques were stolen from.

UMBRAGE components cover keyloggers, password collection, webcam capture, data destruction, persistence, privilege escalation, stealth, anti-virus (PSP) avoidance and survey techniques.

This is being spun in the press as the CIA is pretending to be Russia. I’m not convinced that the documents support these allegations. Can someone else look at the documents. I don’t like my conclusion that WikiLeaks is using this document dump as a way to push their own bias.

Posted on March 7, 2017 at 9:08 AMView Comments

UK Admitting "Offensive Cyber" Against ISIS/Daesh

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

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

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

Posted on October 24, 2016 at 2:12 PMView Comments

Someone Is Learning How to Take Down the Internet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But this is happening. And people should know.

This essay previously appeared on Lawfare.com.

EDITED TO ADD: Slashdot thread.

EDITED TO ADD (9/15): Podcast with me on the topic.

EDITED TO ADD (10/6): More.

Posted on September 13, 2016 at 2:09 PMView 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

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.