Entries Tagged "cyberwar"

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Admiral Rogers Speaking at the Joint Service Academy Cyber Security Summit

Admiral Mike Rogers gave the keynote address at the Joint Service Academy Cyber Security Summit today at West Point. He started by explaining the four tenets of security that he thinks about.

First: partnerships. This includes government, civilian, everyone. Capabilities, knowledge, and insight of various groups, and aligning them to generate better outcomes to everyone. Ability to generate and share insight and knowledge, and to do that in a timely manner.

Second, innovation. It’s about much more than just technology. It’s about ways to organize, values, training, and so on. We need to think about innovation very broadly.

Third, technology. This is a technologically based problem, and we need to apply technology to defense as well.

Fourth, human capital. If we don’t get people working right, all of this is doomed to fail. We need to build security workforces inside and outside of military. We need to keep them current in a world of changing technology.

So, what is the Department of Defense doing? They’re investing in cyber, both because it’s a critical part of future fighting of wars and because of the mission to defend the nation.

Rogers then explained the five strategic goals listed in the recent DoD cyber strategy:

  1. Build and maintain ready forces and capabilities to conduct cyberspace operations;
  2. Defend the DoD information network, secure DoD data, and mitigate risks to DoD missions;
  3. Be prepared to defend the U.S. homeland and U.S. vital interests from disruptive or destructive cyberattacks of significant consequence;
  4. Build and maintain viable cyber options and plan to use those options to control conflict escalation and to shape the conflict environment at all stages;
  5. Build and maintain robust international alliances and partnerships to deter shared threats and increase international security and stability.

Expect to see more detailed policy around these coming goals in the coming months.

What is the role of the US CyberCommand and the NSA in all of this? The CyberCommand has three missions related to the five strategic goals. They defend DoD networks. They create the cyber workforce. And, if directed, they defend national critical infrastructure.

At one point, Rogers said that he constantly reminds his people: “If it was designed by man, it can be defeated by man.” I hope he also tells this to the FBI when they talk about needing third-party access to encrypted communications.

All of this has to be underpinned by a cultural ethos that recognizes the importance of professionalism and compliance. Every person with a keyboard is both a potential asset and a threat. There needs to be well-defined processes and procedures within DoD, and a culture of following them.

What’s the threat dynamic, and what’s the nature of the world? The threat is going to increase; it’s going to get worse, not better; cyber is a great equalizer. Cyber doesn’t recognize physical geography. Four “prisms” to look at threat: criminals, nation states, hacktivists, groups wanting to do harm to the nation. This fourth group is increasing. Groups like ISIL are going to use the Internet to cause harm. Also embarrassment: releasing documents, shutting down services, and so on.

We spend a lot of time thinking about how to stop attackers from getting in; we need to think more about how to get them out once they’ve gotten in — and how to continue to operate even though they are in. (That was especially nice to hear, because that’s what I’m doing at my company.) Sony was a “wake-up call”: a nation-state using cyber for coercion. It was theft of intellectual property, denial of service, and destruction. And it was important for the US to acknowledge the attack, attribute it, and retaliate.

Last point: “Total force approach to the problem.” It’s not just about people in uniform. It’s about active duty military, reserve military, corporations, government contractors — everyone. We need to work on this together. “I am not interested in endless discussion…. I am interested in outcomes.” “Cyber is the ultimate team sport.” There’s no single entity, or single technology, or single anything, that will solve all of this. He wants to partner with the corporate world, and to do it in a way that benefits both.

First question was about the domains and missions of the respective services. Rogers talked about the inherent expertise that each service brings to the problem, and how to use cyber to extend that expertise — and the mission. The goal is to create a single integrated cyber force, but not a single service. Cyber occurs in a broader context, and that context is applicable to all the military services. We need to build on their individual expertises and contexts, and to apply it in an integrated way. Similar to how we do special forces.

Second question was about values, intention, and what’s at risk. Rogers replied that any structure for the NSA has to integrate with the nation’s values. He talked about the value of privacy. He also talked about “the security of the nation.” Both are imperatives, and we need to achieve both at the same time. The problem is that the nation is polarized; the threat is getting worse at the same time trust is decreasing. We need to figure out how to improve trust.

Third question was about DoD protecting commercial cyberspace. Rogers replied that the DHS is the lead organization in this regard, and DoD provides capability through that civilian authority. Any DoD partnership with the private sector will go through DHS.

Fourth question: How will DoD reach out to corporations, both established and start-ups? Many ways. By providing people to the private sectors. Funding companies, through mechanisms like the CIA’s In-Q-Tel. And some sort of innovation capability. Those are the three main vectors, but more important is that the DoD mindset has to change. DoD has traditionally been very insular; in this case, more partnerships are required.

Final question was about the NSA sharing security information in some sort of semi-classified way. Rogers said that there are lot of internal conversations about doing this. It’s important.

In all, nothing really new or controversial.

These comments were recorded — I can’t find them online now — and are on the record. Much of the rest of the summit was held under Chatham House Rules. I participated in a panel on “Crypto Wars 2015” with Matt Blaze and a couple of government employees.

EDITED TO ADD (5/15): News article.

Posted on May 14, 2015 at 1:12 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

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.

Posted on January 8, 2015 at 6:34 AMView Comments

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.

Posted on January 7, 2015 at 11:16 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

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

Regin Malware

Last week, we learned about a striking piece of malware called Regin that has been infecting computer networks worldwide since 2008. It’s more sophisticated than any known criminal malware, and everyone believes a government is behind it. No country has taken credit for Regin, but there’s substantial evidence that it was built and operated by the United States.

This isn’t the first government malware discovered. GhostNet is believed to be Chinese. Red October and Turla are believed to be Russian. The Mask is probably Spanish. Stuxnet and Flame are probably from the U.S. All these were discovered in the past five years, and named by researchers who inferred their creators from clues such as who the malware targeted.

I dislike the “cyberwar” metaphor for espionage and hacking, but there is a war of sorts going on in cyberspace. Countries are using these weapons against each other. This affects all of us not just because we might be citizens of one of these countries, but because we are all potentially collateral damage. Most of the varieties of malware listed above have been used against nongovernment targets, such as national infrastructure, corporations, and NGOs. Sometimes these attacks are accidental, but often they are deliberate.

For their defense, civilian networks must rely on commercial security products and services. We largely rely on antivirus products from companies such as Symantec, Kaspersky, and F-Secure. These products continuously scan our computers, looking for malware, deleting it, and alerting us as they find it. We expect these companies to act in our interests, and never deliberately fail to protect us from a known threat.

This is why the recent disclosure of Regin is so disquieting. The first public announcement of Regin was from Symantec, on November 23. The company said that its researchers had been studying it for about a year, and announced its existence because they knew of another source that was going to announce it. That source was a news site, the Intercept, which described Regin and its U.S. connections the following day. Both Kaspersky and F-Secure soon published their own findings. Both stated that they had been tracking Regin for years. All three of the antivirus companies were able to find samples of it in their files since 2008 or 2009.

So why did these companies all keep Regin a secret for so long? And why did they leave us vulnerable for all this time?

To get an answer, we have to disentangle two things. Near as we can tell, all the companies had added signatures for Regin to their detection database long before last month. The VirusTotal website has a signature for Regin as of 2011. Both Microsoft security and F-Secure started detecting and removing it that year as well. Symantec has protected its users against Regin since 2013, although it certainly added the VirusTotal signature in 2011.

Entirely separately and seemingly independently, all of these companies decided not to publicly discuss Regin’s existence until after Symantec and the Intercept did so. Reasons given vary. Mikko Hyponnen of F-Secure said that specific customers asked him not to discuss the malware that had been found on their networks. Fox IT, which was hired to remove Regin from the Belgian phone company Belgacom’s website, didn’t say anything about what it discovered because it “didn’t want to interfere with NSA/GCHQ operations.”

My guess is that none of the companies wanted to go public with an incomplete picture. Unlike criminal malware, government-grade malware can be hard to figure out. It’s much more elusive and complicated. It is constantly updated. Regin is made up of multiple modules — Fox IT called it “a full framework of a lot of species of malware” — making it even harder to figure out what’s going on. Regin has also been used sparingly, against only a select few targets, making it hard to get samples. When you make a press splash by identifying a piece of malware, you want to have the whole story. Apparently, no one felt they had that with Regin.

That is not a good enough excuse, though. As nation-state malware becomes more common, we will often lack the whole story. And as long as countries are battling it out in cyberspace, some of us will be targets and the rest of us might be unlucky enough to be sitting in the blast radius. Military-grade malware will continue to be elusive.

Right now, antivirus companies are probably sitting on incomplete stories about a dozen more varieties of government-grade malware. But they shouldn’t. We want, and need, our antivirus companies to tell us everything they can about these threats as soon as they know them, and not wait until the release of a political story makes it impossible for them to remain silent.

This essay previously appeared in the MIT Technology Review.

Posted on December 8, 2014 at 7:19 AMView Comments

US National Guard is Getting Into Cyberwar

The Maryland Air National Guard needs a new facility for its cyberwar operations:

The purpose of this facility is to house a Network Warfare Group and ISR Squadron. The Cyber mission includes a set of capabilities, expertise to enable the cyber operational need for an always-on, net-speed awareness and integrated operational response with global reach. It enables operators to drive upstream in pursuit of cyber adversaries, and is informed 24/7 by intelligence and all-source information.

Is this something we want the Maryland Air National Guard to get involved in?

Posted on July 17, 2014 at 3:16 PMView Comments

Computer Network Exploitation vs. Computer Network Attack

Back when we first started getting reports of the Chinese breaking into U.S. computer networks for espionage purposes, we described it in some very strong language. We called the Chinese actions cyberattacks. We sometimes even invoked the word cyberwar, and declared that a cyber-attack was an act of war.

When Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA has been doing exactly the same thing as the Chinese to computer networks around the world, we used much more moderate language to describe U.S. actions: words like espionage, or intelligence gathering, or spying. We stressed that it’s a peacetime activity, and that everyone does it.

The reality is somewhere in the middle, and the problem is that our intuitions are based on history.

Electronic espionage is different today than it was in the pre-Internet days of the Cold War. Eavesdropping isn’t passive anymore. It’s not the electronic equivalent of sitting close to someone and overhearing a conversation. It’s not passively monitoring a communications circuit. It’s more likely to involve actively breaking into an adversary’s computer network — be it Chinese, Brazilian, or Belgian — and installing malicious software designed to take over that network.

In other words, it’s hacking. Cyber-espionage is a form of cyber-attack. It’s an offensive action. It violates the sovereignty of another country, and we’re doing it with far too little consideration of its diplomatic and geopolitical costs.

The abbreviation-happy U.S. military has two related terms for what it does in cyberspace. CNE stands for “computer network exploitation.” That’s spying. CNA stands for “computer network attack.” That includes actions designed to destroy or otherwise incapacitate enemy networks. That’s — among other things — sabotage.

CNE and CNA are not solely in the purview of the U.S.; everyone does it. We know that other countries are building their offensive cyberwar capabilities. We have discovered sophisticated surveillance networks from other countries with names like GhostNet, Red October, The Mask. We don’t know who was behind them — these networks are very difficult to trace back to their source — but we suspect China, Russia, and Spain, respectively. We recently learned of a hacking tool called RCS that’s used by 21 governments: Azerbaijan, Colombia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Hungary, Italy, Kazakhstan, Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, Nigeria, Oman, Panama, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Thailand, Turkey, UAE, and Uzbekistan.

When the Chinese company Huawei tried to sell networking equipment to the U.S., the government considered that equipment a “national security threat,” rightly fearing that those switches were backdoored to allow the Chinese government both to eavesdrop and attack US networks. Now we know that the NSA is doing the exact same thing to Americanmade equipment sold in China, as well as to those very same Huawei switches.

The problem is that, from the point of view of the object of an attack, CNE and CNA look the same as each other, except for the end result. Today’s surveillance systems involve breaking into the computers and installing malware, just as cybercriminals do when they want your money. And just like Stuxnet: the U.S./Israeli cyberweapon that disabled the Natanz nuclear facility in Iran in 2010.

This is what Microsoft’s General Counsel Brad Smith meant when he said: “Indeed, government snooping potentially now constitutes an ‘advanced persistent threat,’ alongside sophisticated malware and cyber attacks.”

When the Chinese penetrate U.S. computer networks, which they do with alarming regularity, we don’t really know what they’re doing. Are they modifying our hardware and software to just eavesdrop, or are they leaving :logic bombs” that could be triggered to do real damage at some future time? It can be impossible to tell. As a 2011 EU cybersecurity policy document stated (page 7):

…technically speaking, CNA requires CNE to be effective. In other words, what may be preparations for cyberwarfare can well be cyberespionage initially or simply be disguised as such.

We can’t tell the intentions of the Chinese, and they can’t tell ours, either.

Much of the current debate in the U.S. is over what the NSA should be allowed to do, and whether limiting the NSA somehow empowers other governments. That’s the wrong debate. We don’t get to choose between a world where the NSA spies and one where the Chinese spy. Our choice is between a world where our information infrastructure is vulnerable to all attackers or secure for all users.

As long as cyber-espionage equals cyber-attack, we would be much safer if we focused the NSA’s efforts on securing the Internet from these attacks. True, we wouldn’t get the same level of access to information flows around the world. But we would be protecting the world’s information flows — including our own — from both eavesdropping and more damaging attacks. We would be protecting our information flows from governments, nonstate actors, and criminals. We would be making the world safer.

Offensive military operations in cyberspace, be they CNE or CNA, should be the purview of the military. In the U.S., that’s CyberCommand. Such operations should be recognized as offensive military actions, and should be approved at the highest levels of the executive branch, and be subject to the same international law standards that govern acts of war in the offline world.

If we’re going to attack another country’s electronic infrastructure, we should treat it like any other attack on a foreign country. It’s no longer just espionage, it’s a cyber-attack.

This essay previously appeared on TheAtlantic.com.

Posted on March 10, 2014 at 6:46 AMView Comments

"Military Style" Raid on California Power Station

I don’t know what to think about this:

Around 1:00 AM on April 16, at least one individual (possibly two) entered two different manholes at the PG&E Metcalf power substation, southeast of San Jose, and cut fiber cables in the area around the substation. That knocked out some local 911 services, landline service to the substation, and cell phone service in the area, a senior U.S. intelligence official told Foreign Policy. The intruder(s) then fired more than 100 rounds from what two officials described as a high-powered rifle at several transformers in the facility. Ten transformers were damaged in one area of the facility, and three transformer banks — or groups of transformers — were hit in another, according to a PG&E spokesman.

The article worries that this might be a dry-run to some cyberwar-like attack, but that doesn’t make sense. But it’s just too complicated and weird to be a prank.

Anyone have any ideas?

Posted on January 2, 2014 at 6:40 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.