Entries Tagged "hackback"
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There’s a really interesting paper from George Washington University on hacking back: “Into the Gray Zone: The Private Sector and Active Defense against Cyber Threats.”
I’ve never been a fan of hacking back. There’s a reason we no longer issue letters of marque or allow private entities to commit crimes, and hacking back is a form a vigilante justice. But the paper makes a lot of good points.
Earlier this month, the FBI seized control of the Coreflood botnet and shut it down:
According to the filing, ISC, under law enforcement supervision, planned to replace the servers with servers that it controlled, then collect the IP addresses of all infected machines communicating with the criminal servers, and send a remote “stop” command to infected machines to disable the Coreflood malware operating on them.
This is a big deal; it’s the first time the FBI has done something like this. My guess is that we’re going to see a lot more of this sort of thing in the future; it’s the obvious solution for botnets.
Not that the approach is without risks:
“Even if we could absolutely be sure that all of the infected Coreflood botnet machines were running the exact code that we reverse-engineered and convinced ourselves that we understood,” said Chris Palmer, technology director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, “this would still be an extremely sketchy action to take. It’s other people’s computers and you don’t know what’s going to happen for sure. You might blow up some important machine.”
I just don’t see this argument convincing very many people. Leaving Coreflood in place could blow up some important machine. And leaving Coreflood in place not only puts the infected computers at risk; it puts the whole Internet at risk. Minimizing the collateral damage is important, but this feels like a place where the interest of the Internet as a whole trumps the interest of those affected by shutting down Coreflood.
The problem as I see it is the slippery slope. Because next, the RIAA is going to want to remotely disable computers they feel are engaged in illegal file sharing. And the FBI is going to want to remotely disable computers they feel are encouraging terrorism. And so on. It’s important to have serious legal controls on this counterattack sort of defense.
This is beyond stupid:
The Pentagon is contemplating an aggressive approach to defending its computer systems that includes preemptive actions such as knocking out parts of an adversary’s computer network overseas—but it is still wrestling with how to pursue the strategy legally.
The department is developing a range of weapons capabilities, including tools that would allow “attack and exploitation of adversary information systems” and that can “deceive, deny, disrupt, degrade and destroy” information and information systems, according to Defense Department budget documents.
But officials are reluctant to use the tools until questions of international law and technical feasibility are resolved, and that has proved to be a major challenge for policymakers. Government lawyers and some officials question whether the Pentagon could take such action without violating international law or other countries’ sovereignty.
“Some” officials are questioning it. The rest are trying to ignore the issue.
I wrote about this back in 2007.
Last month Marine General James Cartwright told the House Armed Services Committee that the best cyber defense is a good offense.
As reported in Federal Computer Week, Cartwright said: “History teaches us that a purely defensive posture poses significant risks,” and that if “we apply the principle of warfare to the cyberdomain, as we do to sea, air and land, we realize the defense of the nation is better served by capabilities enabling us to take the fight to our adversaries, when necessary, to deter actions detrimental to our interests.”
The general isn’t alone. In 2003, the entertainment industry tried to get a law passed giving them the right to attack any computer suspected of distributing copyrighted material. And there probably isn’t a sys-admin in the world who doesn’t want to strike back at computers that are blindly and repeatedly attacking their networks.
Of course, the general is correct. But his reasoning illustrates perfectly why peacetime and wartime are different, and why generals don’t make good police chiefs.
A cyber-security policy that condones both active deterrence and retaliation—without any judicial determination of wrongdoing—is attractive, but it’s wrongheaded, not least because it ignores the line between war, where those involved are permitted to determine when counterattack is required, and crime, where only impartial third parties (judges and juries) can impose punishment.
In warfare, the notion of counterattack is extremely powerful. Going after the enemy—its positions, its supply lines, its factories, its infrastructure—is an age-old military tactic. But in peacetime, we call it revenge, and consider it dangerous. Anyone accused of a crime deserves a fair trial. The accused has the right to defend himself, to face his accuser, to an attorney, and to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Both vigilante counterattacks, and pre-emptive attacks, fly in the face of these rights. They punish people before who haven’t been found guilty. It’s the same whether it’s an angry lynch mob stringing up a suspect, the MPAA disabling the computer of someone it believes made an illegal copy of a movie, or a corporate security officer launching a denial-of-service attack against someone he believes is targeting his company over the net.
In all of these cases, the attacker could be wrong. This has been true for lynch mobs, and on the internet it’s even harder to know who’s attacking you. Just because my computer looks like the source of an attack doesn’t mean that it is. And even if it is, it might be a zombie controlled by yet another computer; I might be a victim, too. The goal of a government’s legal system is justice; the goal of a vigilante is expediency.
I understand the frustrations of General Cartwright, just as I do the frustrations of the entertainment industry, and the world’s sys-admins. Justice in cyberspace can be difficult. It can be hard to figure out who is attacking you, and it can take a long time to make them stop. It can be even harder to prove anything in court. The international nature of many attacks exacerbates the problems; more and more cybercriminals are jurisdiction shopping: attacking from countries with ineffective computer crime laws, easily bribable police forces and no extradition treaties.
Revenge is appealingly straightforward, and treating the whole thing as a military problem is easier than working within the legal system.
But that doesn’t make it right. In 1789, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen declared: “No person shall be accused, arrested, or imprisoned except in the cases and according to the forms prescribed by law. Any one soliciting, transmitting, executing, or causing to be executed any arbitrary order shall be punished.”
I’m glad General Cartwright thinks about offensive cyberwar; it’s how generals are supposed to think. I even agree with Richard Clarke’s threat of military-style reaction in the event of a cyber-attack by a foreign country or a terrorist organization. But short of an act of war, we’re far safer with a legal system that respects our rights.
This essay originally appeared in Wired.
Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.