Late last year, the NSA declassified and released a redacted version of Lambros D. Callimahos’s Military Cryptanalytics, Part III. We just got most of the index. It’s hard to believe that there are any real secrets left in this 44-year-old volume.
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“If you think any of these systems are going to work as expected in wartime, you’re fooling yourself.”
That was Bruce’s response at a conference hosted by US Transportation Command in 2017, after learning that their computerized logistical systems were mostly unclassified and on the Internet. That may be necessary to keep in touch with civilian companies like FedEx in peacetime or when fighting terrorists or insurgents. But in a new era facing off with China or Russia, it is dangerously complacent.
Any twenty-first century war will include cyber operations. Weapons and support systems will be successfully attacked. Rifles and pistols won’t work properly. Drones will be hijacked midair. Boats won’t sail, or will be misdirected. Hospitals won’t function. Equipment and supplies will arrive late or not at all.
Our military systems are vulnerable. We need to face that reality by halting the purchase of insecure weapons and support systems and by incorporating the realities of offensive cyberattacks into our military planning.
Over the past decade, militaries have established cyber commands and developed cyberwar doctrine. However, much of the current discussion is about offense. Increasing our offensive capabilities without being able to secure them is like having all the best guns in the world, and then storing them in an unlocked, unguarded armory. They just won’t be stolen; they’ll be subverted.
During that same period, we’ve seen increasingly brazen cyberattacks by everyone from criminals to governments. Everything is now a computer, and those computers are vulnerable. Cars, medical devices, power plants, and fuel pipelines have all been targets. Military computers, whether they’re embedded inside weapons systems or on desktops managing the logistics of those weapons systems, are similarly vulnerable. We could see effects as stodgy as making a tank impossible to start up, or sophisticated as retargeting a missile midair.
Military software is unlikely to be any more secure than commercial software. Although sensitive military systems rely on domestically manufactured chips as part of the Trusted Foundry program, many military systems contain the same foreign chips and code that commercial systems do: just like everyone around the world uses the same mobile phones, networking equipment, and computer operating systems. For example, there has been serious concern over Chinese-made 5G networking equipment that might be used by China to install “backdoors” that would allow the equipment to be controlled. This is just one of many risks to our normal civilian computer supply chains. And since military software is vulnerable to the same cyberattacks as commercial software, military supply chains have many of the same risks.
This is not speculative. A 2018 GAO report expressed concern regarding the lack of secure and patchable US weapons systems. The report observed that “in operational testing, the [Department of Defense] routinely found mission-critical cyber vulnerabilities in systems that were under development, yet program officials GAO met with believed their systems were secure and discounted some test results as unrealistic.” It’s a similar attitude to corporate executives who believe that they can’t be hacked—and equally naive.
An updated GAO report from earlier this year found some improvements, but the basic problem remained: “DOD is still learning how to contract for cybersecurity in weapon systems, and selected programs we reviewed have struggled to incorporate systems’ cybersecurity requirements into contracts.” While DOD now appears aware of the issue of lack of cybersecurity requirements, they’re still not sure yet how to fix it, and in three of the five cases GAO reviewed, DOD simply chose to not include the requirements at all.
Militaries around the world are now exploiting these vulnerabilities in weapons systems to carry out operations. When Israel in 2007 bombed a Syrian nuclear reactor, the raid was preceded by what is believed to have been a cyber attack on Syrian air defenses that resulted in radar screens showing no threat as bombers zoomed overhead. In 2018, a 29-country NATO exercise, Trident Juncture, that included cyberweapons was disrupted by Russian GPS jamming. NATO does try to test cyberweapons outside such exercises, but has limited scope in doing so. In May, Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary-general, said that “NATO computer systems are facing almost daily cyberattacks.”
The war of the future will not only be about explosions, but will also be about disabling the systems that make armies run. It’s not (solely) that bases will get blown up; it’s that some bases will lose power, data, and communications. It’s not that self-driving trucks will suddenly go mad and begin rolling over friendly soldiers; it’s that they’ll casually roll off roads or into water where they sit, rusting, and in need of repair. It’s not that targeting systems on guns will be retargeted to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue; it’s that many of them could simply turn off and not turn back on again.
So, how do we prepare for this next war? First, militaries need to introduce a little anarchy into their planning. Let’s have wargames where essential systems malfunction or are subvertednot all of the time, but randomly. To help combat siloed military thinking, include some civilians as well. Allow their ideas into the room when predicting potential enemy action. And militaries need to have well-developed backup plans, for when systems are subverted. In Joe Haldeman’s 1975 science-fiction novel The Forever War, he postulated a “stasis field” that forced his space marines to rely on nothing more than Roman military technologies, like javelins. We should be thinking in the same direction.
NATO isn’t yet allowing civilians not employed by NATO or associated military contractors access to their training cyber ranges where vulnerabilities could be discovered and remediated before battlefield deployment. Last year, one of us (Tarah) was listening to a NATO briefing after the end of the 2020 Cyber Coalition exercises, and asked how she and other information security researchers could volunteer to test cyber ranges used to train its cyber incident response force. She was told that including civilians would be a “welcome thought experiment in the tabletop exercises,” but including them in reality wasn’t considered. There is a rich opportunity for improvement here, providing transparency into where improvements could be made.
Second, it’s time to take cybersecurity seriously in military procurement, from weapons systems to logistics and communications contracts. In the three year span from the original 2018 GAO report to this year’s report, cybersecurity audit compliance went from 0% to 40% (those 2 of 5 programs mentioned earlier). We need to get much better. DOD requires that its contractors and suppliers follow the Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification process; it should abide by the same standards. Making those standards both more rigorous and mandatory would be an obvious second step.
Gone are the days when we can pretend that our technologies will work in the face of a military cyberattack. Securing our systems will make everything we buy more expensive—maybe a lot more expensive. But the alternative is no longer viable.
The future of war is cyberwar. If your weapons and systems aren’t secure, don’t even bother bringing them onto the battlefield.
This essay was written with Tarah Wheeler, and previously appeared in Brookings TechStream.
Lukasz Olejnik has a good essay on hacking weapons systems.
Basically, there is no reason to believe that software in weapons systems is any more vulnerability free than any other software. So now the question is whether the software can be accessed over the Internet. Increasingly, it is. This is likely to become a bigger problem in the near future. We need to think about future wars where the tech simply doesn’t work.
The NSA has just declassified and released a redacted version of Military Cryptanalytics, Part III, by Lambros D. Callimahos, October 1977.
Parts I and II, by Lambros D. Callimahos and William F. Friedman, were released decades ago—I believe repeatedly, in increasingly unredacted form—and published by the late Wayne Griswold Barker’s Agean Park Press. I own them in hardcover.
Like Parts I and II, Part III is primarily concerned with pre-computer ciphers. At this point, the document only has historical interest. If there is any lesson for today, it’s that modern cryptanalysis is possible primarily because people make mistakes
The monograph took a while to become public. The cover page says that the initial FOIA request was made in July 2012: eight and a half years ago.
And there’s more books to come. Page 1 starts off:
This text constitutes the third of six basic texts on the science of cryptanalytics. The first two texts together have covered most of the necessary fundamentals of cryptanalytics; this and the remaining three texts will be devoted to more specialized and more advanced aspects of the science.
Presumably, volumes IV, V, and VI are still hidden inside the classified libraries of the NSA.
And from page ii:
Chapters IV-XI are revisions of seven of my monographs in the NSA Technical Literature Series, viz: Monograph No. 19, “The Cryptanalysis of Ciphertext and Plaintext Autokey Systems”; Monograph No. 20, “The Analysis of Systems Employing Long or Continuous Keys”; Monograph No. 21, “The Analysis of Cylindrical Cipher Devices and Strip Cipher Systems”; Monograph No. 22, “The Analysis of Systems Employing Geared Disk Cryptomechanisms”; Monograph No.23, “Fundamentals of Key Analysis”; Monograph No. 15, “An Introduction to Teleprinter Key Analysis”; and Monograph No. 18, “Ars Conjectandi: The Fundamentals of Cryptodiagnosis.”
This points to a whole series of still-classified monographs whose titles we do not even know.
EDITED TO ADD: I have been informed by a reliable source that Parts 4 through 6 were never completed. There may be fragments and notes, but no finished works.
Vice has a long article about how the US military buys commercial location data worldwide.
The U.S. military is buying the granular movement data of people around the world, harvested from innocuous-seeming apps, Motherboard has learned. The most popular app among a group Motherboard analyzed connected to this sort of data sale is a Muslim prayer and Quran app that has more than 98 million downloads worldwide. Others include a Muslim dating app, a popular Craigslist app, an app for following storms, and a “level” app that can be used to help, for example, install shelves in a bedroom.
This isn’t new, this isn’t just data of non-US citizens, and this isn’t the US military. We have lots of instances where the government buys data that it cannot legally collect itself.
The NSA has issued an advisory on the risks of location data.
Mitigations reduce, but do not eliminate, location tracking risks in mobile devices. Most users rely on features disabled by such mitigations, making such safeguards impractical. Users should be aware of these risks and take action based on their specific situation and risk tolerance. When location exposure could be detrimental to a mission, users should prioritize mission risk and apply location tracking mitigations to the greatest extent possible. While the guidance in this document may be useful to a wide range of users, it is intended primarily for NSS/DoD system users.
The document provides a list of mitigation strategies, including turning things off:
If it is critical that location is not revealed for a particular mission, consider the following recommendations:
- Determine a non-sensitive location where devices with wireless capabilities can be secured prior to the start of any activities. Ensure that the mission site cannot be predicted from this location.
- Leave all devices with any wireless capabilities (including personal devices) at this non-sensitive location. Turning off the device may not be sufficient if a device has been compromised.
- For mission transportation, use vehicles without built-in wireless communication capabilities, or turn off the capabilities, if possible.
Of course, turning off your wireless devices is itself a signal that something is going on. It’s hard to be clandestine in our always connected world.
A research group at NATO’s Strategic Communications Center of Excellence catfished soldiers involved in an European military exercise—we don’t know what country they were from—to demonstrate the power of the attack technique.
Over four weeks, the researchers developed fake pages and closed groups on Facebook that looked like they were associated with the military exercise, as well as profiles impersonating service members both real and imagined.
To recruit soldiers to the pages, they used targeted Facebook advertising. Those pages then promoted the closed groups the researchers had created. Inside the groups, the researchers used their phony accounts to ask the real service members questions about their battalions and their work. They also used these accounts to “friend” service members. According to the report, Facebook’s Suggested Friends feature proved helpful in surfacing additional targets.
The researchers also tracked down service members’ Instagram and Twitter accounts and searched for other information available online, some of which a bad actor might be able to exploit. “We managed to find quite a lot of data on individual people, which would include sensitive information,” Biteniece says. “Like a serviceman having a wife and also being on dating apps.”
By the end of the exercise, the researchers identified 150 soldiers, found the locations of several battalions, tracked troop movements, and compelled service members to engage in “undesirable behavior,” including leaving their positions against orders.
“Every person has a button. For somebody there’s a financial issue, for somebody it’s a very appealing date, for somebody it’s a family thing,” Sarts says. “It’s varied, but everybody has a button. The point is, what’s openly available online is sufficient to know what that is.”
This is the future of warfare. It’s one of the reasons China stole all of that data from the Office of Personal Management. If indeed a country’s intelligence service was behind the Equifax attack, this is why they did it.
Go back and read this scenario from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Why wouldn’t a country intent on starting a war do it that way?
Really interesting article by and interview with Paul M. Nakasone (Commander of US Cyber Command, Director of the National Security Agency, and Chief of the Central Security Service) in the current issue of Joint Forces Quarterly. He talks about the evolving role of US Cyber Command, and its new posture of “persistent engagement” using a “cyber-persistant force.”
From the article:
We must “defend forward” in cyberspace, as we do in the physical domains. Our naval forces do not defend by staying in port, and our airpower does not remain at airfields. They patrol the seas and skies to ensure they are positioned to defend our country before our borders are crossed. The same logic applies in cyberspace. Persistent engagement of our adversaries in cyberspace cannot be successful if our actions are limited to DOD networks. To defend critical military and national interests, our forces must operate against our enemies on their virtual territory as well. Shifting from a response outlook to a persistence force that defends forward moves our cyber capabilities out of their virtual garrisons, adopting a posture that matches the cyberspace operational environment.
From the interview:
As we think about cyberspace, we should agree on a few foundational concepts. First, our nation is in constant contact with its adversaries; we’re not waiting for adversaries to come to us. Our adversaries understand this, and they are always working to improve that contact. Second, our security is challenged in cyberspace. We have to actively defend; we have to conduct reconnaissance; we have to understand where our adversary is and his capabilities; and we have to understand their intent. Third, superiority in cyberspace is temporary; we may achieve it for a period of time, but it’s ephemeral. That’s why we must operate continuously to seize and maintain the initiative in the face of persistent threats. Why do the threats persist in cyberspace? They persist because the barriers to entry are low and the capabilities are rapidly available and can be easily repurposed. Fourth, in this domain, the advantage favors those who have initiative. If we want to have an advantage in cyberspace, we have to actively work to either improve our defenses, create new accesses, or upgrade our capabilities. This is a domain that requires constant action because we’re going to get reactions from our adversary.
Persistent engagement is the concept that states we are in constant contact with our adversaries in cyberspace, and success is determined by how we enable and act. In persistent engagement, we enable other interagency partners. Whether it’s the FBI or DHS, we enable them with information or intelligence to share with elements of the CIKR [critical infrastructure and key resources] or with select private-sector companies. The recent midterm elections is an example of how we enabled our partners. As part of the Russia Small Group, USCYBERCOM and the National Security Agency [NSA] enabled the FBI and DHS to prevent interference and influence operations aimed at our political processes. Enabling our partners is two-thirds of persistent engagement. The other third rests with our ability to act—that is, how we act against our adversaries in cyberspace. Acting includes defending forward. How do we warn, how do we influence our adversaries, how do we position ourselves in case we have to achieve outcomes in the future? Acting is the concept of operating outside our borders, being outside our networks, to ensure that we understand what our adversaries are doing. If we find ourselves defending inside our own networks, we have lost the initiative and the advantage.
The concept of persistent engagement has to be teamed with “persistent presence” and “persistent innovation.” Persistent presence is what the Intelligence Community is able to provide us to better understand and track our adversaries in cyberspace. The other piece is persistent innovation. In the last couple of years, we have learned that capabilities rapidly change; accesses are tenuous; and tools, techniques, and tradecraft must evolve to keep pace with our adversaries. We rely on operational structures that are enabled with the rapid development of capabilities. Let me offer an example regarding the need for rapid change in technologies. Compare the air and cyberspace domains. Weapons like JDAMs [Joint Direct Attack Munitions] are an important armament for air operations. How long are those JDAMs good for? Perhaps 5, 10, or 15 years, some-times longer given the adversary. When we buy a capability or tool for cyberspace…we rarely get a prolonged use we can measure in years. Our capabilities rarely last 6 months, let alone 6 years. This is a big difference in two important domains of future conflict. Thus, we will need formations that have ready access to developers.
Solely from a military perspective, these are obviously the right things to be doing. From a societal perspective—from the perspective a potential arms race—I’m much less sure. I’m also worried about the singular focus on nation-state actors in an environment where capabilities diffuse so quickly. But Cyber Command’s job is not cybersecurity and resilience.
The whole thing is worth reading, regardless of whether you agree or disagree.
EDITED TO ADD (2/26): As an example, US Cyber Command disrupted a Russian troll farm during the 2018 midterm elections.
They have advantages:
Pigeons are certainly no substitute for drones, but they provide a low-visibility option to relay information. Considering the storage capacity of microSD memory cards, a pigeon’s organic characteristics provide front line forces a relatively clandestine mean to transport gigabytes of video, voice, or still imagery and documentation over considerable distance with zero electromagnetic emissions or obvious detectability to radar. These decidedly low-technology options prove difficult to detect and track. Pigeons cannot talk under interrogation, although they are not entirely immune to being held under suspicion of espionage. Within an urban environment, a pigeon has even greater potential to blend into the local avian population, further compounding detection.
The author points out that both France and China still maintain a small number of pigeons in case electronic communications are disrupted.
And there’s an existing RFC.
EDITED TO ADD (2/13): The Russian military is still using pigeons.
The military is an impossible place for hackers thanks to antiquated career management, forced time away from technical positions, lack of mission, non-technical mid- and senior-level leadership, and staggering pay gaps, among other issues.
It is possible the military needs a cyber corps in the future, but by accelerating promotions, offering graduate school to newly commissioned officers, easing limited lateral entry for exceptional private-sector talent, and shortening the private/public pay gap, the military can better accommodate its most technical members now.
The model the author uses is military doctors.
Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.