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Are Free Societies at a Disadvantage in National Cybersecurity

Jack Goldsmith and Stuart Russell just published an interesting paper, making the case that free and democratic nations are at a structural disadvantage in nation-on-nation cyberattack and defense. From a blog post:

It seeks to explain why the United States is struggling to deal with the "soft" cyber operations that have been so prevalent in recent years: cyberespionage and cybertheft, often followed by strategic publication; information operations and propaganda; and relatively low-level cyber disruptions such as denial-of-service and ransomware attacks. The main explanation is that constituent elements of U.S. society -- a commitment to free speech, privacy and the rule of law; innovative technology firms; relatively unregulated markets; and deep digital sophistication -- create asymmetric vulnerabilities that foreign adversaries, especially authoritarian ones, can exploit. These asymmetrical vulnerabilities might explain why the United States so often appears to be on the losing end of recent cyber operations and why U.S. attempts to develop and implement policies to enhance defense, resiliency, response or deterrence in the cyber realm have been ineffective.

I have long thought this to be true. There are defensive cybersecurity measures that a totalitarian country can take that a free, open, democratic country cannot. And there are attacks against a free, open, democratic country that just don't matter to a totalitarian country. That makes us more vulnerable. (I don't mean to imply -- and neither do Russell and Goldsmith -- that this disadvantage implies that free societies are overall worse, but it is an asymmetry that we should be aware of.)

I do worry that these disadvantages will someday become intolerable. Dan Geer often said that "the price of freedom is the probability of crime." We are willing to pay this price because it isn't that high. As technology makes individual and small-group actors more powerful, this price will get higher. Will there be a point in the future where free and open societies will no longer be able to survive? I honestly don't know.

EDITED TO ADD (6/21): Jack Goldsmith also wrote this.

Posted on June 19, 2018 at 6:54 AMView Comments

An Example of Deterrence in Cyberspace

In 2016, the US was successfully deterred from attacking Russia in cyberspace because of fears of Russian capabilities against the US.

I have two citations for this. The first is from the book Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin's War on America and the Election of Donald Trump, by Michael Isikoff and David Corn. Here's the quote:

The principals did discuss cyber responses. The prospect of hitting back with cyber caused trepidation within the deputies and principals meetings. The United States was telling Russia this sort of meddling was unacceptable. If Washington engaged in the same type of covert combat, some of the principals believed, Washington's demand would mean nothing, and there could be an escalation in cyber warfare. There were concerns that the United States would have more to lose in all-out cyberwar.

"If we got into a tit-for-tat on cyber with the Russians, it would not be to our advantage," a participant later remarked. "They could do more to damage us in a cyber war or have a greater impact." In one of the meetings, Clapper said he was worried that Russia might respond with cyberattacks against America's critical infrastructure­ -- and possibly shut down the electrical grid.

The second is from the book The World as It Is, by President Obama's deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes. Here's the New York Times writing about the book.

Mr. Rhodes writes he did not learn about the F.B.I. investigation until after leaving office, and then from the news media. Mr. Obama did not impose sanctions on Russia in retaliation for the meddling before the election because he believed it might prompt Moscow into hacking into Election Day vote tabulations. Mr. Obama did impose sanctions after the election but Mr. Rhodes's suggestion that the targets include President Vladimir V. Putin was rebuffed on the theory that such a move would go too far.

When people try to claim that there's no such thing as deterrence in cyberspace, this serves as a counterexample.

EDITED TO ADD: Remember the blog rules. Comments that are not about the narrow topic of deterrence in cyberspace will be deleted. Please take broader discussions of the 2016 US election elsewhere.

Posted on June 7, 2018 at 5:56 AMView Comments

1834: The First Cyberattack

Tom Standage has a great story of the first cyberattack against a telegraph network.

The Blanc brothers traded government bonds at the exchange in the city of Bordeaux, where information about market movements took several days to arrive from Paris by mail coach. Accordingly, traders who could get the information more quickly could make money by anticipating these movements. Some tried using messengers and carrier pigeons, but the Blanc brothers found a way to use the telegraph line instead. They bribed the telegraph operator in the city of Tours to introduce deliberate errors into routine government messages being sent over the network.

The telegraph's encoding system included a "backspace" symbol that instructed the transcriber to ignore the previous character. The addition of a spurious character indicating the direction of the previous day's market movement, followed by a backspace, meant the text of the message being sent was unaffected when it was written out for delivery at the end of the line. But this extra character could be seen by another accomplice: a former telegraph operator who observed the telegraph tower outside Bordeaux with a telescope, and then passed on the news to the Blancs. The scam was only uncovered in 1836, when the crooked operator in Tours fell ill and revealed all to a friend, who he hoped would take his place. The Blanc brothers were put on trial, though they could not be convicted because there was no law against misuse of data networks. But the Blancs' pioneering misuse of the French network qualifies as the world's first cyber-attack.

EDITED TO ADD (6/13): More details.

Posted on May 31, 2018 at 1:23 PMView Comments

The US Is Unprepared for Election-Related Hacking in 2018

This survey and report is not surprising:

The survey of nearly forty Republican and Democratic campaign operatives, administered through November and December 2017, revealed that American political campaign staff -- primarily working at the state and congressional levels -- are not only unprepared for possible cyber attacks, but remain generally unconcerned about the threat. The survey sample was relatively small, but nevertheless the survey provides a first look at how campaign managers and staff are responding to the threat.

The overwhelming majority of those surveyed do not want to devote campaign resources to cybersecurity or to hire personnel to address cybersecurity issues. Even though campaign managers recognize there is a high probability that campaign and personal emails are at risk of being hacked, they are more concerned about fundraising and press coverage than they are about cybersecurity. Less than half of those surveyed said they had taken steps to make their data secure and most were unsure if they wanted to spend any money on this protection.

Security is never something we actually want. Security is something we need in order to avoid what we don't want. It's also more abstract, concerned with hypothetical future possibilities. Of course it's lower on the priorities list than fundraising and press coverage. They're more tangible, and they're more immediate.

This is all to the attackers' advantage.

Posted on May 8, 2018 at 9:07 AMView Comments

Internet Security Threats at the Olympics

There are a lot:

The cybersecurity company McAfee recently uncovered a cyber operation, dubbed Operation GoldDragon, attacking South Korean organizations related to the Winter Olympics. McAfee believes the attack came from a nation state that speaks Korean, although it has no definitive proof that this is a North Korean operation. The victim organizations include ice hockey teams, ski suppliers, ski resorts, tourist organizations in Pyeongchang, and departments organizing the Pyeongchang Olympics.

Meanwhile, a Russia-linked cyber attack has already stolen and leaked documents from other Olympic organizations. The so-called Fancy Bear group, or APT28, began its operations in late 2017 --­ according to Trend Micro and Threat Connect, two private cybersecurity firms­ -- eventually publishing documents in 2018 outlining the political tensions between IOC officials and World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) officials who are policing Olympic athletes. It also released documents specifying exceptions to anti-doping regulations granted to specific athletes (for instance, one athlete was given an exception because of his asthma medication). The most recent Fancy Bear leak exposed details about a Canadian pole vaulter's positive results for cocaine. This group has targeted WADA in the past, specifically during the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Assuming the attribution is right, the action appears to be Russian retaliation for the punitive steps against Russia.

A senior analyst at McAfee warned that the Olympics may experience more cyber attacks before closing ceremonies. A researcher at ThreatConnect asserted that organizations like Fancy Bear have no reason to stop operations just because they've already stolen and released documents. Even the United States Department of Homeland Security has issued a notice to those traveling to South Korea to remind them to protect themselves against cyber risks.

One presumes the Olympics network is sufficiently protected against the more pedestrian DDoS attacks and the like, but who knows?

EDITED TO ADD: There was already one attack.

Posted on February 12, 2018 at 6:36 AMView Comments

Yet Another Russian Hack of the NSA -- This Time with Kaspersky's Help

The Wall Street Journal has a bombshell of a story. Yet another NSA contractor took classified documents home with him. Yet another Russian intelligence operation stole copies of those documents. The twist this time is that the Russians identified the documents because the contractor had Kaspersky Labs anti-virus installed on his home computer.

This is a huge deal, both for the NSA and Kaspersky. The Wall Street Journal article contains no evidence, only unnamed sources. But I am having trouble seeing how the already embattled Kaspersky Labs survives this.

WSJ follow up. Four more news articles.

EDITED TO ADD: This is either an example of the Russians subverting a perfectly reasonable security feature in Kaspersky's products, or Kaspersky adding a plausible feature at the request of Russian intelligence. In the latter case, it's a nicely deniable Russian information operation. In either case, it's an impressive Russian information operation.

What's getting a lot less press is yet another NSA contractor stealing top-secret cyberattack software. What is it with the NSA's inability to keep anything secret anymore?

EDITED TO ADD (10/8): Another article.

Posted on October 6, 2017 at 8:06 AMView Comments

Ransomware and the Internet of Things

As devastating as the latest widespread ransomware attacks have been, it's a problem with a solution. If your copy of Windows is relatively current and you've kept it updated, your laptop is immune. It's only older unpatched systems on your computer that are vulnerable.

Patching is how the computer industry maintains security in the face of rampant Internet insecurity. Microsoft, Apple and Google have teams of engineers who quickly write, test and distribute these patches, updates to the codes that fix vulnerabilities in software. Most people have set up their computers and phones to automatically apply these patches, and the whole thing works seamlessly. It isn't a perfect system, but it's the best we have.

But it is a system that's going to fail in the "Internet of things": everyday devices like smart speakers, household appliances, toys, lighting systems, even cars, that are connected to the web. Many of the embedded networked systems in these devices that will pervade our lives don't have engineering teams on hand to write patches and may well last far longer than the companies that are supposed to keep the software safe from criminals. Some of them don't even have the ability to be patched.

Fast forward five to 10 years, and the world is going to be filled with literally tens of billions of devices that hackers can attack. We're going to see ransomware against our cars. Our digital video recorders and web cameras will be taken over by botnets. The data that these devices collect about us will be stolen and used to commit fraud. And we're not going to be able to secure these devices.

Like every other instance of product safety, this problem will never be solved without considerable government involvement.

For years, I have been calling for more regulation to improve security in the face of this market failure. In the short term, the government can mandate that these devices have more secure default configurations and the ability to be patched. It can issue best-practice regulations for critical software and make software manufacturers liable for vulnerabilities. It'll be expensive, but it will go a long way toward improved security.

But it won't be enough to focus only on the devices, because these things are going to be around and on the Internet much longer than the two to three years we use our phones and computers before we upgrade them. I expect to keep my car for 15 years, and my refrigerator for at least 20 years. Cities will expect the networks they're putting in place to last at least that long. I don't want to replace my digital thermostat ever again. Nor, if I ever need one, do I want a surgeon to ever have to go back in to replace my computerized heart defibrillator in order to fix a software bug.

No amount of regulation can force companies to maintain old products, and it certainly can't prevent companies from going out of business. The future will contain billions of orphaned devices connected to the web that simply have no engineers able to patch them.

Imagine this: The company that made your Internet-enabled door lock is long out of business. You have no way to secure yourself against the ransomware attack on that lock. Your only option, other than paying, and paying again when it's reinfected, is to throw it away and buy a new one.

Ultimately, we will also need the network to block these attacks before they get to the devices, but there again the market will not fix the problem on its own. We need additional government intervention to mandate these sorts of solutions.

None of this is welcome news to a government that prides itself on minimal intervention and maximal market forces, but national security is often an exception to this rule. Last week's cyberattacks have laid bare some fundamental vulnerabilities in our computer infrastructure and serve as a harbinger. There's a lot of good research into robust solutions, but the economic incentives are all misaligned. As politically untenable as it is, we need government to step in to create the market forces that will get us out of this mess.

This essay previously appeared in the New York Times. Yes, I know I'm repeating myself.

EDITED TO ADD: A good cartoon.

Posted on May 25, 2017 at 6:15 AMView Comments

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

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