Correlating and Escalating Cyber

On September 20th, CNet reported on a new wave of malware called ´Mirage´, embedded in PDF´s that were distributed through spear-phishing attacks against a multitude of targets, such as a Philippine oil company, a Taiwanese military organization and a Canadian energy firm. The attackers´ target set also included firms in Brazil, Israel, Egypt and Nigeria. Their report was based on the findings of Silas Cutler, a security researcher at Dell CTU. The researchers declined to comment on the origins of this new malware, but as we´ve seen before the characteristics of this digital crimewave are a dead match to the likes we´ve encountered during Night Dragon, Operation Aurora and pretty much everything we´ve seen coming out of China the last decade. Call me old-fashioned, but when I read attack characteristics such as these, I feel confident that a talk with the PRC is warranted:

  • Widespread – broad targeting of an entire industry, aiming for commercially sensitive data;
  • Not extremely sophisticated, just adequate to get in;
  • Supporting command and control network is highly active;
  • Attacks seem well-prepared and highly organized;
  • Some of the malware is made by the Honker Union (a well-known Chinese hacker group);
  • Command and control IP address belonging to China, as did three others that have been used in the Sin Digoo affair earlier;

Looking at this pretty much confirms that those talks US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta had with the Chinese recently about exactly these kinds of cyber-attacks, had little effect. Considering how much American debt is held by the Chinese, you would have to ask yourself just how hard a line the US can draw against such practices, but other countries would probably do well to start talking more sternly through the diplomatic channel with China. Make no mistake: the economic damages of these attacks are so high that involvement is definitely required at the state level.

Getting out of Dodge first
So here we have a rather clear-cut case of attacker correlation which, as ever, is done pretty much after the fact by an international firm who investigated the malware. My question is: How do you deal with this as a nation, as it happens?

This one question breaks down into a number of smaller issues. First off, you´d have to establish at least somewhat formally who defends what network. And let’s be fair: if you´re a democracy, it’s unlikely to be just one entity. The second issue you have to tackle is detecting the actual attack as it happens. Some network administrators will be able to, others won´t. To be of any use on a national level, defenses on all networks should probably be somewhat similar. At least quality-wise, you´d need them to be similar otherwise you wouldn´t be able to determine the whole scope of each outbreak, even after the fact.  This begs the question as to how wise or desirable it would be to regulate information security measures in some way. In many companies, information security is still seen only as an expense and not as a requirement, even though we can cite countless examples of companies being severely damaged by successful cyber-attacks.

So let’s assume we know who defends every network, and assuming they can all detect a new wave of malware as they happen. Then what? This information is usually kept a secret (or ignored, but that’s another matter entirely) and no signals are exiting these defending parties. When is the last time you called your government after a major cyber-attack hit your company? If you can answer that question, you´re really in a minority and most likely operating in a heavily regulated industry such as Finance or Healthcare. The rest is pretty much left to fend for itself. Attacked entities need a local place to send information about these attacks. I would argue that for governments to be able to correlate various cyber-attacks, it must first have a central authority to which each entity can report attacks on their networks and systems. I haven´t heard of any country having this, but a while back a couple of my friends here in the Netherlands started talking about the lack of such an authority. This was thought up during a brainstorming session at the Dutch MoD and initially dubbed a Security Operation Center (SOC). Even though I feel this name is somewhat ambiguous, let’s keep it for now. Given its national scope, we should probably stick to the CERT naming convention and call it GOVSOC.

Alright, then what?
At the risk of becoming repetitive, let’s assume for now that such a GOVSOC is formed and operational. You´d then need to devise thresholds and escalation paths, along with policies to deal with all eventualities. You´d also need some pretty good agreements with law enforcement, the military and civil government. All three of these parties need some kind of mandate to be able to act on information. It would also need to be covered how each of these parties will act on given information. In case of an actual cyber-attack wave being detected, it would first need to be established on whether there is nation-state involvement or if it´s cybercrime. In case of nation-state involvement, what would you want your government to do? Even when you´re certain who did what, what are thresholds to acting on it? How big must the damage be before diplomatic relations deteriorate? Is this affected by how much you engage in these activities yourself?

Maybe I’m wrong, and I sure hope I am, but I haven´t heard of any country getting to this point yet. Many have been debating these and similar questions, but how about some action? For instance, in the Netherlands the National Cyber Security Center (NCSC) seems like a great candidate to embed that GOVSOC function in. Its government, but it’s a public-private collaboration. If you know of any such developments in your country, please share it with me.

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