Social Media as a Cyber Warfare Gamechanger

September of 2012 will live on in infamy for a large number of people. It was the month of the massive riots by Islamic extremists who, incited by the ever present radical imams, stormed several US embassies, allegedly over a months-old, poorly crafted Youtube video that ironically decried the violence of Islam. Most notable of which were the embassies of Egypt and Libya, where four Americans lost their lives; one of which was an American ambassador. Riots and demonstrations followed all over the globe for about a week. I say allegedly because a closer scrutiny of what happened will tell you an entirely different story.

Stoking an Insurgency
It´s not the first time that something seemingly innocuous gets blown out of proportion by religious extremists with their own agenda; some of you may recall the Mohammed cartoon riots or pick any of the incidents listed in the article by Michelle Malkin who goes into this a lot more eloquently than I ever could. Regardless, my point is that there is a lot more to this Innocence of Muslims riot than meets the eye, as the ever well-informed good people of will tell you. They have a lot more information than what you are likely to have seen in the press.  The cliff notes are quite simple and a lot more easily explained than what the press is force-feeding us:

Trained soldiers executed a coordinated attack on multiple US embassies at the same time. These so-called ´rioters´ were carrying RPG´s with them. You know, as you do when out shopping on a summer day in Benghazi. Not only was this not a spontaneous event, but chatter about this meticulously planned attack was picked up by various intelligence agencies beforehand and people in Washington are now falling over each other on who to blame for this failure to act to the imminent threat. This did not, however, stop some deviously clever people from using the Innocence of Muslims video, which by that time had been on Youtube for 6+ months without anyone noticing, as a clever ruse to further fan the anti-American flames. Did I mention that all of this happened on the very significant anniversary of 9/11?

The Facebook Riots
On a much smaller scale, on Friday the 21st of September the small Dutch town of Haren came under siege by thousands of youths looking to party, who swarmed the town after one girl accidentally published an invitation to her Sweet Sixteen birthday party on Facebook to the entire world. Resulting in what is now referred to in the Netherlands as the “Facebook Riots”, a few ´friends´ of the girl decided it would be fun to relive the movie Project X and started spreading the word. Things escalated and swiftly got out of hand, requiring the riot police to act. When the smoke cleared the following morning it became clear that the rioting youths had caused damages of several million euro´s. Ever since this phenomenon took hold, attempts at recreating the carnage (Dutch link) have been springing up all over the country (Dutch link), keeping local government and police on their toes.

Tallinn´s Bronze Night
Let’s go back to Estonia in 2007: The local government in Tallinn relocates an elaborate Soviet-era grave marker of a Bronze Soldier, as well as some war graves, to a more out of the way location. What followed was two solid days of rioting (now referred to as Bronze Night or the April Unrest) and, better known in cyber security circles, the massive cyber-attacks against the Estonian parliament, banks, ministries, newspapers and broadcasters. While no real proof has been found to directly implicate the Kremlin in backing the riots or the cyber-attacks, it has since been believed to be true regardless and on March 10th 2009 a commissar of the Kremlin-backed youth group Nashi claimed responsibility.

The Innocence of Muslims riots, the Haren Facebook Riots and the April Unrest disconcertingly share a common factor: All three were incited and coordinated through the internet. The only real difference is the level of sophistication: Tallinn´s Bronze Night was more or less coordinated through various internet fora and both the Innocence of Muslims riots and the Haren Facebook riots were incited, spread and coordinated through Social Media sites Youtube, Facebook and Twitter.

The reason that I now write this piece is because I fear that this level of social manipulation can be readily adopted by foreign powers to foment troubles well outside of their own national borders. In the case of the April Unrest in Tallinn, the rioting and the cyber-attacks were all done through allegedly Kremlin-owned “assets” such as Nashi. Of course I can offer no empirical evidence to validate my fear, but I would argue that the other two cases prove you don´t need such assets to get the same results. Especially the Haren case shows that massive local damage can be done through exploiting the set of social phenomena that Social Media create and that we have barely begun to discover. It seems to me that it is only a matter of time before these social phenomena are actively exploited by those groups that are specifically suited and knowledgeable in these tactics such as Anonymous or 4Chan.

To me, indeed these phenomena feel like a weapon custom made for them. Think of it as a gross escalation of Swatting and you will understand why governments need to get a grip on this before it undermines their authority. If done right, I have no doubt that successfully re-creating the Haren case is almost as easy and almost as swiftly arranged. And these are just the groups that generally only have mischief on their mind. Can you imagine the damage that can be done this way by someone with truly malicious intentions and absolutely none of its own assets at risk? Some creative type with a long exposure to really unconventional warfare getting his cues from a government with a score to settle, and deep pockets to fund the whole thing? It’s a scary thought. If used properly, Social Media might very well be the most refined weapon for asymmetric warfare to date.


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.

The Dutch and the Dorifel

Unless you happen to live in the Netherlands, chances are that you missed the outbreak of a ‘new’ piece of malware a few weeks ago called Dorifel, also known as XDocCrypt. With over 3000 infections in a matter of hours, of which 90% were systems in the Netherlands, this triggered the Dutch National Cyber Security Center almost instantly. XDocCrypt/Dorifel is a new trojan that encrypts executables, Excel- and Word files that it finds on USB drives and network disks, causing companies to come to a grinding halt almost immediately after infection. Later investigation by Digital Investigations turned up that it also distributes phishing banking websites for ING Bank, ABN AMRO and SNS Bank (all banks with a strong presence in the Netherlands). With such distinctive traits, you would expect that it would be ransomware, but it’s not. It doesn’t ask for money, and there are no real clues what the point is of encrypting those files. It may simply have been a trial run just to find out how good this technique works, but it’s all conjecture at this point.

As an aside, it should be mentioned that the malware’s efforts in encryption did uncover something I found interesting: it exploits the RTLO Unicode Hole, which uses a Windows standard Unicode “Right-to-left override” that are more commonly used in Arabic and Hebrew texts (meaning it’s a Feature, not a Bug). Through this use of the RTLO Unicode Hole, they make filenames such as testU+202Ecod.scr appear in the Windows Explorer as testrcs.doc, and effectively make a harmful executable look like a simple Word doc.

What worries me most, and this is the reason for this article, is the delivery vehicle used by this new piece of malware. You see, it doesn’t exploit some new weakness. Instead, it’s being delivered by systems previously infected with the Citadel/Zeus trojan. This means that over 3000 systems in the Netherlands –systems belonging mostly to ministries, local government and hospitals- already had active botnets inside their networks before getting infected with this new malware! Mind you, virtually all of these systems and networks had active antivirus and IDS systems, and NONE detected either the Citadel/Zeus botnet already in place, nor the new XDocCrypt/Dorifel malware. If anything should be a severe wake-up call for Dutch firms who still half-ass their security, this is it.

Major AV vendors such as Kaspersky and McAfee now address this piece of malware, but it does make you wonder: If this Trojan hadn’t gone through the trouble of encrypting all those files, would it ever have been caught? Clearly, with only a couple of thousand infections, it is not that big of an outbreak. Chances are good that Dorifel would have stayed below the “economic feasibility to fix” line that most antivirus corporations adhere to. With malware code mutation getting increasingly easier and more mature, will this be our future? No more large infections, but a lot more small ones to stay below the collective AV radar? It seems plausible. It certainly makes the dim future of the current AV Modus Operandi that much dimmer. When will we finally see a paradigm shift in our approach to defeating malware?

Cyber – Boundless Nonsense

In the Cyber industry, there is much to gripe about. We have a lot of very vocal experts out there, and roughly the same amount of opinions as there are experts. Most of the times, the differences of opinion are really just people being pedantic (or clueless) and while this is a detriment to the entire industry, we have bigger fish to fry. Some notions out there are just plain wrong, and they lead to really poor laws or national policies. If you’ve read any of my previous articles, you may know that when I go off on a tangent, my rants usually involve people who claim cyber warfare doesn’t exist. But the pundits have been strangely quiet on this topic lately, and so it leaves my hands free to chase another topic that’s been bothering me lately. Quite frankly I’m a bit surprised that I haven’t seen more articles on this subject, but here we go anyway:

Cyberspace is NOT without borders. Cyberspace DOES have boundaries.

As any IT person with a basic education in networks & systems will tell you, networks are made by connecting physical networking devices. These devices obviously occupy a physical space somewhere, making them susceptible to the national (and possibly international) laws of the country they are in. You can even configure most networking devices to only service a subset of internet traffic or, and this is especially relevant in this context, deny service to internet traffic involving certain geographic regions. In other words: if you run a country that is geographically wedged in between two countries that are at war with each other, you CAN opt to cease routing their internet traffic. It may not be easy, and it may not be politically useful, but it is certainly not impossible. Back in 2007 during the cyber attacks on Estonia, the responders actually mitigated much of the barrage of DDOS attacks arrayed against them by dropping large portions of international internet traffic.

The question is: What is neutral behavior in the context of cyber warfare? Are you, as a neutral country in the scenario described above, obliged to drop all traffic between these two nations that crosses your national networks? And if you’re not, are you obliged to make sure none of the cyber attacks are originating from compromised systems within your borders? Given the stakes involved, you may want to do that anyway. Simply dropping traffic might be easier though.  But what if dropping traffic from either side gives offense or is considered a hostile act? This can quickly develop into a political conundrum either way.  There is no official “right answer” yet, so for now governments will have to decide this on their own.

A more interesting question is: What constitutes our digital territory online? Our geographical borders are usually quite well defined, but 90% of the hardware on which the internet is built, is commercially owned and maintained. Would this mean that networks owned and operated by foreign companies are to be considered foreign territory? Does this automatically make them susceptible to the laws of the country that they originate from or registered at? But what about networks that aren’t owned by any official entity? And what about wireless networks? How would you treat areas that are covered by multiple wireless access points? If you look at the way territorial borders are handled by governments in physical space, I see no reason to treat cyberspace differently. In fact it’s probably a much easier approach to just declare the entire electromagnetic spectrum inside national borders as national territory than to figure out some new approach “just because it’s cyber”. You can even re-use the notion of Extraterritoriality or the special privileges as described in the Vienna Convention of Diplomatic Relations [PDF Alert].  Considering how international collaborations against cybercrime is currently being approached, we’re actually pretty much doing this anyway.

In conclusion, I would ask that experts and organizations such as RAND [PDF Alert],  Margaret Chon (Seattle University School of Law), NCCIC  and the Stanford Law Review (just a random grab) either develop a better understanding of cyberspace or be more clear about what they mean. In all fairness, I haven’t read the complete works of all these authors. They may actually understand what I just covered and if you read closely enough, they might not even be (technically) wrong. Nevertheless they give off the sense that cyberspace doesn’t have any borders and this is simply a poor representation of reality. The differences between Cyberspace and Physical space are not so big that we need to reinvent the wheel for every policy, law or process we have.  Let’s be sensible and re-use what we already have.

Dutch MoD releases Defense Cyber Strategy

At long last, the Dutch Ministry of Defense has published a crucial piece of Cyber Doctrine by publishing its Cyber Strategy [PDF Alert – Dutch]. It was given quite a nice introduction by the Dutch Minister of Defense Hans Hillen, who introduced it during the MoD’s Cyber Symposium in Breda on the 27th of june. During this introduction it was also asserted that over 90% of all attacks to Dutch military systems and networks was of Chinese origin, which made me wonder why we haven’t heard any political outcry yet, but I digress as this is not the topic I had in mind of treating today. Let’s get to the document in question: It’s a total of 18 pages long and the introduction of the Dutch Cyber Defense Strategy is, as is often the case in such documents, very telling. The language used should be looked at as defining terms by which the rest of the document can be interpreted.

In the introduction the Dutch MoD acknowledges that they use the digital domain for (satellite-)communications, information-, sensor-, navigation-, logistical- and weapons systems, that are dependent on secure internal and external networks of digital technology and that  this makes them vulnerable to cyber attacks.

They also acknowledge that other countries are developing offensive cyber capabilities and that non-state actors are also capable of forming a threat to Defense forces by attacking digital systems and networks. What’s interesting is that this strategy also acknowledges the blur of the lines between the combatant and the non-combatant, and also the blurring of the borders of any operational areas. Both are key components of the “Fourth Generation Warfare” principle and it seems that the Dutch MoD has at least partially accepted this principle. What makes this so interesting is that they are declaring that non-combatants may also be actively targeted. In essence, they are putting the world on notice that walking around without a uniform is no longer an automatic safe haven, and that if you’re involved with any kind of cyber attack, part of a militia or a terrorist, you have a bull’s-eye on your head. No matter where you are. Plain and simple.

The last paragraph of the introduction specifically mentions that the Military Industrial complex is already a major and consistent target of cyber attacks because they develop and produce high-grade military technology. The strategic and economic value of their digital assets is high and as such these need to be very well guarded, also in the Cyber aspect. This ties in nicely with my earlier articlebased on the MIVD’s yearly report.

For those interested in what official Dutch political documents and official questions this document ties into, here’s the official answer:

The Defense Cyber Strategy was created in answer to:

  • The publication ‘Defensie na de kredietcrisis’ of April 8th, 2011 (“Kamerstuk 32 733, nr. 1”);
  • The piece to be covered by the MoD in the National Cyber Security Strategy as I covered earlier (“Kamerstuk 26643, nr. 174”);
  • The advice given on Digital Warfare by the Advisory Council on International Questions (AIV);
  • The Advice Commission’s (CAVV) answer to the questions posed in “Kamerstuk 33 000-X, nr. 79”;

 Right, so we have that covered. Now let’s get to the meat of the document. From the onset it looks pretty promising. The strategy has six driving points and they are very broad (but relevant): 

  1. Creating an integral and integrated approach;
  2. Increasing digital resillience of the entire MoD (Cyber Defense);
  3. Developing the capability to carry out cyber operations (Cyber Offense);
  4. Reinforcing intelligence gathering in the digital domain (Cyber Intelligence);
  5. Increasing knowledge and innovative power of the MoD in the digital domain, including recruiting and keeping qualified personnel (“adaptive and innovative”);
  6. Intensifying collaboration nationally and internationally. 


Dutch Military Intelligence dives into Cyber

The Dutch Military Intelligence agency (MIVD) recently released its 2011 yearly report (in Dutch). As is usual, they covered the events of 2011, but also did some forecasting for 2012. Its especially this last bit I was interested in, and im writing this in the hope that you feel the same way.

One of the most interesting facts I extracted from the report is that the MIVD will be focusing the majority of its Cyber Warfare efforts in countering Cyber Espionage. Given that this is probably the most tangible and widely represented cyber activity currently employed, I think this is a wise choice. Add that to the fact that the Netherlands is, by far, the most connected country in Europe (highest internet penetration in Europe with 83%; highest broadband internet penetration in the world with 68% of its connections at 5mbs or faster) it would probably be a safe assumption to say that our economy is critically interwoven with the Internet. Now, I know that there’s a lot to be said about the military defending a mostly commercial and/or civil commodity, but personally I’m happy with this direction. If anything, it’s *a* direction and from what I’ve seen this has not always been the case in the past.

Three other interesting tidbits that were published in the report involved the MIVD’s future collaborative efforts. One of these is a rather obvious and expected one, but it involves their supporting the Dutch Ministry of Defense with their Cyber Operations through involvement with Taskforce Cyber. A less obvious one is their intention to support in ‘cyber-aspects’ of the Dutch military industrial complex. They don’t really go into how they intend to assist, other than that it will involve working with Dutch domestic intelligence agency AIVD. This is too bad because it sounds interesting. Considering the major cyber security breaches in the past at American defense contractors such as Booz-Allen Hamilton, Lockheed Martin, L3 Communications or Northrop Grumman, it certainly sounds pertinent. They don’t mention it specifically, but odds are good that this (and only this) is what the MIVD has in mind when they mention countering cyber intelligence. Lastly, and to me this was the most interesting, they reveal their intentions to collaborate with the AIVD to set up a special SIGINT Cyber Unit (or command – this wasn’t mentioned) to generate shared cyber intelligence. Their goals for this unit are straightforward: Assisting in cyber operations in support of regular military operations, chart threats, provide excellent cyber intelligence at all times, and to assist in attributing cyber attacks.

The report also tickled my interest in ‘cyber semantics’ when the MIVD asserted that offensive cyber operations usually include the same activities as cyber intelligence and/or cyber espionage. They also mention that cyber is increasingly important in counterintelligence, and mentioned that they would be increasingly exploiting social media such as Facebook, Hyves, Twitter et cetera. An interesting side note here is that due to severe upcoming Defense budget cuts and related contract terminations, it’s been observed that everyone in the Dutch armed forces is now suddenly absolutely perfect in every way (article in Dutch), because apparently it’s gotten to the point that calling in sick is now a bad career move. Our troops should be warned that venting their frustrations through social media is probably a bad idea at this time, however much it may be valid criticism.

Taking the Crowbar to Cyber-Denying Eyes

I’ve been quiet with my blogposts lately. I know and I apologise. Between writing a lengthy article on Cyber Warfare for PenTest Magazine, writing papers for the MBA degree I am working on, and snowboarding the gorgeous slopes of Val Thorens (France), it’s been sort-of busy. I must say though, that when I sat down and went looking for a subject for a new article, the last thing I expected was that there are still actually people out there who flat-out deny the threat of Cyber Warfare. To be honest, I was dumbfounded. This next piece is, I’ll admit, a bit of a rant. Mostly because quite frankly I enjoy ranting occasionally. Consider it a brief post-holiday deviation from my usual style. Blame it on the cocktails if you must. I’ll give you a brief summary of Jerry Brito’s article. I’ll only do some minor paraphrasing, honest.

“Cyber Warfare doesn’t exist! Yes we’re being robbed blind through Cyber Espionage by nation states, but thats not Cyber Warfare. Cyber Warfare is kinetic cyber attacks! What do you mean Stuxnet? …DuQu? Yeah but those didn’t cost lives! The rest is just DDoS attacks! I can’t see any evidence to the contrary so it must be a hype. Did I mention im really comfortable here with my head resting in a hole in the ground? A bit sandy though.” 

Okay so that last sentence might have been a little less-than-true, but still. Whats worse is, is that this guy is the Technology Policy Program Director at George Mason University. When people wake up after he introduces himself (can someone please shorten that title?), people listen to this guy! Why do we let people like this represent our industry, or even anywhere near our young to educate them? It seems to me that making your own arbitrary (and apparently poor) definition of Cyber Warfare, and then discounting MOUNTAINS of evidence that undermine your point, isn’t very scholarly to say the least. It’s a bit like arguing against Darwin’s theory on Evolution by taping a bible to your forehead and plugging up your ears screaming “I CANT HEAR YOU” over and over.

Can we please stop giving a stage for these people who are obviously cherry-picking their way to an uninformed argument? I will grant you that there is still a lot of debate going on about the true definition of Cyber Warfare. There are many definitions and most are considered incomplete, too narrow or too broad. But we all agree that there is at least some element of Political Will involved, and computer systems and networks are the playground on which this assertion of said political will is taking place. Technically, Cyber Espionage often involves a pretty much equal amount of breaking-and-entering as it would be to shut down the targeted system. The difference is mostly in the intent, not the methodology. If this is committed by a nation state, or a non-state actor with political intent, then Yes: you could (and should) call it  Cyber Warfare. In this regard it is the same as a nation state sending a military airplane into enemy airspace. Whether its a spyplane, a fighter jet or a bomber, it is still politically motivated and thus could be called Air Warfare. You can’t run around yelling “DDoS don’t count!” or “It doesnt count ’till someone ends up dead!” because those aren’t relevant points in this debate. By the same token, not all traditional military operations require someone to die. You cannot discount entire swathes of activities and still expect your argument to hold water.

So that pretty much covers the faulty logic of his argument. But we’re not there yet. Even IF we would be foolish enough to accept his premise at face value, he is still factually incorrect, because he is basing his statement on two very critically wrong assumptions:

1. His own perceptions of reality and;
2. His limited understanding of the current situation.

First off, it is highly unlikely that every succesfull cyber attack is common knowledge. For a nation state to be severely compromised through cyber attacks is embarassing. These systems are supposed to be highly protected. So much embarassing, that it is unlikely that they would publicly come forward about it themselves. Iran didn’t publicly admit their Natanz site got hit with STUXNET until the attack code was discovered by (non-Iranian) security researchers. Aside from the embarassment, its also possible that admitting such weakness sends out an invitation to other would-be attackers. All things considered, I have more sympathy for governments staying quiet after a breach than I do for corporations, simply because the stakes are so much higher. In any case, Jerry’s “evidence” by which he measures his statement is almost certainly severely incomplete.

Secondly he is saying that Cyber Warfare is a hype based on his ‘evidence’ right now. But just because a cyber attack that fits his cherry-picked definitions hasnt happened yet, doesn’t automatically mean it never will! If there is one major certainty in Cyber Warfare, is that things change – and change FAST. Any information you receive is completely obsolete a second later. New attacks and even entirely new concepts of attack methodologies are developed daily. A few years ago, the US Air Force figured that there were roughly 120 countries developing Cyber Warfare capabilities. This was before major international debates on the subject started. I think its safe to assume that more countries have started a Cyber program since then, don’t you? Compared to the individual, these are all players with extremely deep pockets. Deep pockets capable of investing heavily into cyber attack research. Im sure that at least some of them managed to come up with an idea or two that hasn’t been field-tested yet, further eroding mr. Brito’s argument. Again I would ask that we stop giving airtime to these silly arguments and get back to the more important task of actually securing ourselves.

Real Bullets for Digital Attacks

In May of last year, the US Government published its International Strategy for Cyberspace. The publication made some waves in the international community because in this document the US stated that military reprisals to cyber attacks were now officially on the table. More specifically, the US government stated that it ‘encouraged responsible behavior and oppose those who would seek to disrupt networks and systems, dissuading and deterring malicious actors and reserving the right to defend these national security and vital national assets as necessary and appropriate’ [emphasis mine]. This declaration of intent came after an ever increasing number of (detected) attacks on USG networks and systems. Development of cyber capabilities by governments worldwide are also likely to have influenced the situation.

Whatever the underlying political reasons of publishing such a loaded statement, the publication is clearly intended to deter would-be attackers and, as such, is more or less aligned with one of the RAND Corporation’s Monograph studies during Project Air Force on CyberDeterrence and Cyberwar (freely available PDF). In this lengthy publication by the hand of Martin C. Libicki, the subject of CyberDeterrence is extensively studied and described. He approaches the subject from so many angles that it would make you smile if it you didn’t have to read it all to get to the end. One especially important aspect of this discussion is the much-debated problem of attribution. Since retalliation and the threat thereof are a large part of deterrence, knowing who to strike is of paramount concern. Libicki describes various scenario’s such as striking back to the wrong target or not striking at all, and how every scenario has its own consequences. Suffice to say that if you, as an attacker, hide your tracks well enough (don’t forget the cyber intelligence aspect!), you won’t have much problems with retalliatory strikes. If you manage to implicate an innocent third party instead, you may even turn that into a distinct advantage. Considering that retalliation may now include kinetic attacks (bullets to bytes), it can be safely said that they have upped the proverbial ante.  

You might be wondering what the point is of declaring retalliatory (potentially kinetic) attacks when every player in this field knows what the score is: No attribution – No problem. So why make a public statement about how you’re going to strike back if everyone knows its highly unlikely? Well, Libicki covers that too by describing the effects of not striking back, striking back silently, striking back publicly as well as not striking back publicly. I won’t copy/paste his work here, but reading between the lines I found that even though such a public statement is mostly a bluff, it is somewhat of a deterrent and it wins out over the downsides. Besides, and here is the succint point of it all, even though you declare that you may use kinetic military options as a retalliatory measure doesn’t mean you are immediately obliged to actually do so.

In December of last year, the Dutch government was advised by the Advisory Council on International Affairs (AIV) (Dutch) to declare a similar statement with regards to cyber attacks. If the Dutch government decides to take up the advice, The Netherlands will be in the same boat as the US when it comes to cyberdeterrence strategy. It doesn’t worry me. I feel that making such a statement to the world has more upsides than downsides and it shows backbone. When I, along with friend and fellow NCDI council member Niels Groeneveld, was asked to provide input to some of the questions the AIV was looking to answer, I found the discussion so interesting that I wrote several articles about it. See the “Questions from .GOV” series. I was happy to see that some of my input had been used, but it also more-or-less automatically disqualifies me from judging this advice. So I ask you: How do you feel?

US vs The World – The Cyber Monroe Doctrine

On December 2nd in 1823, the US introduced the Monroe Doctrine. This article declared that the US would view further European interference in the Americas (the Western Hemisphere) as acts of aggression and reserved the right to an armed response. On march 10th, 2009 it was argued in front of a Homeland Security Subcommittee on “Emerging Threats, Cybersecurity and Science and Technology” by Mary Ann Davidson that this same piece of US doctrine would be a suitable candidate for application in cyberspace. You can find more information at about this testimony, from where it has recently resurfaced on various discussion boards such as the Dutch Cyber Warfare Community group on LinkedIn (thank you Matthijs).

Not unlike other testimonies on the subject of Cyber Warfare and Cyber Doctrine coming from the US, we see a very ‘red-blooded American’ attitude seeping through, and quite frankly that’s not helping matters. Im generally a big fan of ‘re-using’ existing laws and policies when they apply well enough to Cyber, but Davidson demonstrates a lack of true understanding of the situation. It is possible that her testimony was misunderstood or misquoted by the person who wrote the testimony excerpt, but nevertheless I would like to address a few key issues I have with the testimony.

“We are in a conflict – some would say a war. Let’s call it what it is.”
In the very first segment of the testimony, Davidson asserts a number of things that are simply incorrect. The title of the paragraph is a clear giveaway, and sets the tone for the rest of the testimony. Davidson observes that the US is under constant attack in cyberspace, and that this amounts to war. What she does here is lump together all the cyber attacks that are recorded, and make it seem like this is all part of one big cyber war. But this is not the case. I would argue that 80% (if not more) of these attacks are merely ill-advised scriptkiddie attacks, maybe not even really aimed at government resources specifically. This is so common that many security people have come to call these attacks ‘internet white noise’. The remainder of the attacks might be more targetted, but their origins are at least as diverse as of the earlier 80%. They are perpetrated by cyber criminals, stalkers, curious college students putting their class material into practice, security pentesters who overstep their bounds, bored high school drop-outs, disgruntled administrators and many more potential attackers. You just don’t know. You can’t know. There are just too many attacks from too many sources to make it feasible to chase every one of them to find out. To lump all these attacks together and paint them as a constant barrage by one enemy is not just incorrect, its also dangerous and foolish. If anything, you’re not in one conflict, you’re in thousands.

Even if you consider all these attacks by all these different enemies conflicts, which implicates that there is some underlying plan or strategy to said attacks, its still a big leap in logic to call it a War. America’s habit of declaring war on abstract notions (the War on Drugs, War on Terror et cetera) may sometimes be necessary to get people to act, but in case of Cyberspace it just doesn’t work. Internet is everywhere and, considering the earlier clarification on the attacks, you’re attacked by thousands of enemies. What are they going to call it? “The War Against Everyone”? Actually, given the tone of the testimony I should probably refrain from giving Davidson any ideas. It is exactly this attitude that gives credence to people who claim that the war drums are being beaten unnecessarily to militarize the Internet and to reduce the rights and freedoms of netizens.  Language matters. Talk of war incites thoughts of war, and it should be used sparingly.

 Given the diversity of potentially hostile entities building cadres of cyberwarriors, probing our systems including our defense systems for weaknesses, infiltrating U.S. government networks and making similar attempts against American businesses and critical industries, is there any other conclusion to be reached? Whatever term we use, there are three obvious outgrowths from the above statement. One is that you do can’t win a “conflict” – or war if you don’t admit you are in one. The second is that nobody wins on defense. And the third is that we need a doctrine for how we intercede in cyberspace that covers both offense and defense and maps to existing legal and societal principles in the offline world.

Emphasis is mine. As previously stated, there are a multitude of conclusions you could draw from what is happening on your networks. The three points mentioned thereafter make even less sense, because she speaks about ‘winning’  the ‘war’. But what does that mean? The Monroe Doctrine referred to Military/Political consequences to Military/Political interference by foreign nations on US soil. Or rather the entire Western Hemisphere but I digress. I mention this with emphasis because the Internet and/or Cyberspace is a different animal altogether. The majority of the cyber equivalent of ‘US soil’ isn’t actually ‘US soil’, but is actually owned and operated completely and totally by third parties. To further complicate matters, a large portion of that is owned and operated by third parties who are distinctly not American such as foreign-owned corporations. Imposing a Cyber Monroe Doctrine would effectively militarize the entire US portion of cyberspace. That is, if they can ever decide on what parts of that cyberspace they could and could not call American. Davidson acknowledges this problem with the use of the term ‘turf’ but fails to grasp the severity of the problems it causes with her theory.

So that covers the underlying theory by Mary Ann Davidson, but the three ‘outgrowths’ don’t even make sense on their own. “You can’t win a war if you don’t admit that you’re in one.” Aside from the whole War statement…I mean…Really? This is a complete non-sequitur if you ask me. You could argue the exact reverse and it would be equally true (or untrue, of course). I might be piling on here, but someone should probably have told the US Senate this before the Vietnam war, which the US never formally admitted as being a War. Had they used Davidson’s logic, they would have known this was a war they could not win.

The second is that nobody wins on defense.” This is another argument that doesn’t stand up to closer scrutiny. The Monroe Doctrine revolved mostly around defense. It was enacted to work as a deterrent to protect (not project) US interests in the Western Hemisphere. So what does Davidson envision with this statement? It seems to me that she’s calling for offensive cyber operations, which is something that isn’t covered by the Monroe Doctrine. Monroe wanted to defend his Home, while Davidson seems to want to cross the pond and kick some butt. She’s calling for a Sword to match the Shield, but doesn’t take into account that they are two entirely separate entities with entirely different properties, capabilities and logistics.

And the third is that we need a doctrine for how we intercede in cyberspace that covers both offense and defense and maps to existing legal and societal principles in the offline world.” So if I read this correctly, Davidson argues the US needs a doctrine because….well, because! This last argument isn’t actually an argument. Its a possible answer to her first two statements and probably only included because she needed a third argument. Three arguments makes it sound nice and official. And why would the US need one doctrine to cover everything? It has been my understanding that the US Government has published various doctrinal documents that cover a variety of issues, such as the International Strategy for Cyberspace. The US Department of Defense has also published a number of documents on Cyberspace over the last few years, and these map to a number of existing legal and societal principles in the offline world. These can be easily found online.

So is Mary Ann Davidson correct in her assertion that the Monroe Doctrine would be a handy fit in Cyberspace? To be honest, I don’t know. Im not a politician and im not a military strategist. But her arguments are flawed and they didn’t sway me. Im usually a big fan of a common-sense approach to Cyber-anything, and in most cases we can apply existing legal and societal frameworks just fine. But in this particular case we simply cannot forget that the US already has an potentially undue influence over the proper functioning of the Internet, and any kind of overly agressive stance will foster more animosity between the US and the rest of the world. The Internet is, and should remain, an active demonstration of global cooperation. We would all be better off if we strived to make things safer for everyone.

Debating Cyber Warfare – Still more questions from .GOV (Part III)

In this closing article, last in a set of three, I discuss some international treaties that may or may not apply to Cyber Security. Again I would like to note that the answers I give are merely my opinion on the matter. This article is comprised of two questions. Without further ado:

In how far can international codes of conduct in using the digital domain contribute to increase Cyber Security? Can we learn from experiences with existing codes of conduct such as in the area of non-proliferation?

Fading national borders and defacto international routing of data traffic are a property of cyberspace we can’t escape. This makes international relations and codes of conduct essential, especially when considering fighting cyber crime. This calls for Law Enforcement Agencies and Justice departments of multiple countries to work together to stop criminal enterprises in their tracks. International cooperation amongst law enforcement agencies in taking down cyber crime rings has been taking place for several years now, and although not nearly as successful as we’d hope, they did have some successes. For an excellent read on this subject, I recommend Joseph Menn’s Fatal System Error.

As for Cyber Warfare and Cyber Conflict, there are various internationally accepted legal frameworks and cooperative initiatives that can provide some help with increasing security in Cyberspace. Consider the Law of Armed Conflict or the Universal Human Rights, both of which have received wide adoption and have led (and still lead) to increased cooperation among nation states. Connecting to existing initiatives in this area is therefore highly recommended.

Although Non-Proliferation has a similarly high adoption rate, using this as an example may very well give off the wrong idea because of the emotional ‘weight’ associated with nuclear weapons. Cyber weapons are not currently anywhere near the immediate physical threat that nuclear weapons pose, nor is it feasible to attempt to restrict development or trade of cyber weapons. Cyber weapons consist of computer code and knowledge of the target system or application. Anyone with enough knowledge can create one, and all it takes is a computer. Connect that system to the internet and proliferation is both virtually immediate and unstoppable.  

How can NATO and the EU give substance to the principles of Common Defence, Deterrence and the Solidarity clause when considering cyber threats? How can NATO and the EU improve the information exchange with regards to threat analyses?

Existing initiatives within NATO and the EU offer excellent opportunities in this regard. For instance, a better connection to the NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (CCDCOE) in Tallinn, Estonia is a very good idea. The CCDCOE was founded and sponsored by a number of nations, but the Netherlands was not one of them. It is still possible to become a sponsoring nation by signing its Memorandum of Understanding and after looking at its Mission statement revolving around cooperation, I highly recommend our government does so. Aside from this centre, NATO’s own C3 agency has various endeavors with regards to Cyber Security that we here in the Netherlands might be able to get an advantage out of.

All in all, it’s safe to consider that our best bet lies in engaging in cooperation with other culturally similar nations. Most western nations are as connected to the Internet as we are, and they share our understanding of how critical cyberspace is to us and our economies. Together we simply have a much better chance of improving our situation online.