Cyber Cease-Fire: US v. China


As published on Norse on October 6th, 2015

Interesting times indeed, now that the outcome of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s two-day visit to the White House last week has been made public. According to the White House press release, this is what was agreed:

  • The United States and China agree that timely responses should be provided to requests for information and assistance concerning malicious cyber activities.  Further, both sides agree to cooperate, in a manner consistent with their respective national laws and relevant international obligations, with requests to investigate cybercrimes, collect electronic evidence, and mitigate malicious cyber activity emanating from their territory.  Both sides also agree to provide updates on the status and results of those investigation to the other side, as appropriate.
  • The United States and China agree that neither country’s government will conduct or knowingly support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, including trade secrets or other confidential business information, with the intent of providing competitive advantages to companies or commercial sectors.
  • Both sides are committed to making common effort to further identify and promote appropriate norms of state behavior in cyberspace within the international community.  The United States and China welcome the July 2015 report of the UN Group of Governmental Experts in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International security, which addresses norms of behavior and other crucial issues for international security in cyberspace.  The two sides also agree to create a senior experts group for further discussions on this topic.
  • The United States and China agree to establish a high-level joint dialogue mechanism on fighting cybercrime and related issues.  China will designate an official at the ministerial level to be the lead and the Ministry of Public Security, Ministry of State Security, Ministry of Justice, and the State Internet and Information Office will participate in the dialogue.  The U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security and the U.S. Attorney General will co-chair the dialogue, with participation from representatives from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Intelligence Community and other agencies, for the United States.  This mechanism will be used to review the timeliness and quality of responses to requests for information and assistance with respect to malicious cyber activity of concern identified by either side.  As part of this mechanism, both sides agree to establish a hotline for the escalation of issues that may arise in the course of responding to such requests.  Finally, both sides agree that the first meeting of this dialogue will be held by the end of 2015, and will occur twice per year thereafter.



At first glance this sounds wonderful, but it didn’t take long before the second-guessing started. With Barack Obama making statements such as “What I’ve said to President Xi, and what I say to the American people, [is] the question now is: ‘Are words followed by actions?’”.

It’s important to look at this meeting in the context in which it was held. As most people are aware, the US has been experiencing cyber-attacks almost non-stop for years now, on multiple fronts. The US criticizes China for attacking not only US government infrastructure, but commercial enterprises are suffering massive theft of intellectual property in almost every industry as well. The widely publicized OPM hackwas only the most recent event that made the American cup ‘runneth over’.

But the US is hardly the innocent victim that it portraits itself to be. Well-known whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that the US has actively been attacking Chinese infrastructure as well, in order to ‘prepare the battlefield’ for any potential physical conflict. They have admitted doing so, but claim that no intelligence from the large cyber intelligence gathering ‘driftnet’ known mostly by its moniker PRISM is fed to American enterprises for their commercial benefit. Whether that is true, of course, remains to be seen. After all, accusations of unfair commercial advantages through government espionage have been shown to contain some substance in the past.


Limiting cyber-attacks

In this regard, it is not surprising that it is the US calling for an agreement on limiting the cyber-attacks between the two nations. When taking the theft of intellectual property into account, the US simply has more to lose. It should also not be forgotten that not long ago China signed a treaty with Russia that, among other things, contained a pledge that they would not hack each other. This same treaty also further solidified their efforts to influence global internet governance, about which I commented in an earlier article, giving the US all the more reason to try to calm the waters with China.


So what does this treaty mean?

Of the four points covered under Cybersecurity, only the first two are points with some meat to it. As also mentioned in my previous article, the Chinese are very unlikely to sign any treaty on internet norms of behavior that include a reference to the UN’s definition on human rights. The entire bullet point might as well not have been there. It is window dressing and was probably only agreed upon because it shows a willingness to ‘get along’, whether real or imagined. The last point about the ‘cyber hotline’ doesn’t actually say a whole lot at all, so let’s move on to the more salient points.

It should be noted that the US is trying to stop the attacks against American businesses while trying to keep the option of ‘battlefield preparation’ on the table. This isn’t guesswork, its public record; just look atwhat American politicians are saying on the subject. In other words, both countries now seemingly agree that attacks on government networks are more-or-less allowed, but commercial enterprises are considered off-limits. In the unlikely event that both parties actually honor the agreement, this would be a clear win for the US.


An unlikely agreement

And that the agreement will be honored does seem very unlikely. For one, the Chinese government has never acknowledged that it has any involvement in cyber-attacks against commercial enterprises, and it is highly unlikely that they ever will. If those attacks would now suddenly cease, it would be a tacit admission that it had such control in the first place and put the lie to every official statement the Chinese government has ever issued on this topic. Another important factor is the simple question of “Cui Bono?”. Who benefits? The Chinese would lose a very effective method for national advancement in many areas, and the only cost thus far has been (relatively light) international criticism. They would gain nothing, whereas the US would gain a stopgap in the massive IP drain.

In short: The agreement seems a bit one-sided and that does not bode well. It may well be that China agreed only to stave off the sanctions that the US has been casually dropping to the press recently. Whether China takes these sanctions seriously is debatable, because China still remains the greatest holder of US debt, which means it can give a considerable pushback. Then again, China not honoring the agreement is probably expected. Despite what some critics may say, the people involved in drafting this treaty are not fools. With this agreement on the table it makes the American case much stronger if Chinadoes violate it, as Jason Healey points out.

As always, time will tell.


Missing in Action: Cyber Dictionary?


As published on Norse on September 22nd, 2015.

I recently stumbled over an old issue that has shown no signs of being resolved: the lack of a normalized lexicon on Cyber Security. We can’t seem to start agreeing on terminology, even though the cyber security industry is rapidly professionalizing globally and the need for a universally understood set of concepts is beginning to show. The best example of this problem is that there are at this moment roughly 28 definitions for the concept we know as “cyberspace”, with the most recent draft definition apparently being:

Cyberspace defined

Cyberspace is a global and dynamic domain (subject to constant change) characterized by the combined use of electrons and electromagnetic spectrum, whose purpose is to create, store, modify, exchange, share and extract, use, eliminate information and disrupt physical resources. Cyberspace includes: a) physical infrastructures and telecommunications devices that allow for the connection of technological and communication system networks, understood in the broadest sense (SCADA devices, smartphones/tablets, computers, servers, etc.); b) computer systems (see point a) and the related (sometimes embedded) software that guarantee the domain’s basic operational functioning and connectivity; c) networks between computer systems; d) networks of networks that connect computer systems (the distinction between networks and networks of networks is mainly organizational);e) the access nodes of users and intermediaries routing nodes; f) constituent data (or resident data).Often, in common parlance, and sometimes in commercial language, networks of networks are called Internet (with a lowercase i), while networks between computers are called intranet. Internet (with a capital I, in journalistic language sometimes called the Net) can be considered a part of the system a). A distinctive and constitutive feature of cyberspace is that no central entity exercises control over all the networks that make up this new domain. – Mayer, Martino, Mazurier & Tzvetkova (2014)

This is a considerable problem for the eventual advancement of the practice, because ‘cyberspace’ isthe root term from which the entire “cyber-everything!” craze stems, and we can’t even seem to agree on what that is, exactly. How can we properly define derivative terms from a core concept that we don’t universally agree on? What is Cyber Security if nobody agrees on what Cyber is?


The result is that cyber-anything is, essentially, a rough approximation of what we mean to say. Developments in the industry haven’t yet reached the point where this is a problem for real scientific advance because there is still so much to discover. But in the long run, if the profession is to mature and be advanced beyond the point of the initial growth spurt we are currently experiencing, people will have to perform research. Thanks to that same ill-defined cyberspace, desktop research is often largely based on searching for keywords in existing research (thank you Google Scholar!). And herein lies the rub.

As said, it’s not just cyberspace that we can’t conceptually agree on. We also can’t seem to agree on the use of other terms. For instance, the terms ‘cyber security’, ‘information security’ and ‘cyber defense’ are used liberally, and are generally used to define the same set of concepts, but not always. The term ‘defense’ (singular), ‘security measure’ and ‘security control’ are all used to describe roughly the same concept as well.

Cybersecurity strategy

Give yourself the challenge to figure out what cyber security strategy means. Some quick research will show that some authors used this term in describing “security one-liners”, such as the security principle‘Reduce Attack Surface’, whereas others use the term to describe entire frameworks. There were also authors who did not use the term “strategy” where it might have made good sense to do so.

To answer any research questions on the subject of cyber security strategies, it is necessary to first be clear on which interpretation is used. We need to know where we are now to determine where we want to go. As an industry, we have an obligation to the rest of the world to be clear in what we mean by the words that we use. Many people complain about the use of the term ‘cyber warfare’. The most common heard complaint was that talk about war incites war, and that the resultant ‘militarization’ of the internet is an undesirable state. Whether the lack of a universal lexicon is to be blamed for this, is almost certainly overstating it, but it doesn’t help either. The press loves ‘sexy’ language, and military lingo sounds very impressive. It sells. It makes for bad reporting, but when considering that we, as an industry haven’t provided them with anything better to use, maybe they are not the only ones to blame here.

The future

If the Internet has proven anything, it is that there can be cooperation on a global scale. Perhaps one of the custodian organizations of the Internet, such as the IETF, can be used as a vehicle for the development of a universal set of concepts, who knows? But it certainly is high time we get started, before the future catches up with us.


The Right to Strike Back

pic3-640x400As published on Norse on June 26, 2015.

Last week, at the HiP Conference in Paris, there was a debate on whether or not it should be allowed to strike back when you are being hacked. Currently, criminal law in most countries does not allow it. But is this tenable in today’s’ highly digitized society rife with cybercrime?

My position in this matter is that we should create a legal recognition of the fact that we are in a social gray area where it concerns the Internet, even if it is only a temporary recognition, and allow for somecapability to strike back at cyber criminals. As I’ve said before, humanity is only now scratching the surface of what it means, socially and culturally, to have (largely) unrestricted access to the collective knowledge of Man at our fingertips, (almost) everywhere and (almost) anytime we desire.

In virtually every aspect of the human experience, it has made its’ impact felt. The number of human lives that remain completely unchanged through some kind of information technology is rapidly dwindling to zero as technology advances, and our adoption of them continues to rise.

Under the umbrella-term “Cyber”, that is similarly revered and reviled, we are inching our way through the various aspects of our daily lives to adapt our old notions of how we ‘did things’ to incorporate the new realities we face in the Information Age. Crime, international politics and armed conflicts are among the most hotly debated topics in this regard. What I am getting at, is that in a social and cultural sense, Cyberspace can (and in my opinion should) be considered terrain in the early stages of colonization. Think of it as the New Frontier or the Wild West, if you will.

We recognize that there is this huge new area that can be explored, colonized and exploited, but exactlybecause it is new and untamed, there should be only a limited expectation of Law and Order. Certainly, in most countries the national laws have been revised to incorporate the new realities of Cyberspace. But often these amendments or new laws are only rough first drafts because very few (if any) people understand exactly what Cyberspace means (culturally and socially).

What doesn’t help is the fact that as our technology continues to advance, our uses –and in turn the consequences- are changing with it. In other words: even if we manage to define proper laws for the circumstances right now, there is a good chance that they will be outdated due to technological advances in short order. But that is not really the core issue. Having properly defined, applicable and reasonable laws is only the first step. You have to be able to enforce a law if you expect people to follow it, otherwise it just becomes little more than an advisory note. A cute bauble that the criminally inclined can have a chuckle over while they continue making money off of these exact crimes you’re trying to prevent. And that, unfortunately, is largely where we are now.

Despite being a horrible analogy in every other sense, Cyberspace is the Wild West. Law and Order is reasonably established in some areas, but for the most part you can only depend on the occasional sheriff or Ranger. As was the case in the early years of the Wild West, there –on the whole- isn’t a whole lot of coordination between law enforcement, the government and the citizenry. This can be easily verified by looking at the figures. The number of successfully prosecuted cybercrime cases is very small indeed, when compared to the number of reported incidents. Also consider that we don’t see every incident, and even when incidentsare discovered, they are not always reported. Please don’t misunderstand what I am trying to say: This is not intended as a snipe against law enforcement or the government. They are trying to get a handle on these cases. But the fact of the matter is that we have a serious lack of expertise and experience across the board. There just aren’t enough people skilled and experienced enough to make a serious dent in the numbers. Or, for that matter, to faster develop an underlying framework that makes law enforcement of cybercrime any easier.

Frameworks containing (and hinging on) effective international agreements, laws and political policy to address cybercrime are also still being developed. The often-heard argument to forbid people from striking back at cyber criminals is that to do so is anoffensive act, and not a defensive one. In other words, striking back should be considered a weapon and not a shield. In the strictest sense of the definition this is indeed correct. However, just looking at the success rate of cyber-attacks alone will dissuade anyone from the notion that a “good defense” is enough to stave off a cyber-attacker.

Even the US military, with the highest defense budget in the world, can’t prevent some attacks from being successful. In very practical terms this tells us that we cannot count on being secure when we are only allowed to defend ourselves; something is clearly missing. Perhaps that missing element is the right to strike back. To stick to the earlier analogy of the Wild West, we are unarmed and criminals are not. Essentially we are telling people not to act when they are being attacked. To trust the Police to protect us against predators. To sit still and pray that the criminals don’t find the valuables we’ve buried in the proverbial shed. But clearly the Police are not capable of doing so right now, as can be easily deduced from the figures mentioned earlier.

In my opinion this is untenable, and quite frankly I find it unconscionable to leave the average citizen as such an easy prey. During the debate I therefore argued for at least a temporary recognition that allows for striking back at our assailants, with the express goal of halting an attack. It will be interesting to see how the other panelists view it, and I look forward to hearing if perhaps there is another solution to the problems we face today.

Enterprise Security vs. Nation State Threat Actors

enterprisevnationThe recently published Snowden/NSA/GCHQ slides regarding the Gemalto hack have caused quite a stir amongst security practitioners, board members and politicians alike. But the uproar is minor when considering that it is now more than clear that not only non-allied nations such as China, Russia and Iran are attacking commercial entities. Nation states that we are on good terms with are apparently equally willing and able to attack their allies, just to get ahead in the Intelligence and Battlefield Preparation game. Good friend and excellent analyst Richard Stiennon already acknowledged (allied) nation states as a threat actor for the commercial industry in his article “NSA Surveillance Extends the Threat” in 2013. He asserted that the NSA was leading the threat hierarchy and was advocating a global re-evaluation of ones’ security stance. From what has been unveiled recently this is due for a revision yet again, as it is clear that British GCHQ is following the same playbook. Given both their membership in the “Five Eyes” community (of which all nations in the Five Eyes are core participants) it is increasingly safer to assume that Australia, Canada and New Zealand follow the same methodology, but that is beside the point of this article.

What does this mean?

When comparing the slides and modus operandi concerning Gemalto with what was disclosed about the Belgacom hack, useful observations can be made regarding the tactics employed by GCHQ and the NSA. And that MO demonstrates quite clearly what the real problems for commercial entities are when faced with a nation state as an adversary.

First off, they are difficult to expect. That’s right: Expect, not Detect (although that is probably equally true). Nation states have considerably different motives and these may not always be obvious. Gemalto and Belgacom were targeted because they were gatekeepers to communication networks; in this case telecommunications. They in turn contained what the NSA and GCHQ were actually after: the communications (potentially) running over those networks. It seems like arguing semantics when we differentiate between the targeting the communications networks and the communications themselves, but it is quite relevant: Both the NSA and GCHQ have other legal recourses to obtain the communications they are looking for, but are actively and purposely choosing other avenues. In short, it is not usually obvious what governments are interested in, and even if they have other (legal) means to obtain their target, they might still attack you if that proves to be more useful or less of a hassle.

Second, they are nearly impossible to deter. Cyber criminals generally tend to pick the low-hanging fruit. This will probably remain true as long as there remains so much of it available. The other major category popular with cyber criminals is the ‘big score’, where the spoils of a successful heist are so rich high that attackers consider their time and resources a good investment. Naturally this last group has more staying power than the first group, but both will eventually bug out if the operation is found to be too difficult or risky. Corporate espionage can potentially stay in the game where a cyber-criminal would have given up, but that is very dependent on the level of resources and risk that a firm is willing to commit.  You can deter them by securing your infrastructure to such a degree that the reward of breaking in is not worth the effort. Governments have deeper pockets and thus far seem to be more-or-less immune to criminal prosecution. This significantly alters the equation for such parties. The local social environment of the attacker also plays a role. Corporate spies or criminals basically get told[1] “Get in there if you can”, while soldiers get told “Get in there [period]”. Government operatives don’t get deterred by tedious work or lack of funds. To keep them out it has to be made impossible to break in and, provided it can be done, the task will be Herculean and costly.

It should also be pointed out that governmental espionage is not solely about national security. Many intelligence services are tasked not only with security, but also so-called ‘Economic Intelligence’. To put it bluntly, they are also looking for anything that might give their national corporations an edge against foreign competitors. The reason is simple: successful corporations are a boon to any nation. Not just for the additional tax income they generate, but also for the additional jobs and innovation power they bring. Some intelligence agencies focus more on this than the others, but most do it to some degree. We have seen evidence of this before, during the Echelon program. Several high stake deals were won by American firms due to the intelligence provided to them by the American intelligence apparatus. We can only guess at what intelligence the NSA is currently feeding to American firms. Perhaps the tech firms that are under the NSA yoke are being rewarded sub-rosa as compensation for the multi-billion dollar loss they have incurred (or will incur) over lost trust.

Third, they have capabilities unique to this category of attacker. When looking at the Belgacom and Gemalto hack, it is clear that one major new factor in their approach is Intelligence. Highly trained government intelligence agents are tasked with scoping out the target. They will find key target personnel in short order. It is their job to do so, and even in small nations these operatives are trained and experienced to a degree that will never be matched by a corporate entity. This might be the most effective tool in their arsenal, and next to impossible to defend against. The average person working for a corporate entity will be completely unarmed against people professionally trained in disciplines such as surveillance and interrogation. Would they spot a tail when walking or driving? Would they realize they are being interrogated during a seemingly innocuous conversation with a stranger? Would their family? What is worse, is that nothing private is off-limits when gathering intelligence. Private emails, browsing history, social media, cellphone conversations and text messages are all scrutinized in the hopes of finding a way inside the target organization. They are not above infecting a staff member with a piece of custom-made malware if it furthers their goal. The more staff a company has, the bigger this attack vector is. The problem is exacerbated when dealing with technologically advanced nations, due to higher degrees of technological refinement in their attacks.

Fourth, that we know of their operations does not mean they have stopped. It sounds strange, but for some reason many people seem to think the threat is over now that we are aware of it. It is stating the obvious, but that is not the case. All that has really changed is that we now have some measure of tangible proof to something that was strongly suspected for a long time. The repeated wake-up calls are working to force a long overdue focus on security, but it still has to be acted upon and followed through on. The security industry finally has the clout to address the serious issues, and it can be done without overhyping the matter. Throw away old disparaging sayings such as “if they want to get in, they’ll get in” and do what can be done.


Naturally there is more to this issue than the points described above. What is clear is that the corporate world is faced with a potential adversarial class that it is not equipped to deal with. In this regard the world is not that different from the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century. The Dutch VOC company had a large fleet of merchant ships that were regularly attacked by foreign ships of war belonging to nations that the Netherlands was at war with at the time. The naval frigates outclassed the often cumbersome trading vessels, and defending themselves to a sufficient degree simply wasn’t economically feasible. This problem grew to such an extent that valuable VOC convoys eventually received Dutch naval escorts for protection, even though they did have to help pay for them. What is worth wondering about, is whether we can find a similar common ground with Government and truly co-defend in a meaningful manner.


[1] Or conceive the notion themselves, naturally.

GCCS2015 Part II: Government Influence is the Key Issue

gccs2(As published on Norse: Feb 5th, 2015)

As we noted in Part I: GCCS2015: Battlefield for the Internets’ Multi-stakeholder Coup, the next iteration of the Global Conference on CyberSpace (GCCS2015) will be held on April 16th and 17th in The Hague, the Netherlands this year. It is the worlds’ premier political conference on Cyberspace.

The Internet was founded on, and has ever since been based on, the multi-stakeholder principle. That is to say: the Internet does not belong to any government, it belongs to everyone equally.

In fact, aside from lending material support, governments have had precious little to do with the development, implementation and administration of the Internet. The brunt of the work has been done by civilian institutions such as the IETF, ICANN, IANA and a whole slew of similar civilian non-profit organizations.

But as time progressed and the significance of the Internet grew, so too did the urge to control grow at the worlds’ governments.  This is signified most clearly by the continued attempts of the UN to move this piece of internet governance away from US-based ICANN to the International Telecoms Union (ITU).

At first glance, the ITU seems innocuous enough. It has a membership of over 193 countries and over 700 commercial entities such as Apple and Cisco. However, the ITU is an agency of the UN and therein lies the rub.

The ITU is ultimately subject to the will of the UN charter members. They will face considerable pressures by many UN nations such as Russia, China and Iran, who are staunch supporters of ‘cyber sovereignty’.

The ‘cyber sovereignty’ camp considers the current state of affairs to be directly threatening their national security primarily because they have no easy way to censure content. They will no doubt push for measures stifling internal dissent and perhaps even for measures to censure content disagreeable to them.

In fact, they’ve pretty much said so.

Several blows have already been dealt to advance the power shift towards the ITU during the 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), as excellently commented on by Alexander Klimburg in his article “The Internet Yalta”.

In his article he describes how China and Russia managed to sway most of the developing nations to supporting ‘cyber sovereignty’, and the whole issue devolved into essentially a bipartisan issue in which the developing nations aim for governmental control of the Internet, and the Western nations prefer to keep the status quo.

There does not appear to be a middle ground. WCIT was, in this respect, a political cloak-and-dagger event of almost Machiavellian proportions.

It had it all: the polarization of the voters, sudden ‘midnight votes’ that most parties were left uninformed about, and attempts at tricking voters into voting on articles that were thought to contain something other than it did.

Both the ‘code of conduct’ and the battle for the internet’s multi-stakeholder principle shine through in the Seoul Framework for and Commitment to Open and Secure Cyberspace that was drafted for the 2013 conference in South Korea.

It is this framework that will be the key talking point in The Hague this year. The Netherlands has already stated that it would support further work on this framework, but given its democratic nature and strong culture of international trade, this is hardly surprising.

In an earlier published flyer the official statement was made that the ‘self-organization of the Internet should be supported and is preferred to regulation imposed by states’.

It can only be hoped that all sides remain cordial and that political sleight-of-hand doesn’t catch anyone off guard. The result of such an event could very well mean the end of the Internet as we know it.

Information Security, Post-Snowden

As published on Tripwire’s State of Security:

The revelations regarding the extensive digital intelligence gathering programs of the American National Security Agency by Edward Snowden won’t have escaped your notice. Since the first reports around June 5th of 2013, the hits have not stopped coming; each consecutive unveiling being of larger scale, depth and intensity than its predecessor.

It is interesting to note that Snowden was hardly the first whistleblower on the massive internet espionage operation by the US government. On January 20th 2006 an employee of AT&T approached the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) with proof that AT&T was cooperating in an NSA intelligence program and on july 2nd 2012 three NSA employees shored up a lawsuit by that same organisation.

The facts are hard to ignore: wiretapping heads of state[1], allied or not[2], hacking telecom corporations[3], large scale internet wiretapping[4] and forcing American technology firms to provide access to customer information[5] or worse: building a backdoor into their products[6]. Summing matters up sometimes stretches the bounds of credibility.

As Jacob Appelbaum put it during his talk at the German CCC conference late last year, the NSA´s operations have really only been limited by Time. Had Snowden waited another year, chances are that we would have seen even bigger programs come to the surface. And perhaps we still might; if Snowden is to be believed we haven’t seen the last of his work.

The impact on our online privacy is consistently mentioned by the various news media. Organisations of all sizes and nationalities are asking themselves just how safe their data is. Do they have unwanted American visitors on their network? How are they going to keep out the NSA? Or other intelligence agencies? Cán you keep them out at all?

In my opinion, these questions aren´t simply valid, but due to the immensity and depth of these intelligence gathering programs and the long list of involved corporations, a considerable bit of research should be more than warranted.

Thanks to Snowden´s revelations we have enough material to make three assumptions:

  • Virtually all the internet traffic is tapped. Because it’s not just the NSA spying on internet traffic but –to varying degree- almost every national intelligence agency on the planet, there is a reasonable degree of certainty that all of our traffic is intercepted and looked at, regardless of where it´s going or where its´ coming from. In case you´re wondering, this certainly includes smartphone traffic.
  • American and British hardware (laptops, desktops, servers, USB devices, mice, keyboards, smartphones et cetera) are very likely all compromised by a backdoor through which remote access can be obtained. If it hasn´t been built in during fabrication, it could still be inserted during transportation, with the aid of transportation firms[7]. For safety sake it is reasonable to assume that Canadian, Australian and New Zealand firms are performing such tasks for their respective intelligence agencies as well, given that these countries are also part of the Five Eyes intelligence gathering pact between the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
  • We cannot trust American technology firms. It is unfortunate for those that haven´t been compromised, but due to American anti-terrorism laws you simply cannot trust them you’re your data. Whether they are paid or forced to cooperate is, in the end, unimportant for you; they willprovide the NSA with intelligence or build those backdoors into their products that are so prevalent and so desired. Your data simply isn´t safe with American online service providers, and thanks to the PATRIOT act it doesn´t even matter if the data itself is on US soil or not. It also doesn´t matter if you are not American. Or if you´re a citizen of an allied country. The American justice system pretty much completely ignores non-citizens and as such, virtually everything done to your data is considered legal. Your data can be reached and inspected regardless of where it resides, and they do it on a shockingly large scale. Here too, it would be wise to lump British, Australian, New Zealand and Canadian firms in on this.

And its not just US firms that have been exploited in such a fashion. Among the firms on the list below you will also see enterprises that have a lot to lose if banned from the American technology market, such as Samsung. Lets put some names to faces. Do you have products in your network or at home that are made by these companies?

Then you almost certainly have a backdoor into your network through which the NSA can enter your network unseen. Perhaps more than one. And now that it is public knowledge that these backdoors exist, it is highly likely that they are exploitable by other parties as well.


The US is, thanks to strong representation in the Technology market, in a very comfortable position where gaining remote access is concerned. This doesn’t stop other nations from attempting the same level of access or intelligence, and quite successfully.

China, Russia and Iran also developed strong Cyber programs of which digital espionage is a substantial element. Closer to home the French DGSE was embarrassed by sudden publication of their own cyber espionage program, not a week after they publicly denounced such practices. Israel has also been known to have a very effective digital intelligence gathering program.

If you still have doubts about whether or not you might be compromised, the EFF has published an electronic file[8] containing exactly what vendors and their respective products give unwanted access to commercial networks. You will encounter the term “persistent backdoor” very often, which means that there is a built-in back door in the product through which unauthorised access to the network is easily attained.

They work virtually the same as the software companies install so that their employees can work from home, with the notable exception that your organisation doesn’t know, support or condone about this ‘feature’ of the products they installed and considered safe.

So why should companies care about this? You’ll often hear the argument that such programs revolve around national security, and is an affair between nation states, not commerce. And yet there have been several cases that show that this is certainly not always the case. Information obtained by national espionage programs can easily be used to great commercial advantage.

There are some prime examples in which national intelligence agencies provided firms with information that gave them a competitive advantage during critical moments while competing with foreign competitors, such as during the negotiations of lucrative contracts. On July 5th 2000 the European Parliament launched an investigation into contract negotiations taking place in Brasil in 1994.

In this case the French firm Thomson-CSF lost a contract to the American defence contractor Raytheon to a tune of $1.3 billion because Raytheon had received crucial information intercepted by an American intelligence agency. In 2000, aircraft manufacturer Airbus lost a Saudi contract worth $6 billion to American firms Boeing and McDonnell Douglas in equal fashion.

Both these incidents took place during the ECHELON program, an earlier iteration of the PRISM program that we have heard so much about in recent months. The amount of data that is being intercepted and monitored makes the ECHELON program pale in comparison.n

Whether you do business internationally or not, having intruders on your networks and mobile devices are almost certainly unwanted. There are ways to defend yourself, but depending on which hardware and software you are using, you may have to start looking for different vendors offering similar products.

This isn’t always practical. Imagine replacing Microsoft Windows with a Linux distribution on all of your systems. This may not be feasible due to lack of staff capable of supporting Linux. Replacing servers, desktops, laptops or networking equipment with equivalent products made by vendors of a different nationality can be difficult, but you could still take steps in the right direction.

For instance, if you are currently using remote access tokens by RSA[9], you may want to consider replacing them. By its very nature, remote access technology is an exceptionally critical service that can immediately defeat all of your network security measures. Whether you will be safe after a full overhaul of your network will likely always remain a mystery; Snowden or some other whistleblower might implicate yet more firms that are complicit with national intelligence agencies.

To have a realistic chance at securing your network, it must be capable of segmenting your various suppliers and vendors. Ideally your network architecture is designed in such a way that no single vendor or supplier can compromise the entire network by itself.

Outsourcing your data or network services to a cloud provider is equally a hazardous idea. You have to be absolutely assured that your provider does not store your data outside your nation’s borders, which would open up avenues for foreign entities to gain access. Most nations have laws in place for their intelligence and law enforcement agencies to obtaining access to systems within their sovereign territory with or without the consent of its owner.

If you have assured yourself that your cloud provider won’t suddenly change its policy. Be aware that most of the firms implicated by Snowden have kept -or have been forced to keep- silent about their assistance to the NSA. If your privacy has been violated, you may learn of it much too late or not at all.

Also, it is critical that you encrypt your data. This includes both data in transit and data at rest, so the smart move is to not leave any data unencrypted on online services such as Dropbox. Be sure to use encryption that is not commonly used on the Internet, or made by any of the implicated firms listed above.

The NSA, and more than likely many intelligence agencies with them, is especially capable of cracking the most used encryption methods such as SSL[10] (Secure HTTP, which ensures that well-known lock icon in front of a web address in your browser). Custom, strong and domestically made crypto technology is the best choice to protect both your network traffic as well as encrypting data storage devices[11].

Finally, it is important that you have a strong identity & access management program. None of the measures above amount to very much if an employee or supplier has access to your network and happily provides this access to a third party with bad intentions.

Protecting information today is more complex than before. To have a chance at keeping unwanted visitors off your network tomorrow, you must lay the foundation today. Although this can be a considerable undertaking, you can at least be assured that it will not get any easier. The time of leaning back casually without having to worry about security has certainly passed.

picAbout the Author:  Don Eijndhoven (@ArgentConsulting), Chief Executive Officer of Argent Consulting B.V, lead cyber security architect and guest lecturer Cyber Resillience at the Nyenrode Business University. Don can be reached at

Argent Consulting buys B-Able Argent Consulting


Monday, 26th May 2014. The Netherlands: Due to insurmountable differences among management, the joint effort between Argent Consulting and B-Able, dubbed “B-Able Argent Consulting” has been terminated. Argent Consulting has bought out the remaining shares and will fulfill existing contracts until their natural termination. The Argent Consulting brand will return to the field in full force; offering new and revised products and services in the global Cyber industry.

Argent Consulting’s CEO Don Eijndhoven had this to say: “The joint venture was entered into based on an estimation of overlap of skills and services between Cyber Security and the more established field of Information Security. We expected a much more receptive customer base but there wasn’t sufficient foundation to work on. In short, the alliance wasn’t as fruitful as we hoped it would be. While this is regrettable, there was also good news: In the Cyber realm we did, and continue to, perform excellently. Having landed several prestigious consultancy contracts with global NASDAQ-listed firms, our core business scores very well and we are going to keep advancing in this strategic direction under the Argent Consulting flag.”

PRISM: Tip of the Cyber Intel Iceberg

PRISM Slide 1When Edward Snowden published information on PRISM – a rather drastic intelligence gathering program in which several (assume All) government agencies such as the FBI and the NSA draw intelligence from major tech companies such as Microsoft, Skype and Facebook – he was immediately revered and reviled by the general populace. Especially within the US armed forces community, the general sentiment seems to be that he’s a traitor and someone needs to go fetch a rope. But really, how much of this is new or even unexpected?

Right after the 2nd World War in March of 1946, a multilateral agreement between the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand was signed in which they agreed to cooperate and share intelligence. This was originally intended to be mostly Signals intelligence, but has long since been extended to include much more. This intelligence alliance between those five nations has become known as Five Eyes. It was a secret treaty (allegedly even kept from the Australian PM’s until ’73) but has been exposed for quite some time now. In fact, Canadian Brigadier-General James S. Cox (RET) wrote a rather salacious paper on this treaty, and to illustrate just how well this treaty is working out can be gleaned from the following paragraph in the executive summary of said paper (emphasis mine):

 “The Five Eyes intelligence community grew out of twentieth-century British-American intelligence cooperation. While not monolithic; the group is more cohesive than generally known. Rather than being centrally choreographed, the Five Eyes group is more of a cooperative, complex network of linked autonomous intelligence agencies, interacting with an affinity strengthened by a profound sense of confidence in each other and a degree of professional trust so strong as to be unique in the world.” – “Canada and the Five Eyes Intelligence Community” by Brig-Gen James S. Cox (RET).

This profound sense of confidence in each other likely stems from the fact that they’ve been doing this for over 60 years, and I would hazard that this partnership has had its strength tested a few times. Successfully, from the looks of it. Either way, I think it is a safe assumption that the UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia are as much to blame for PRISM as the Americans. Funny how none of them have mentioned their unfettered access to this raw data, hmm?

What boggles my mind is how little people seem to care. Maybe the name ECHELON rings a bell? This was an expansion on collection and analysis in the 60’s to this same Five Eyes program. I should stress that the actual gathered (and shared) intelligence included much more than just signals intelligence. We’re talking raw internet data. Raw, meaning absolutely everything that passed through, without any kind of filter. If you said it through any kind of internet-connected medium, through any American provider, service or product, you have definitely been logged there. And even not using any of said American providers, services or products, your traffic could still have been routed through PRISM, depending on where you are, where the servers are that you connected with, or how traffic was routed. And that’s just assuming that this traffic was really only collected in the US, which may not be the case now that we’ve established that at least 4 other countries were actively in on this program.

Now that we’ve firmly established the “who” part of this whodunit –or at least establish who benefits-, its time to look a little closer at what happened.

So what happened with PRISM?
Simply put, since somewhere as early as 2007 the various US intelligence and Law Enforcement agencies used the law to gain access to information harvested by tech giants such as Microsoft, Google, Apple, Yahoo, Facebook, Skype and Youtube. This means that they had access to a multitude of heavily used social media sites such as Facebook, Skype, Twitter and Youtube, but also cloud services such as iCloud, Google Drive and Dropbox. This was all done legally under US laws. Their alleged goal was to monitor foreign communications that take place on US servers, but of course it couldn’t hurt that what they collected included everything under the virtual sun – including stuff on American citizens and US allies.

Edward Snowden brought to light just exactly what is going on, and how it’s done. For those of us who have an IT-technical background, it doesn’t take much imagination. It can be done easily, and not to my surprise, this is what they did. Snowden published a PowerPoint presentation containing 41 slides on this, but interestingly only 5 of those slides were published. The remaining slides are, apparently, so “hot” that nobody wants to burn themselves by publishing it. Both the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald and the Post’s Barton Gellman have made it clear that the rest of the PowerPoint is dynamite stuff which we’re not going to be seeing any time soon. “If you saw all the slides you wouldn’t publish them,” wrote Gellman on Twitter, adding in a second tweet: “I know a few absolutists, but most people would want to defer judgment if they didn’t know the full contents.”. I think that I speak for most Europeans when I say that I disagree strongly with Gellman, and would very much like to see the remaining slides.

Although the slides that have been published can be easily found without my help, I would be remiss in not adding them here for your enjoyment. Much of the international outrage can be explained by these pictures. And by outrage, I mean by the people, not the other governments. Any outrage on their behalf is geopolitical theatre, because every government in the world is either doing this, or would very much like to. You only have to look at the recently unveiled DGSE (French secret service) surveillance program which operates in exactly the same vein as PRISM.

Without further ado, here are the slides that were published from Snowden’s originally 41 slides:

PRISM Slide 1


PRISM Slide 2


PRISM Slide 3


PRISM Slide 4


PRISM Slide 5


My apologies. Apparently I had missed the release of 4 more slides by Washington Post around July 1st. Unfortunately these slides don’t really do much but add to the confusion. Nevertheless I would like to share these with you too.

prism slide 6



prism slide 7


prism slide 8


prism slide 9

On Dutch Banking Woes and DDoS Attacks

DDOS-attackIf you don’t live in the Netherlands or don’t happen to have a Dutch bank account, you can certainly be forgiven for not having caught wind of the major banking woes that have been plaguing the Dutch. For weeks now, massive DDoS attacks (linked article in Dutch) have brought low the online services of several banks, interrupting mobile payments and slowing down overall online financial traffic. At the center of the digital storms is ING, which was hit first (Dutch) and is hit the most often (Dutch), but Rabobank, ABN AMRO and SNS Bank are also frequent targets. Dutch online payment system iDeal has also been attacked several times, impacting virtually all Dutch banks as well as the many online retailers that use it.

What the goal behind this wave of DDoS attacks is, is as yet unknown, but there are several possible motives at play. It could be simple vandalism, a rather hefty attempt at misdirection to cover up real hacking attempts, or it could have something to do with ING and ABN AMRO being implicated or involved with investigations into tax evasion through offshore banking by the ICIJ. The latter seems unlikely, as most of the DDoS traffic appears to be coming from Romania (according to hackers collective HacksIn – I had a link about that, but lost it somehow) and no motive has made itself known thus far. It was a matter of time until Anonymous came along to jump on the bandwagon, and indeed its Dutch chapter appears to have done so this week when someone posing as Anonymous posted a message on Pastebin. In it, they claim to know who is behind the DDoS attacks (a group of Muslim extremists called Izz al-Din al Qassam Cyber Fighters), and that the Dutch people should go out and collect their money from these banks because it is not safe there.

There are, however, some issues with this post on Pastebin. Firstly, the group they blame for the DDoS attacks is in fact the group responsible for attacks on US BANKS, and there is no discernible link between the US banks being hit or the Dutch banks currently under attack. The motive for the attack against US banks seems clear: Izz al-Din al Qassam demands the removal of the movie “Innocence of Muslims” from Youtube. Once the movie is removed the attacks will stop, they claim. To my knowledge, no such demands have been made here in the Netherlands.

The second issue is that the advice posed by Anonymous would, in fact, immediately collapse the Dutch financial market, as no Dutch bank is currently strong enough to survive such a proposed bank run. They simply don’t have sufficient cash in their vaults. In other words: this is a really bad idea.

So what now?
For starters, ING should hire someone who knows how to communicate during a crisis. Its obvious that they suck at it. They’ve finally stepped off their “Silence, Evade, Deny” strategy but its taken a while. All major companies should look into this, because they may very well be next. Second, major companies with a serious online presence should really start taking this stuff seriously. DDoS attacks are hardly new material to deal with, and proper impact negation tactics have been around for a while. If your income is dependant on online services and this income is significant, get a real ISP that understands this and has expertise in countering such digital vandalism such as Arbor Networks or Prolexic.

The bad news is that according to a recent Prolexic report, DDoS attacks are getting increasingly stronger. They have seen the first 130GB/s DDoS attack this year, and during the first quarter of this year the average attack bandwidth was 48.25GB/s, which signifies a whopping 718% increase over last year. The increase seems to come from a change of victims in the botnets (Dutch) they use. Apparently, they are now targeting web servers especially for their higher bandwidth capacity, which in turn increases overall attack bandwidth. On top of that, the DDoS attack seems to have regained its popularity because the targetlist is growing. Airlines such as KLM (Dutch) and Dutch authentication firm DigID (Dutch) have also recently been hit with massive attacks. In an effort to stave off this wave of disruptions, the Dutch National Cyber Security Center has been organising collective defense (Dutch) between Dutch banks, but it seems they may have to include firms from other walks of life as well. I think we can safely conclude that this avenue of attack is still very worthwhile and won’t be going away anytime soon.

In fact, things may get a lot worse if this newly discovered DDoS technique gets incorporated. Apparently Incapsula mitigated a small attack of 4GB/s recently, and they traced it back to a single source. Generating 8 million DNS queries per second, causing ALL of the 4 GB/s traffic by its lonesome, certainly qualifies it to be called a DDoS Cannon instead of a lowly bot. I don’t know if it is technically feasible, but imagine 100K+ systems doing this.

Wrapping up this piece, I would like to ask mainstream news reporters to please start learning some basic truths about information security. Stop referring to DDos attacks as “(sophisticated) cyber attacks”. They’re not. A DDoS attack is annoying, yes. But on the scale of sophistication they rate roughly as digital graffiti. Also, some major outages are caused by stupidity from the victim rather than an outside source. At least ONE major outage on april 4th of this year at ING was caused by someone messing up certain files that had to be read into a system. This caused a major outage and customers seeing the wrong amount on their bank accounts. This incident was also the most significant failure of ING’s webcare / crisis communication because they didn’t do anything until the problem was almost fixed (many hours later). Still, mainstream media fed the panic frenzy that it was an external “sophisticated cyber attack” until the absolute very end. Very poor reporting if you ask me. Proper reporting matters because your news is read by people who take it for immediate truth. You can, and do, cause panic and unrest when you blow things out of proportion, so please stop doing so. Thank you.

Trojans for the Bundestag – German PD acquired Finfisher

FinfisherIn December of last year, the German public prosecutors’ office had declared that there was no legal basis for the use of the so-called “Bundestrojaner” spyware, which was used to spy on German citizens. On top of it being illegally used, it was also found to be of very poor quality by extensive research performed by the Chaos Computer Club. In a surprising turn of events, German political platform has now uncovered secret documents belonging to the Ministry of Finance, that the Ministry of the Interior sent to the Bundestag (the political seat of Germany) that reveals the German Federal Police’s intention to use Gamma Group’s Finfisher spyware to do the exact same thing.

Finfisher is quite an elaborate suite that allows for remote take-over of both computer systems and mobile devices such as iPhones, Androids, Blackberries and Windows Mobile-phones by pretending to be a software update. Gamma Group sells this product to dictatorial regimes all over the world, and that says a lot. What is also quite interesting is the presence of the logo for the UK’s Home Office and a link to its’ premier Security & Policing Exhibition. Does this imply that the UK government also purchased this product? Wikileaks recently published a document that looks like Finfishers’ marketing brochure and it is certainly geared towards the more modern police forces, as it sports solid integration with LEMF, which stands for Law Enforcement Monitoring Facility.

In august of last year, Bloomberg published an article that reported Finfisher presence on 5 continents and analysis performed by Rapid7 indicated its presence in at least Australia, the Czech Republic, Dubai, Ethiopia, Estonia, Indonesia, Latvia, Mongolia, Qatar, Bahrain  and the United States.  Now, of course this is not concrete proof that these governments actually use Finfisher, but Gamma Group is based in the UK and they have placed this software in the category of goods requiring an export permit because of the restrictions on exporting such digital weapons. Combined with how Gamma specifically markets Finfisher as ‘Governmental IT intrusion‘, it is highly unlikely that the British government would allow legitimate export to be done to just anyone. In a similar story posted by the New York Times, Bloomberg spoke to Martin J. Muench, who is managing director of Gamma International, and he stated that they had not sold their product to Bahrain and the malware that was found must have either been a stolen demonstration copy, or reverse-engineered by criminals.

To be clear, the use of this software is highly questionable. A while back the Dutch Minister of Safety and Justice Ivo Opstelten revealed that a plan was in the works to change the law so that it became allowed for the Dutch police to hack systems belonging to suspects. This led to international resistance and an open emergency letter [PDF warning – Dutch] was sent to the Minister to have this plan terminated because it was a gross violation of privacy. Apparently Germany is already at least one step further than this, having purchased the software already. Is this the future for the Netherlands as well? Will Minister Opstelten dust off his ill-advised plan and follow Germany in purchasing this software? I hope not. Not only is the Dutch police severely understaffed as it is, it also has a serious history of bending (or outright breaking) the rules and violating people’s rights when it comes to (ab)using technology such as this. And just how long will it take before hacking a suspects’ computer will no longer require an approval from a court judge? Where is our oversight then?