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even if we manage to define proper laws for the circumstances right now, there is a good chance that they will be outdated due to technological advances in short order.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.

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.