Cyber Cease-Fire: US v. China

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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.

 

Second-guessing

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.

 

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.

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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 d.eijndhoven@argentconsulting.nl.

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.