Saturday, September 18, 2010

Are Targeted Attacks on Industry Cyberwar?

I’m writing this post to try to enter the conversation on cyberwar, etc. My motivation in doing so is not only to share my opinions on the topic, but also to add my witness to the few others out there which testify that targeted attacks pose a real and extant threat to our long term national prosperity.

Before I start, I need to clarify my viewpoint. I’m a technical person. I do technical work--like programming computers. I don’t have any political, social, or economic influence. I do have a lot of operational experience doing incident response, especially against highly sophisticated attacks. However, since my current and past employers and universities don’t allow me to speak about specifics of attacks; I can only cite general observations and trends. I stand very little to gain from the comments I’ll be making. My primary goal is to help shape public opinion.

Targeted, Persistent Attacks

Throughout this article, I’ll be speaking about highly targeted, persistent attacks perpetrated by well organized attack groups for the apparent purpose of stealing sensitive information including trade secrets. Many people use the term Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) to describe this category of attackers. Some people use it to describe some specific subset (which they often imply isn’t a strict subset) of this attack class, and as such, use it as a proper noun. Even though many imply some coherent rationale for their grouping, they usually won’t elucidate in public. I tend to use terms like targeted attacks and persistent attackers to ensure people understand I’m talking about the general attack class. That being said, the vast majority of what has been said by people in the know about APT applies to what I’ll be saying, regardless of whether you consider APT a general attack class or specific attack group. Just to be explicit, examples of APT discussions that I believe to be on the mark are those by Mike Cloppert and Richard Bejtlich. On the other hand, examples of wantonly ignorant discussions about APT include those by Mcaffe and Damballa. One quick litmus test is that if someone supposedly discussing APT closely relates the activity to botnets, identity theft, or insider threat, they’re not talking about the same thing I am.

Most of my discussion will focus around highly targeted attacks for the purpose of compromising sensitive information, especially against industry. I’ll intentionally avoid speculating on important issues such as the ability of terrorists to use vulnerable computer systems to cause mass disruption and destruction. The one thing I will say is that there are a lot of projections about how information systems could be exploited for malicious intent. Many of these are still hypothetical. APT attacks are real today and are becoming more prevalent as time passes.

Attacks on Industry

One of the most disturbing aspects of highly targeted and persistent attacks is that these attacks are becoming more common against private industry. Governments have always had to worry about spies breaking into their systems, and have supposedly been developing systems to counter APT level threats for some time. Private industry isn’t used to having to defend against APT class attacks. Companies like Google are being taken off guard. These highly targeted attacks are resulting in information being compromised that normally isn’t--things like trade secrets and proprietary information. This is really scary. The perpetrators aren’t going after credit cards or SSNs, they’re going after trade secrets. Many people consider this sort of information one of the most valuable classes of assets in the US economy. The use of this information by competitors represents a serious threat to the long term prosperity of any information based company, and by extension, the competitiveness of the US economy. This is real scary. Even the military types recognize the risk. I think it demonstrates some serious means/ends inversion, but when military types start talking about threats to US prosperity inhibiting our ability to conduct war, we ought to listen. We need to remember that self defense is merely a means to an end of freedom, peace, and prosperity. Highly targeted attacks don’t just endanger short term national security; they are a serious threat to the US’s long term peace and prosperity. Throughout this post, I’m going to be focusing primarily on attacks against industry.


Are targeted, persistent attackers waging cyberwar? This is a hard question. First, modern society has confounded the meaning of war, using it for things like “Cold War”, “War on Terror”, and even “War on Christmas”. It’s hard to clearly define what warfare is.

Clearly, cyber- (e.g. something related to computers or networking) is used pervasively in modern warfare. Militaries have driven many of the developments in technology and communication that are now used by civilians. The military uses computers, networks, and robots extensively to conduct warfare. While using cyber- in this context probably lines up with other prefixes such as modern- (e.g. using gunpowder) and chemical-, this doesn’t comprise all of what most people mean when they say cyberwar, including the US military.

The US military has applied a much broader meaning to cyberwar: defining it a battle space or domain much like land, air and sea. I’m not sure I fully agree with the rationale behind this definition, but it’s theirs to make. However, using this definition, targeted, persistent attacks with the apparent goal of collection of sensitive information, doesn’t line up with cyberwar, because no disruption occurs. Using US government parlance, this activity is probably better categorized as cyber-espionage.


If persistent, targeted attacks seeking sensitive information aren’t classed as warfare, maybe they are appropriately classed as cyber-espionage. Recently, Gen. Michael Hayden spoke at Blackhat on this very subject. What he said seems to be basically in line with the rest of what the US government has said on these topics. His basic assertion was that intelligence gathering isn’t cyberwar. He basically said that attacks targeting sensitive information like what I’ve been speaking of are just part of business as usual, at least for cyber-spies. He expounds the partitioning of the cyber domain into 3 sub-domains: CND (defense--stopping the other two), CNE (exploitation--for espionage), and CNA (attack--for disruption or destruction). A lot of what he said makes sense, as he dispels a lot of FUD. At the very least, most of what he said is technically correct.

Information as the End

A couple months ago, I would have agreed with this categorization of APT attacks as cyber-espionage. Then I listened to this podcast. Something Rob Lee said struck a cord with me. He said, in short, that information is an asset over which modern wars are being fought, much like the riches of land or gold in previous centuries. I’d never thought of information as the end of warfare, simply as the means. I think this way of looking at targeted attacks warrants more discussion. What if cyberwar isn’t just about aggressors using IT as a means to conduct warfare? What if the purpose of cyberwar is to rest highly valuable information away from the enemy, just like land or gold in traditional warfare? This isn’t information warfare, because the information targeted is not necessarily about warfare. Attacks targeting industry trade secrets aren’t espionage by most people’s definition because the secrets being taken aren’t military or political in nature--they are largely economic. This is essentially economic espionage.


It’s a shame that people in industry have used the term piracy for actions that are more equitable to petty theft. If it wasn’t already used, cyber-piracy seems like a good way to describe the theft of sensitive information of economic value using military-like force. That’s really what’s happening to industry now. Persistent attackers are forcibly stealing highly valuable trade secrets. One of the reasons I’d like to compare this to naval piracy is that it must be perpetrated by a military-like force and because it is usually best answered with military or para-military force. I can visualize trade secrets being exfiltrated by hackers as gold or other goods being carried off by pirates in ships. The value of the data lost due to targeted attacks is immensely high, but is not normally discussed and it is easy to conceal. Regardless, if the value of the data stolen from private industry through targeted attacks was known, it would probably be considered a justifiable reason to wage a war against the perpetrators.

On Attribution

One thing that many people seem to get preoccupied with is the issue of attribution for highly targeted attacks. Many facets of these attacks make it very unlikely that the attacks are perpetrated merely by organized crime without some level of support or tolerance by national governments. For example, highly persistent attackers usually target information that is not highly liquid and as such could only be of value to a small set of possible markets. Are these attacks directly sponsored, indirectly guided, or loosely condoned by foreign nations? Most of us will never know that answer. For most people, it really doesn’t matter. The actions that should be taken to solve the targeted attack problem don’t change that much regardless of how much foreign government support is behind these attacks. Lay people should be pushing for diplomatic, legal, and possibly military pressure to stop them.


Numerous open sources have implicated China in targeted attacks. My favorites include the NG report on PRC cyber-warfare and CNE and Shadows in the Clouds. The attacks on Google earlier this year and the subsequent response by Google is probably the best known public example. The most compelling evidence of Chinese involvement is that Chinese human rights activists were targeted by these attacks. It is hard to imagine anyone other than a Chinese supporter having adequate motivation to conduct this sort of attack. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the attacks are perpetrated by agents of the Chinese government. Indeed, the Chinese government often claims that they are victims of hacking themselves. Clearly the Chinese government has other high priority issues to address, such as ensuring that the constitutionally granted right to free speech is protected.

That being said, I think the focus on China is a little myopic. I find it hard to believe that all targeted attacks on industry are from one source. Even if they are, how long it will stay that way?

It Takes Two to Fight

As mentioned previously, the extent of the damage caused by targeted persistent attacks is probably great enough to justify a war. If there’s one element missing from cyberwar, it’s our response. I’ve heard the terms cyber-Pearl Harbor and cyber-9/11 bandied about, but up to this point, there has not been a single decisive attack and associated response that even comes close to earning these titles. I doubt such an event will ever occur associated with targeted attacks on industry. Sure, terrorists and the like may well perpetrate an event that might earn an appellation of cyber-9/11. Terrorists intentionally perpetrate highly visible and dramatic attacks, but APT attacks are exactly the opposite: they are stealthy and deceptively mundane in methods. Unlike terrorists, whose goal is to gain attention, targeted, persistent attackers seem to prefer keeping things quiet. To make matters worse, most of the victims of these attacks like to keep their losses secret also. In the past, I’ve discussed how keeping targeted attacks secret stifles the development of technical solutions.

From everything I can tell, the US is not fighting back to protect industry from targeted, persistent cyber attacks. The military is trying hash out their internal turf wars about who will own the cyber domain. Beyond that, the US government is still trying to figure out who, if anyone, is going to help defend industry against cyber threats. Based on the recent reports of a huge breach in the government’s classified networks, it appears the government and military is struggling to defend its own networks. While DHS claims to have a division dedicated to cyber security, it appears that they are not concerned about the theft of trade secrets from industry, preferring to focus their efforts on protecting critical infrastructure from attacks like those terrorists would like to be able to perpetrate. Defending industry from targeted attacks is not a battle anyone is openly fighting, even though industry is getting roughed up.

Cyberwar?, Cyber Espionage?

Returning to the title of this post, do targeted attacks on industry constitute cyberwar? Probably not, especially if there is no reciprocation. Is it espionage? Not really, at least not according most peoples’ definition, because the data targeted isn’t directly related to the government but is largely economic in nature. If I were going to put targeted, persistent attacks on industry under a single moniker, I’d label them as “Economic Espionage”.

A major motivation in writing this post is to voice my concern about a very serious threat to our long term prosperity and to add my voice to the others claiming that these attacks are real: they are happening today at an alarming rate. I normally don’t like doing it this way, but I’ve pointed out a serious problem without providing any suggestions for remedying it. I hope to provide my thoughts on what needs to be done in a future post. Targeted attacks on industry are real. They pose a serious threat to our long term prosperity.