Network Security, Threat Management

Anti-hack: Retaliatory action against digital attacks

Has the time come to take retaliatory action against digital attacks? And if so, where is the line drawn? Deb Radcliff reports.

At about the time U.S. Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) was being forged out of the National Security Agency, a startup named Mykonos Software was creating a technology to positively identify and take direct action against website attackers.

What do these events have in common?

USCYBERCOM, charged with coordinating computer-network defense and directing U.S. cyberattack operations, will support the Department of Defense's new cyberwar mission, including offensive actions. There will be some crossover into the private sector in cases under Presidential Order. At the same time, the emergence of offensive tools in the private sector represents a renewed interest in taking action against attackers even without being driven by authorities.

“The ability to react against known attackers is all technically do-able today,” says Marcus Sachs, director of government affairs, national security policy, for Verizon Communications. And the private sector will certainly have to be brought into intelligence cyber operations because the internet is almost entirely run by the private sector while the military networks that USCYBERCOM is charged to protect are all run over those public backbones. Sachs has also served a variety of roles in infrastructure security leadership through the Department of Homeland Security and the White House.

The biggest question holding retaliatory measures back has been and will be: Is this type of activity legally do-able, he says, adding, “I don't think those legal and policy roadblocks are going to go away anytime soon.”

A call to cyberwar?

Laws and policy were acknowledged as problematic to USCYBERCOM's mission by Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander, NSA director, during his senate confirmation hearing to head USCYBERCOM in May. Senators at the hearing enthusiastically pledged to help overcome some of these legal and policy obstacles for USCYBERCOM's cyber operations.

USCYBERCOM's mission is to integrate the technical capability of military cyber operations and synchronize war-fighting effects to defend the DoD information security environment so as to protect and defend U.S. national security and the lives of men and women in uniform, according to a followup release to the May hearing.

To this end, USCYBERCOM also has authority to aid and assist private sector critical infrastructure organizations when approved by the president, based on Alexander's testimony in May. This includes the sharing of advanced technologies, also mentioned in the Quadrennial Defense Report, released in February. In the report, the DoD officially recognized USCYBERCOM as a new war domain for DoD activities, adding to the other war domains of land, sea, air and space.

Sachs and other experts express worry about the ambiguity of the new USCYBERCOM's mission as the DoD also stands up cyber as a new war command —particularly around its impact on civilian organizations and international relations.

“Whenever the Defense Department has stood up a new command, like NORTHCOM or AFRICOM, they've been clear about their missions and what series of events would have to take place before the capabilities of the command are invoked,” Sachs explains. “They're not doing this for cyber and that's worrisome, particularly when U.S. cyber capabilities are already feared internationally.”

There's questions about what NSA security technologies will be shared with private sector infrastructure organizations. And if cyberwar policy prevails over the internet, what level of involvement would the private sector have in supporting acts of cyber aggression on behalf of the U.S.?

USCYBERCOM's public affairs officer would not answer what the offensive nature of these acts would be or the potential involvement from private sector in these acts because information like this is classified. And, in his senate testimony, Alexander tread gingerly over invasion-of-privacy questions as they pertain to the private sector organizations that he acknowledged would have to be involved in cyber operations because they essentially support the military networks. There would also be crossover in infrastructure emergencies, he acknowledged.

Fed up enough?

While the Defense Department can't say what the private sector's involvement may be in offensive actions against attackers, market indicators may reveal that some private sector organizations, at least, are fed up enough to take more stringent action against attackers – beyond the passive detection and blocking that they do today.

For example, Rochester, N.Y.-based Synergy Global Solutions, a cloud-based managed security services provider, is installing Mykonos for advanced security services that will be offered at a premium to its customers.

The tool can track back to the real attacker's browser with enough accuracy to launch a counterattack. It does this by sending HTML code containing fake vulnerabilities to the requesting browser. If the browser starts mounting an attack against that vulnerability, the tool runs the attacker through paces to see if it's a skilled attacker or merely a botnet.

Further, the tool can place an encrypted cookie on the offending browser to monitor the attacker, or to send a message through a web page showing the attacker that his location and activities are known and being monitored. It also has the capability to send reverse attacks against the offending browser.

“Commercially, customers will be happy with the green light features which are mostly detecting blocking and the deep intelligence it can provide through the HTML lures and browser cookies,” says Jeff Thorn, director of information security at Synergy. “The stuff that's in red — let's do this or send that to attacker — represents retribution. I don't know if customers will care so much for the counterattack measures.”

Neither does Rob Lee, director of the forensics firm Mandiant. He sees organizations putting additional resources into the “cool” factor of going after attackers.

“Some of these techniques of using poisoned HTML to observe attackers are already happening,” says Lee. “Something like this provides good data for forensics purposes. But for organizations not involved in investigations, their dollars would be better spent on website assessment, monitoring and having a really smart team.”

Like Sachs and Lee, Winn Schwartau, who in the early 1990s authored a definitive book, Information Warfare, questions the legal scenarios under which offensive acts are launched — from hiding an encrypted cookie on the attacking browser to being able to tweak the tool to reverse an attack and intrude deeper into that computer to gather data. Private sector organizations generally have more leeway in terms of putting cookies on visiting browsers, but are limited to what they can do with said cookies. As well, government agencies are restricted by more stringent privacy regulations.

Schwartau, chairman of the smartphone security company Mobile Active Defense, also wrote Time-Based Security, which includes a process for HTML poisoning to observe attackers and take necessary actions against them when called for. The intelligence community, he says, would be greatly interested in this type of technology for the information it can provide on advanced techniques, as well as for its offensive capabilities.

David Koretz, president of Mykonos, confirms “strong” interest on the part of intelligence and law enforcement agencies in both the information gathering and the reactive capabilities of the tool. He adds that if such organizations want to open the tool up and program it to do things like reverse attacks and searching offending computers, they could certainly do so. The capability, however, is not operational on the commercial product and won't be until the legal ramifications can be worked out, he adds.

Are we on the cusp of taking more direct action against attackers from a private sector scenario? Experts do believe we're getting closer to that day.

“Seventeen years ago when I brought this capability up in my first Pentagon meeting, the lawyers were all over the reasons why we couldn't do this,” says Schwartau. “We've obviously developed the capability since then. The threats are much higher today, and the legal and political arena is softening.”

Photo (from left): Navy Adm. Eric Olson, U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, unidentified, and Air Force Gen. Duncan McNabb prepare to testify on the creation of a ‘Cyber Command' to defend the United States from computer attack.

Deb Radcliff

Deb Radcliff was the first investigative reporter to make cyber crime a beat starting in 1996 after researching a best-selling book about Kevin Mitnick called the Fugitive Game. Since then, she has written hundreds of articles for business and trade magazines, won two Neal awards for investigative reporting, and was runner up for a third. She stood up an analyst program for SANS Institute and ran it for 15 years before joining the Cyber Risk Alliance as strategic analyst on the business intelligence unit. And she wrote her first book in a cyber thriller series, “Breaking Backbones: Information is Power,” which is selling well on Amazon and other outlets.

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