ACDC: Why the Vigilante Approach Isn’t Going to Work and Cooler Heads Should Prevail

There is widespread industry discussion and debate about the current Active Cyber Defense Certainty Act (ACDC), introduced to Congress in March of 2017, that would allow companies the right to hack back after a “persistent unauthorized intrusion.” This bill has become increasingly relevant in the cybersecurity community as a result of frustration with the sheer number of breaches, damage caused by them and low prosecution rates.

More specifically, ACDC allows individuals and companies to hack hackers if the goal is to disrupt, monitor or attribute the attack, or destroy stolen files. The bill does not allow counter-attackers to destroy anything other than their own stolen files and requires that someone “hacking back” under the bill's provisions notify the FBI National Cyber Investigative Joint Task Force.

An updated version of the bill was referred to the House Judiciary Committee on October 12 and then to the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations on Nov. 1. Noting that an average of 86 percent of bills never make it out of subcommittee, there is a very reasonable chance the bill may never pass.

With the bill, sponsors and supporters are looking to address the increase in the frequency and magnitude of breaches and the public's increasing frustration.  However, the reality is that legalizing counter-hacking for private organizations is not the best solution and here's why:

• Attribution is challenging and there is the potential for innocent “bystanders” to be negatively impacted.
• The bill only legalizes counter-hacking against hackers in the United States and many attacks cross international boundaries and their laws will still prevail.
• A private organization's counter-hacking may interfere with other investigations or activities by government agencies.
• It can be very difficult to prove a given hacker “persistently” attacked a network.
• Typically, people who are good at security are experienced at defending a network's perimeter. However, they generally lack the skills, training and financial resources to conduct a counter hack.

It is clear there is no way to keep threat actors out of the network 100 percent of the time and even with the best “castle walls and moats,” human error, insiders, suppliers and even contractors can all create weak links.

However, counter-hacking, as the answer, exposes many practical and ethically gray issues that organizations may be ill-equipped to address. One could also argue that organizations are better suited focusing their efforts on fortifying their defenses and detecting threats quickly to avoid breaches in the first place – eliminating the need for retaliation.

Rather than counter-hacking, IT teams can look to deception to change the asymmetry of an attack. Deception is a valuable threat, adversary and counter-intelligence tool for detection and acquiring information for strengthening active defenses. The use of deception for in-network detection and intelligence is both legal and keeps organizations within their swim lanes of what they do best: defending their networks. Early detection, paired with indicators of compromise and intel that helps identify and neutralize adversaries targeting the organization, will not only prevent an attacker from successfully completing their attack, but will also strengthen defenses against other and future attackers.

There was a fundamental shift in 2017 towards organizations building an adaptive security defense that includes prevention, detection and response technologies and this trend will continue. Gartner called deception one its “Top Technologies for Security in 2017” in a June 2017 report. In a new report issued in October, Gartner lists “Continuous Adaptive Risk and Trust” as a “Top 10 Strategic Technology Trend for 2018,” and noted, “CARTA can also be applied at runtime with approaches such as deception technologies.”

I encourage organizations to look at building an adaptive defense that includes the use of distributed deception platforms instead of going down the path of a vigilante. Retribution, in some cases, may make sense, but it is best left to military or law enforcement that possess the skills and resources to execute a counter hack with the precision that is required.

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