The opponent lands combination after combination to the head, ribs, and kidneys. This barrage continues until the defender boxer is knocked out, dragged off the mat to hopefully fight another day. The fighter cannot continue. (Bardin, 2011)

This picture is much like our cyber defenses today. Culturally trained to block every punch, cyber defenses attempt to detect where the next punch will hit. Standing toe-to-toe with an adversary that is much more devious, much more innovative and completely offensive in nature (Bardin, 2011).  Corporate information security programs are uniquely designed to detect and defend. The programs organized to prevent malware from penetrating corporate information systems. This foundation is not designed to perform intelligence collection, execute cyber espionage actions or organize cyber operations activities.

activeD

The United States Department of Defense (DOD) is only responsible for the .mil domain name environment. The Department of Homeland Security is charged with defending the .gov domain name environment. There is no defensive or offensive body defending corporate or civilian networks. Security operations centers (SOCs) are purely reactive in nature. Several organizations are trying to change this model but still cling to the see, detect, and arrest mentality upon which the SOC is built. Even the much vaunted ‘kill chain’ is built upon this model. The kill chain contains elements that may be considered to contain offensive methods, but it is truly not aggressive in nature or intended to represent an offensive model.

Within lies the problem.  One boxer stands against multiple opponents all in the ring at the same time.

activeD2All cyber defenses today are just that – defensive.  What we know drives how we deploy cyber defenses. Largely, this means that any nuance or change by the attacker goes unnoticed until the blood is already running from your infrastructure. Data is hemorrhaging before detection.

The see, detect and arrest methods of cyber security only serve as an after-the-fact solution.  All too often, security leadership uses this method as a demonstration of heroism (Bardin J. , 2011). Like the fictional figure Rocky, security leadership believes they can take the body blows and headshots while eventually knocking out their opponent. The fighter is a hero to the organization. In the meantime, highly sensitive data has flowed through organizational defenses, and while eroding customer confidence.

Upon data breach, all the issues identified in your information technology (IT) environment as high risk are in vogue for remediation.  The Chief Information Officer (CIO) is paying attention, finally realizing the gravity of the risk. Money flows across your desk like a plague of locusts.  How long will this last?  Will organizational leadership realize the protection of their assets requires different thinking? How long will the organization employ security professionals who thrive on the pain associated with see, detect and arrest? How will you educate them otherwise?

Cyber espionage is the virtual manifestation of the physical tradecraft. A tradecraft represented by the cycle of intelligence, counterintelligence and espionage now translated to cyberspace. Cyber espionage incorporates cyber power with methods to influence, manipulate, and shutdown adversary cyber infrastructures.  It includes people, process and technology weaknesses while using dynamic methods that focuses effort and emphasis on weakest areas. Cyber espionage includes:

  • Human Intelligence (HUMINT)
  • Information Security (INFOSEC)
  • Communications Intelligence (COMINT)
  • Signals Intelligence (SIGINT)
  • Open Source Intelligence (OSINT)
  • Culturonomics non-inclusively(Bardin, 2011).

activeD3Cyber espionage is opportunistic in nature but only as sophisticated as it needs to be. A sophistication determined and dictated by aggressors after performing intelligence gathering on the intended targets.  The intelligence leads to the exploitation of technological and human vulnerabilities.

The attackers establish repeatable processes and use metrics to determine targets. They are adept at using denial and deception to obfuscate and misdirect (Bardin, 2011). They remain hidden and resident in your environments while extracting information of value for monetization, economic advantage, military and strategic advantage.

Many SOCs employ either staff or vendors to assist in scanning for vulnerabilities, updating firewall rules and patching systems. This model is part of the failed defensive foundation. This model is nothing more than an attempt at a blocking action. Organizations need to examine other options. Those options include passive data collection for analysis to intelligence, methods of either mitigative or retributive counterstriking or outright cyber operations to counter and weaken the threat.

Passive Data Collection

Passive data collection is an active method to gather information about adversaries without disrupting, hacking, or violating law. Passive data collection includes structured methods of open source data collection. Open source data is:

Raw print, broadcast, podcasts, vodcasts, webinars, images, websites, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter, Foursquare, Google+, radio, TV, budgets, demographics, legislative debates, conferences, speeches, academic sources, symposia, professional associations, dissertations, experts, imagery, trip reports, working and discussion papers, surveys, proceedings, research reports, briefs, studies, publically available unofficial government or corporate documents.

Passive data collection creates Open Source Intelligence (OSINT). OSINT is the only discipline that is both a necessary foundation for effective data collection and analysis, and a full multi-media discipline in its own right. OSINT combines:

  • Overt human intelligence from open sources,
  • Commercial imagery,
  • Foreign broadcast monitoring, and
  • Numerous other direct and localized information sources and methods not now properly exploited by the secret intelligence community.

There are a great number of tools available for use to collect open source data. Dozens may be found at the Internet Tools and Resources for Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) website at www.onstrat.com/osint/.  Organizations should develop a strategy and program that uses passive data collection efforts. Planning for the production of unstructured data ensures proper use. Many organizations collect data without priority intelligence or information requirements. This leads to unfulfilled expectations and inappropriate collection methods.

Mitigative counterstriking is method of actively fighting back against an adversary during a cyberattack. Mitigative counterstriking may be construed as active defense. Active defense is a method of attacking back against an adversary during an actual attack. The idea is to get the attacker to cease and desist relative to the attack. The goal is reduce the amount of damage related to the current attack (Hayes, 2011).

Retributive counterstriking is an extension of mitigative counterstriking. Retributive counterstriking not only works to mediate the damage to an existing attack but also seeks to inflict some level of damage upon the attacker (Hayes, 2011).

Both mitigative and retributive counterstriking may be deemed legal based upon Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations. Article 51 discusses the right of self-defense prior to, during and after a physical attack upon a sovereign nation.

The Tallinn Manual on the International Law Application to Cyber Warfare discusses many of the same issues. One area of note refers to civilian organizations. Civilians retain civilian status regardless their level of participation in hostile cyber actions (Experts, 2012).  The manual states that civilians are not covered by the Geneva Conventions and may be targeted. Of interest is the fact that civilian organizations are already targeted serving as a great source of intellectual property loss and data loss for monetization. The manual continues to state that civilians may be prosecuted under local laws of the country that captures them (Experts, 2012).

evwOf further interest in the Tallinn Manual are definitions associated with the concept of an attack. The Tallinn Manual based upon the International Group of Experts does not consider cyber espionage as an attack. What is very interesting is that the dropping of leaflets from aircraft is not considered illegal. Would then the dropping of virtual leaflets on the sovereign virtual websites of a country or corporate entity be considered illegal? Would the modification of a website to communicate information in a cyber-leaflet qualify as an attack?

Civilian populations are not to be attacked under the Tallinn Manual. If this is to be adopted, then wouldn’t most commercial organizations fit the civilian model?

The bottom line is that no government organization is prepared to defend corporate organizations or civilians in the case of an attack. Corporations and civilians are attacked daily for information. Corporations and civilians are directed not to counterstrike. Corporations and civilians are not protected online by their governments. Who then will protect you? Organizations need to retool their SOC environments to address the changing threat environment. Current information security technologies continue to offer defensive protections. Protections that do not work. Vendors need to retool their products to incorporate methods of active defense or mitigative counterstriking.

Seed the movement

If an organization makes the decision to counterstrike, the changes in organizational risk must accompany changes in information security structure. In fact, information security as a function itself may not be the best location for a cyber operations function. If the decision to launch a cyber attack comes, execute the attack correctly. The need to purchase or steal botnets covertly from criminal networks to launch attacks, feed ‘patriotic’ blogs to incite attacks and list targets, must be considered as options depending upon the level of risk acceptance and understanding. Assume you have made these decisions. Past adversary activities included the attempt to take over a highly enhanced DNS sinkhole capability of an information security vendor.  If the adversary had succeeded, they would have increased their ability to:

  • Further mine organizational networks for sensitive information
  • Monetize stolen information for personal and professional gain
  • Use new found wealth to build greater virtual and physical capabilities
  • Potentially redirect botnet activities as a distributed denial of service
  • Enhance the existing code and protocols with new navigational functions, advanced payloads and more stealthy and powerful delivery mechanisms
  • Deceive organizations or nation-states into thinking another is attacking their critical infrastructures.

Many adversaries use the free/libre/open source software (FLOSS) model he Open Source Warfare concept takes the developmental model for FLOSS and applies it to how Internet-based proxy organizations learn and expand (Robb, 2005).  The bazaar model within the open source software community uses methods and a high level of sophistication. The model may seem to be ad hoc and disorganized. Yet the model is highly effective. This model could be a foundational capability for organizations looking to build an offensive capability. The bazaar examines how several small and adverse groups would crowdsource their efforts to conduct mitigative and retributive counterstriking.

Here are the factors that apply (from the perspective of the guerrillas) and as developed by Eric Raymond (Raymond, 2001):

  1. Release early and often. Try new forms of attacks against different types of targets early and often. Don’t wait for a perfect plan.
  2. Given a large enough pool of co-developers, any difficult problem will be seen as obvious by someone, and solved. Eventually some participant of the bazaar will find a way to disrupt a particularly difficult target. All you need to do is copy the process they used.
  3. Your co-developers (beta-testers) are your most valuable resource. The other guerrilla networks in the bazaar are your most valuable allies. They will innovate on your plans, swarm on weaknesses you identify, and protect you by creating system noise.
  4. Recognize good ideas from your co-developers. Simple attacks that have immediate and far-reaching impact should be adopted.
  5. Perfection is achieved when there is nothing left to take away (simplicity). The easier the attack is, the more easily it will be adopted. Complexity prevents swarming that both amplifies and protects.
  6. Tools are often used in unexpected ways. An attack method can often find reuse in unexpected ways.
  7. Release early and often. Try new forms of attacks against different types of targets early and often. Don’t wait for a perfect plan.

Raymond’s theories may serve as the basis for goals and objectives within a cyber intelligence strategic plan.

We all face Hackers, Hacktivists and Virus Writers that are driven by ego or a technical challenge. We also deal with disgruntled employees or customers seeking revenge. Each organization faces crooks interested in personal financial gain or covering criminal activity knock at our virtual doors daily. Organized crime is seeking to launder money or traffic in humans using cyber means to drive effective command and control of their operations. Organized terrorist groups focused on breaking public will use cyberspace for command, control, communication, recruitment, infiltration, surveillance and radicalization (Bardin J. , Cyber Shafarat 2012: Cyber Warfare, OPSEC and Intelligence, 2012).

Nation-states use cyber espionage seeking to exploit information for economic, political or military purposes. They use tactical countermeasures intended to disrupt specific military weapons or command systems are tested frequently and periodically used. They also target corporations and civilian organizations. Multifaceted tactical information warfare is applied in a broad, orchestrated manner to disrupt major military missions while facing future actions against large organized groups or nation states who are intent on overthrowing target countries. The need for expanding beyond a defensive posture is clear. Doing so may lead to unintended consequences. Dr. Joe St.   of the University of Oregon states it this way:

Let’s not overlook the “shifting wind” or “boomerang” problem: computer malware, like traditional chemical or biological warfare agents, can potentially “get away from you,” drifting off course or “boomeranging back,” accidentally hitting one’s own forces or allies or hitting uninvolved third parties, rather than the enemy (Sauver, 2008).

However, if malware can learn to distinguish “friends” from “foes,” unintended potential side effects may be able to be contained, and inhibitions (which might otherwise deter potential use) may be lowered or eliminated.

In a 2003 report (Klare M. , 2011) at least 1,134 companies in 98 countries worldwide were involved in some aspect of the production of small arms and/or ammunition.

In addition, massive exports of small arms by the US, the former Soviet Union, China, Germany, Belgium, and Brazil during the Cold War took place commercially and to support ideological movements. These small arms have survived many conflicts and many are now in the hands of arms dealers or smaller governments who move them between conflict areas as needed.

Past activities of Anonymous demonstrate the same type of small arms proliferation albeit in a virtual plane.  Driven largely by ideological activities, Anonymous distributes a revamped version of the Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC) tool used in mass Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks.  LOIC was the primary weapon used by Anonymous in its ongoing “Operation Payback” DDoS campaign against film and recording industry associations, as well as other organizations involved in anti-piracy efforts. The application was originally created by a user named Praetox and was used in several mass attacks over the years, including Anonymous’ campaigns against the Church of Scientology or the Australian government or the Iranian election protests last year. In January 2009 the code of the Windows program was released on SourceForge as an open source project and a cross-platform Java version was later created. This release allows for the proliferation of code that can be enhanced, improved, and utilized in low intensity conflicts with the potential for significant media coverage.

In past years another developer branched off the code and added a new feature called “Hive Mind” to the tool. This feature allows users to relinquish control over the application after installation and makes it act as a botnet client, which can be controlled from an IRC channel. This method of virtual small arms proliferation allows like-minded individuals to participate in DDoS activities based upon their ideology while giving up control to centralized resources.

Small arms and light weapons have been responsible for the majority of the combat deaths in recent wars and figure in much of the crime and civil violence visited upon vulnerable societies around the world (Klare). Virtual small arms are currently responsible for all the malware activities around the world today.  This will continue for the foreseeable future and be the bane of most governments and anyone who disagrees with a group capable of extracting virtual revenge, censorship, and elimination of the right to disagree or have a different ideology.

Virtual small arms are ideal methods for online disruption. They are widely available, low in cost if there is even a cost at all, they deliver a strong payload, simple to use, highly portable, easily concealed, and potentially possess legitimate military, police, and civilian uses (Klare). These virtual weapons are light in footprint, and so can be used by the very young yet technically astute who have played such a significant role in recent virtual conflicts.

But once the virtual conflict is over, virtual small arms still exist in the hands of the participants. Virtual small arms can easily be used to start other conflicts that may be more personal.  It creates a surplus of virtual small arms establishing a culture of hacktivism and an endless circle of virtual conflicts.

The latest concern is the revelation that Anonymous acquired much of the code related to Stuxnet.  According to some ‘experts’ malware is largely uncharted territory for Anonymous, “which has built its notoriety on crippling the websites of governments and multinational corporations, such as Visa and MasterCard, which it deems a threat to freedom of speech (Halliday, 2011).”  The problem is that no one really knows the capabilities of Anonymous since it is such a loose knit group who come together to crowdsource their targets and attacks based upon a shared ideology or belief. Anonymous uses Web 2.0 technologies to establish a community-based design for their focused efforts. They even use Web 2.0 as a method to propel their payload to new levels.

Regardless, the residual virtual small arms left over by Stuxnet provides a foundation for melding together new attacks that can be leveraged in much the same way that LOIC has been leveraged and matured over time.

The asymmetrical methods of cyber hacktivism used by Anonymous and other such organizations make it extremely difficult for nation-states. Governments are struggling to create their own cyber defenses based upon outdated laws while asymmetrical attacks are increasing in scope, frequency and lethality.

The response is to create and leverage cyber mercenary forces. These are civilian-based organizations and/or individuals who have the skill, moxie and risk appetite to combat those who participate in illegal activities against commercial entities, individuals and governments.  Currently personified by the lone wolf Th3J35t3r (The Jester), the single-mindedness of such individuals and/or groups combined with technical skill, cyber counter intelligence capabilities and a penchant for offensive action (taking the fight to the adversary’s doorstep) is what is required.  Cyber mercenaries have the same asymmetrical capabilities as their adversaries.  If contracted by commercial and/or government entities, cyber mercenaries could acquire the funding and technology to rapidly increase their cache of virtual small arms. Access to the technical repositories, financial resources and knowhow of government and non-government organizations (NGOs) could enable cyber mercenaries to expand offensive activities with maximum lethality, quickly and efficiently. But what of the potential for virtual arms to be left behind?  Would this parallel the same activities we have seen over and over again in the physical world with respect to the proliferation of small arms?

Cyber mercenaries are already being employed by the US government and have been for several years. The cyber mercenaries of today though are in place as a defensive measure.  They analyze malware, reverse engineer malware and examine penetration attempts, attacks, and deal with incident response and handling. What needs to be leveraged and organized are small teams of cyber mercenary groups with offensive capabilities and the will to strike at a moment’s notice.

The days of the virtual aircraft carrier operating in small corridors attacked by a multitude of speed boats each packed with enough explosives to immediately disable the vessel is upon us. Until such time governments figure out how to deal with such fast moving, guerilla-style, virtual asymmetrical attacks, they should rely upon cyber mercenaries.  It is time to organize.

It is not illegal to use offensive-based cyber mercenary groups to drop cyber jihadist sites.  We are at war with Daesh (ISIS), Al-Qa’eda, and the Taliban in terms of physical action. We should be at war with them as well in the virtual world. We know where their sites are; we know their vulnerabilities; we have those like Th3J35t3r who temporarily remove them from their virtual perches acting in the interests of the US government even though not condoned or authorized by the US government to do so. Regardless, this hacktivism is correct and just. It carries the war to the doorstep of our enemies. It disrupts their communications which is a core tenet of offensive warfare.

The capabilities of such people should be leverage creating cyber mercenary organizations to combat the oncoming tide and virtual onslaught that is at our doorstep.

Certainly, cybersecurity will never get better until we are able to curb cybercrime. However, there is much more we need to do to improve cybersecurity. These center around building security into every function of business and IT planning. If we build security into every function and facet of every bit of software and hardware that we create implement and deploy, then our levels of risk will be reduced significantly. This means regardless the level of attempts at cybercrime our data is protected. If we encapsulate our sensitive data upon inception, much like the creators of Gauss encrypted the payload we significantly reduce risk.

The legal issues surrounding cyber operations notwithstanding, offensive cyber actions are the only way organization are going to get our adversaries to pay attention. Whether they are cyber criminals, foreign intelligence services, cyber proxies, hackers, hacktivists, or some other such adversary, organizations need to do more than just stand and take a beating.  Organizational intellectual property and client data is being stolen.

When organizations attack the attackers (and this is not active defense), the attackers are not attacking back but defending. Most cyber criminals have no defensive posture whatsoever. When hit with an offensive attack, they quickly shift their targets since it is not cost effective and their whole intent is economic in nature.

When an organization counter attacks or openly attacks an adversary, it is going to be just as difficult for the adversary to identify the organization as it is for the organization to identify them if not more difficult. The means, motives and methods of our adversaries are well known. We have been watching their methods, identifying and tracking their tools and tendencies to the point where we (in our efforts to counter attack) have the ability to look and smell just like our enemies. They may not realize that a cyber-proxy is virtually standing right next to them. They believe it is their brother in arms. The usage of sock puppets, anonymity, methods of misinformation, disinformation, cyber Psyops, and cyber espionage greatly diminishes their capabilities and forces the adversary to invest defensive measures.  It forces them to defend their environments.  When doing this, they are certainly not attacking your organization.

Organizations must look at host country current cyber legal and military environments as they relate to defending their virtual boundaries. Government cyber operations are highly immature with limited vision and strategic foresight for creating a cyber National Guard and cyber police force to protect civilian organizations.

We are living in a world much like the times of the American French and Indian War (Seven Years War).  The military secured protected locations such as Albany, Fort Edward, and Fort William Henry.                                 Corporations are like the frontiersmen and women depicted in the movie “Last of the Mohicans,” where we have carved out a virtual living for ourselves in potentially hostile area. Corporations live amongst the enemy and understand their methods and indicators. Corporations know the enemy and are able to fight them on the same level yet choose otherwise. The opportunity to change this paradigm is upon us.

The legal doctrine of self-defense is fine in the physical world but it does not apply in the virtual world. At least not yet. Corporations are still on that proverbial frontier. There is positive outcome when attacking your cyber adversaries. It disrupts their command and control. If forces them off their mission. If forces the adversary to invest in measures they have never invested in.

Many worry that companies may suffer reputational issues, stock price drops or financial loses should they be caught executing counterstrikes.  This is exactly what has been happening for years as companies lose data and suffer all the above.  Individuals may be more inclined to invest in a company that protects data through any means as opposed to one that continues to lose it. Is it more risky to continue the same methods of cyber defense (stand in the ring with multiple opponents just bobbing and weaving never throwing a punch) or more risky to start fighting back with jabs, combinations, head and body blows?

judgedbyMany worry that companies may suffer reputational issues, stock price drops or financial loses should they be caught executing counterstrikes.  This is exactly what has been happening for years as companies lose data and suffer all the above.  Individuals may be more inclined to invest in a company that protects data through any means as opposed to one that continues to lose it. Is it more risky to continue the same methods of cyber defense (stand in the ring with multiple opponents just bobbing and weaving never throwing a punch) or more risky to start fighting back with jabs, combinations, head and body blows?

Are mitigative and retributive cyber actions reckless? Every country in the world has been hit with cyber-attacks and malware for years. Isn’t it time organizations used their capabilities to attack adversaries in a virtual mode? Do we really think that establishing a convention on cybercrime is going to stop our adversaries? They do not recognize virtual borders or virtual sovereignty. Why would they recognize a convention on cybercrime that creates a document much like the Geneva Conventions? All this does is force offensive cyber forces to establish an unwieldy ‘rules of engagement’ that ties the hands of those who can execute offensive cyber actions. These actions started in the United States years ago (Titan Rain, Moonlight Maze and Operation Aurora to name a few).  The problem is that all organizations are in the ring with several fighters at one time.

We must maintain defensive capabilities but there needs to be parallel offensive action to protect organizational assets while waiting for those courses of action to take effect. Organizations cannot afford to stand idly by while intellectual property, sensitive information and wealth is pilfered on a daily basis.

At its core, counterstriking is about two things: deterring attackers, and ensuring that organizations are not deprived of the inherent right to defend themselves and their property. There are many views of deterrence, but deterrence is generally accomplished through the existence of one or both of the following elements: punishing the attacker through the infliction of unacceptable costs, or denying the attacker success. When will your organization begin to punish the attacker?

JSB

Treadstone 71

Bardin, J. (2011, April 4). Cyber Defenses – Bloodied, Battered and Bruised. Retrieved from CSO Online: http://www.csoonline.com/article/2136449/identity-management/cyber-defenses—bloodied–battered-and-bruised.html

Bardin, J. (2011, September 16). When to Strike Back. Retrieved from CSO Online: http://www.csoonline.com/article/2136467/identity-management/when-to-strike-back-.html

Bardin, J. (2012, February 1). Cyber Shafarat 2012: Cyber Warfare, OPSEC and Intelligence. Retrieved from CSO Online: http://www.csoonline.com/article/2136473/security-leadership/cyber-shafarat-2012–cyber-warfare–opsec-and-intelligence.html

Experts, I. G. (2012). Tallinn Manual on the International Law Applicable to Cyber Warfare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Halliday, J. (2011, February 14). Anonymous claims to have Stuxnet access. Retrieved February 11, 2011, from guardian.co.uk: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/feb/14/anonymous-stuxnet-nuclear-iran

Hayes, J. P. (2011). Mitigative Counterstriking: Self Defense and Deterrence in Cyberspace. Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois .

Klare, M. (2011, February 14). Small Arms. Retrieved from Small Arms Proliferation and Interational Security: http://pawss.hampshire.edu/topics/smallarms/index.html

Klare, M. (n.d.). Small Arms. Retrieved February 14, 2011, from Small Arms Proliferation and International Security: http://pawss.hampshire.edu/topics/smallarms/index.html

Raymond, E. (2001). The Cathedral and The Bazaar. O’Reilly Media.

Robb, J. (2005, July 26). Open Source Warfare. Retrieved from Open the Future: http://www.openthefuture.com/wcarchive/2005/07/open_source_warfare.html

Sauver, J. S. (2008, October 21). Cyberwar, Cyber Terrorism and Cyber Espionage. Retrieved from Cyberwar: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0CB8QFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fpages.uoregon.edu%2Fjoe%2Fcyberwar%2Fcyberwar.ppt&ei=rJpHVbzQH4GANrmEgZgE&usg=AFQjCNHQwkuCemtUkG2bp52Wobu8P2NkTg&bvm=bv.92291466,d.eXY