Re-Imagining Cyber Security

Tag: assumptions

Protect All Information Completely? Expect Exploitation Instead

Packet Pushers recently published an opinion titled “Pill-Chomping Hackers and Security Whack-a-Mole.”  There are several very good points.

All information about a target is a potential vulnerability

Information is helplessly entangled and one piece of innocuous information can lead to other pieces of critical information

Information is only as secure as those protecting it

There is one point worth re-iterating: when you share your data (whether it is your social security number at a medical office or your credit card number at a restaurant) it is only as secure as the security of those holding it.  In essence, both organizational and personal security must expand the boundaries to include anywhere their information is held.

However, there is one point I would like to argue, the implication that all data must be secured because it is a vulnerability.  It is not possible to protect all data equally.  A data owner must place different values on different datum and protected it appropriately.

Second, hiding all of your most critical data using in the most secure method still does guarantee security. Instead of attempting to build the best security controls and assume they work, it is better to protect your data as well as possible and then assume you will be exploited.

Don’t just protect the data, one must watch for signs of exploitation and prevent further exploitation.  In the case of a social security number in the real-world, if one assumes the theft and misuse of the number then it is best to watch for further misuse (e.g. unauthorized new lines of credit being opened, activity on credit cards, etc.).

Furthermore, reduce loss.  If at all possible, make sure that any compromise is as insignificant as possible.  In the real-world, it is best to reduce password re-use so that if a password to one application or website is compromised, not all of your passwords have been compromised.

Yes, protect your data as best as you can, but assume it adversaries are out to exploit you – and they will be successful.

Hacker Motivations or Hackers Need To Eat Too

New research appears to raise questions over the conventional wisdom that pure nation-state cyberspies rarely, if ever, dabble in traditional financial cybercrime.  –  “Cybercriminal By Day, Cyber Spy By Night?” in Dark Reading on 1 March 2012

Dark Reading (@darkreading) wrote from the RSA 2012 conference of an intriguing analytic correlation made by the Dell SecureWorks Counter Threat Unit between the RSA attackers and cyber financial crimes.

The article is interesting in two ways.  First, it showcases some good analytic tradecraft correlating seemingly independent activities through adversary personas and infrastructure (in this case domain name registration).  Second, it asks the question: can a hacker be both a spy and cyber criminal?

The fact that an adversary will be using their skills for two purposes supposedly challenges “conventional wisdom.”  Normally, intrusion analysts work towards identifying the motivation of the hacker/attacker to gauge the best response (hopefully) and potentially offer clues to attribution.  There are many “conventional” terms we use to describe “hacker motivations”: script kiddies, espionage, hacktivism, black/white hat, etc. (see McAfee’s 7 Types of Hacker Motivations).

However, we often look too much towards our technical understanding and fail to acknowledge basic human motivations: safety, physiological needs (water, shelter, food, etc), love, esteem, and self-actualization [see “A Theory of Human Motivation” by Abraham Maslow or a summary of Motivations on Wikipedia].

Hackers, as all humans, are not above the basic motivations which include greed.  This would be a very simple hypothesis of why a cyber espionage actor would turn to cyber crime – for financial gain.  Maybe they were not being paid enough in their espionage job and “honeymoon” as cyber criminals, or they were simply contractors to multiple customers (a state vs. a criminal organization).  Money is a highly motivating factor.

I use the case of the “Wiley Hacker” by Cliff Stoll (on the Reading List) while teaching to highlight that a hacker working day-in-and-day-out needs to eat, live, and provide for the most basic human motivations.  Therefore, it is perfectly reasonable to ask: if they are hacking all day/every day, how are they providing for these motivations?  Is somebody paying them to hack?  Are they living in their parents’ basement?  Do they have a trust fund?  All of these are perfectly reasonable hypotheses with varying degrees of likelihood.  But they all lead to other questions of attribution and higher motivation.

If, in fact, “conventional wisdom” is that espionage actors are not motivated by money to use their skills in other endeavors, an even more fundamental understanding of human motivation contradicts that wisdom.  “Conventional wisdom” is simply another term for analytic assumption and this again highlights that analytic assumptions easily cloud judgement.

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