Cyberwarfare is generally considered asymmetric since, in theory, inside the cyber world “size does not matter” and a smaller and weaker state could declare a cyber war against an enemy, regardless of the size of the latter in the real world. Think for instance to the example of China and Philippines to quickly understand how this assertion can dramatically come true.
Because of this asymmetry and other factors such as the difficulty to trace cyber attacks, many consider quite likely that cyberwars might make wars easier according to the equation: “more cyberwarfare means more wars.”
A new and provocative article by Princeton’s Adam Liff in the “Journal of Strategic Studies” offers a completely new interpretation that may be summarized as: the advent of cyber-weapons may eventually promote world peace.
In his article the author debunks several myths about Cyberwarfare: first of all, cyberwarfare may seem asymmetrical but it’s a myth that advanced cyber-weapons are cheap and easily available; developing them requires a lot of resources, time, and operational secrecy. Think for instance to Stuxnet (and the effort needed to build it) that clearly demonstrates that building a targeted cyber weapon, capable of limiting collateral damages require a deep knowledge of the target and hence huge investment.
Moreover, would not be wise for weaker states to start a cyber war against an enemy nation without adequate capabilities to back up the same conflict in the real world, otherwise they might be wiped out by the conventional enemy response of the stronger state.
Last but not least, according to Liff, would not be easy for states engaged in cyberwarfare to fully understand the actual consequences of their own cyber-attacks. The risk of self-inflicted damage would be high while cyber-attacks might inadvertently affect some otherwise lucrative assets like an enemy’s banking infrastructure.
Instead, paradoxically, the availability of cyber-weapons, whatever their actual destructive potential, might in theory allow weaker states to get better bargains from their stronger adversaries, perhaps, even avoiding conflict.
The consequence is that, according to the author, the net effect of the proliferation of cyberwarfare capabilities on the frequency is relatively small. This effect is not be constant across all situations and in some cases the advent of cyberwarfare capabilities may decrease the likelihood of war.
In most cases, [cyberware] is unlikely to significantly increase the expected utility of war between actors that would otherwise not fight. Furthermore, a cyberwarfare capability may paradoxically be most useful as a deterrent against conventionally superior adversaries in certain circumstances, thus reducing the likelihood of war.
Make peace and cyberwar!
- What is a Cyber Weapon? (theaviationist.com)
Here the first part covering the cyber attacks from 1 to 15 April.
April is over and here it is the second half of the Cyber Attacks Timeline covering the time period spanning from 16 to 30 april 2012.
The last two weeks of this month have been characterized by several remarkable events (at least for the newspapers), such as the #OpBahrain which unleashed a trail of attacks from the Anonymous against websites related to the Formula 1 GP in Bahrain. Other noticeable events triggered by hacktivism include several DDoS attacks against CIA, MI6, Department of Justice, and a couple of Law Enforcement Agencies which continue to be a preferred target for hackers.
On the Cyber Crime front (still the major apparent motivation for the attacks) this month reports, among the events, a breach to Nissan and other DDoS attacks against the District of Columbia, the State of Washington and Nasdaq (I would not define them just motivated by hacktivism). Other events include a couple of 0-day vulnerabilities targeting popular e-mail services and affecting potentially million of users.
Last but not least, April has brought a new cyber attack to Iran crude oil industry, despite, so far, there are no clear evidences of a new Stuxnet-like Cyber Attack. This is not the only episode targeting Iran which also suffered 3 million of banks accounts compromised.
For the chronicle I decided to insert in the timeline also the breach to the game publisher Cryptic Studios. Although it happened in 2010 (sic) it was discovered only few days ago…
If you want to have an idea of how fragile our data are inside the cyberspace, have a look at the timelines of the main Cyber Attacks in 2011 and 2012 (regularly updated), and follow @paulsparrows on Twitter for the latest updates.
Or better “The Unbearable Lightness of (Human) Beings and APTs”. Immediately after my post on Cyber Weapons, I was pointed out that APTs are not Cyber Weapons. On a more general perspective, APTs are not things but (groups of) human beings who have the capability and the intent to target specific entries with multi-factor attacks. Said in few words an APT is not a “what” but is a “who”. On the other hand, how many could afford to hire (and pay) a double agent capable of implanting a malware inside a nuclear complex through an infected USB thumb?
An Oxford dictionary for Information Security has not already been published, hence this term is commonly used to refer to cyber threats or long-term sophisticated hacking attacks. The latter is the interpretation closer to what I meant in compiling the chart.
In the same hours in which I was publishing my post on Cyber Weapons, news agencies all around the world have begun to release (few) details about a new alleged Cyber Attack targeting the Iranian Oil Ministry, the National Iranian Oil Company and several other state-owned businesses.
The attack has been confirmed by a spokesman of the Iranian Oil Ministry, who also stressed that critical data have not been damaged or lost in the attack. Anyway, as a consequence of the Cyber Attack albeit as a precaution Internet access to several oil refineries has been cut off.
Of course Iran is not new to Cyber Attacks targeting Critical Infrastructures (do you remember Stuxnet and the possible hoax of
Duqu Stars?), in any case it is too soon to draw any connection with Stuxnet or any other kind of State-Sponsored Attack, even because, according to the scant information available, only a server providing public information has been harmed.
Probably this malware has nothing to deal with cyber weapons but, just for fun, I cannot help but notice that this alleged Cyber Attack came in the same day in which, among many doubts, Iran has announced to have reverse-engineered the U.S. stealthy RQ-170 Sentinel drone captured by Iran in December 2011.
The revenge of the reverse-engineered drone?
Paolo Passeri (@paulsparrows) April 23, 2012
- What is a Cyber Weapon? (hackmageddon.com)
What is a Cyber Weapon? At first glance this seems an immediate question to answer, but should anyone try to analyze the meaning of this term more deeply, probably he would be quite surprised and disappointed in discovering that the answer is not so immediate since an exact definition has not been given (at least so far).
A real paradox in the same days in which The Pentagon, following the Japanese Example, has unveiled its new strategy aimed to dramatically accelerate the development of new Cyber Weapons. And do not think these are isolated, fashion-driven examples (other nations are approaching the same strategy), but rather consider them real needs in the post-Stuxnet age, an age in which more and more government are moving their armies to the fifth domain of war [you will probably remember the (in)famous episode, when F-Secure was able to discover Chinese Government launching online attacks against unidentified U.S. Targets].
Recently Stefano Mele, a friend and a colleague of the Italian Security Professional Group, tried to give an answer to this question in his paper (so far only in Italian but it will be soon translated in English) where he analyzes Cyber Weapons from a legal and strategical perspective.
As he points out “Correctly defining the concept of Cyber Weapon, thus giving a definition also in law, is an urgent and unavoidable task, for being able to assess both the level of threat deriving from a cyber attack, and the consequent political and legal responsibilities attributable to those who performed it”. Maybe this phrase encloses the reason why a coherent definition has not been given so far: a cyber weapon is not only a technological concept, but rather hides behind it complex juridical implications.
Having this in mind, according to Stefano’s definition: a cyber weapon is:
A device or any set of computer instructions intended to unlawfully damage a system acting as a critical infrastructure, its information, the data or programs therein contained or thereto relevant, or even intended to facilitate the interruption, total or partial, or alteration of its operation.
The above definition implies that cyber weapons may span in theory a wide range of possibilities: from (D)DoS attacks (which typically have a low level of penetration since they target the “surface” of their targets), to “tailored” malware like Stuxnet, characterized by a high intrusiveness and a low rate of collateral damages.
One could probably argue whether a cyber weapon must necessarily generate physical damages or not, in which case, probably, Stuxnet, would be the one, so far, to encompass all the requirements. In any case, from my point of view, I believe the effects of a cyber weapon should be evaluated from its domain of relevance, the cyberspace, with the possibility to cross the virtual boundaries and extend to the real world (Stuxnet is a clear example of this, since it inflicted serious damages to Iranian Nuclear Plants, including large-scale accidents and loss of lifes).
With this idea in mind, I tried to build a model to classify the cyber weapons according to four parameters: Precision (that is the capability to target only the specific objective and reduce collateral damages), Intrusion (that is the level of penetration inside the target), Visibility (that is the capability to be undetected), and Easiness to Implement (a measure of the resource needed to develop the specific cyber weapon). The results, ranging from paintball pistols to smart bombs, are summarized in the above chart.
As you may notice, in these terms a DDoS attack is closer to a paintball pistol: the latter has a low level of penetration and the effects are more perceived than real (it shows the holder’s intention to harm the victim rather than constituting a real danger ), nevertheless it may be used to threaten someone, or worst to make a robbery. The same is true for a DDoS, it is often used to threaten the target, its action stops at the surface and usually the effects are more relevant in terms of reputation of the victims than in terms of damages done. Nevertheless, for the targets, it may lead to an interruption of service (albeit with no physical damages) and monetary losses.
On the opposite site there are specific “surgical” APTs: they have a high level of penetration with reduced collateral damages, they are able to go hidden for long time, but require huge investments to be developed, which ultimately make their adoption not so easy.
Of course, in between, there is a broad gray area, where the other Cyber Weapons reside depending on their positioning according to the four classification parameters identified… So, at the end what do you think? Do you agree with this classification?
In few circumstances I happen to deal with my old (and short) career of Astrophysical. Except when I enjoy to tell my friends the history of the Hubble Constant, and my delusion when I discovered that its value is greater than 50 (most precise determination is 72 ± 8 km/s/Mpc implying a forever expanding Universe which will likely die of Entropy), the chances in which my current activity, information security, and my “would-have-been” career of Astrophysics overlap are really rare.
You may imagine how surprised I have been, when I came across this post by F-Secure concerning the Duqu malware and the images hidden inside the traffic generated by the malware and directed to the C&C Server.
Typically keyloggers try to hide the malicious traffic by resembling legitimate traffic, and of course the infamous Stuxnet-based keylogger is not an exception to this schema, by making the transfer look innocent in case somebody is watching network traffic.
Duqu connects to a server (188.8.131.52 a.k.a. canoyragomez.rapidns.com – which used to be in India) and sends an http request. The server will respond with a blank JPG image. After which Duqu sends back a 56kB JPG file called dsc00001.jpg and appends the stolen information (encrypted with AES) to the end of the image file.
Even if somebody is watching outbound traffic, this wouldn’t look too weird.
Nothing new except the fact that Duqu components contain different JPG files. One of them is an image of the Hubble Space Telescope: NGC 6745 also dubbed Bird’s Head (have a deep look to the image and you will discover why).
NGC 6745 (also known as UGC 11391) is an irregular galaxy about 206 million light-years (63.5 mega-parsecs) away in the constellation Lyra. It is actually a triplet of galaxies in the process of colliding.
Why did they decide to insert an astronomical image? And why just an Image representing three galaxies colliding? A possible metaphorical reference to a cyber war between three nations? The curiosity has stimulated a funny contest by F-Secure even if no interpretation, so far, seems convincing (I also tried to brainstorm but unfortunately my residual notions of Astronomy are not enough, so at first Glance I was not able to find any correspondence.
From an information security perspective, I could not help but notice that this is not the only overlapping between Stuxnet and Astronomy. As a matter of fact the original version of Stuxnet is programmed to automatically switch off on June, 24th 2012: even if a remind to the alleged End of the World according to the Mayan Calendar is unavoidable, this date is also linked to the so-called Grand Cross, corresponding to the date that Pluto in Capricorn squares off against Uranus in Aries.
But there is also another funny aspect and coincidence: do you remember the alleged Stuxnet-like worm that Iran claimed to have detected on April 25 2011? Curiously it was called Stars, and although no evidences of the malware (and not even samples as far as I know) were collected, so that many Information Security experts stated Iran was crying wolf, again the malware was dubbed with a term recalling astronomy. At this point I inevitably (and joyfully) wonder if Stars derived its name from hidden stellar images as in case of Duqu.
- Back to The Future of Stuxnet (paulsparrows.wordpress.com)
While the U.S. and U.K. are debating whether to use Cyberwarfare, someone, somewhere, has decided not to waste further time and has anticipated them, developing what appears to be a precursor of Stuxnet 2.0. In a blog post, Symantec explains how it came across the first samples of the malware thanks to a research lab with strong international connections, which, on October 14 2011, alerted the security firm to a sample that appeared to be very similar to Stuxnet.
The brand new threat has been dubbed “Duqu” [dyü-kyü] because it creates files with the file name prefix “~DQ”, and has been discovered in some computer systems located in the Old Continent. After receiving and analyzing the samples, Symantec has been able to confirm that parts of Duqu are nearly identical to Stuxnet, but with a completely different purpose.
Unlike its infamous predecessor Duqu does not target ICS but rather appears to be a RAT developed from the Stuxnet Source Code, whose main features may be summarized as follows (a detailed report is available here):
- The executables [...] appear to have been developed since the last Stuxnet file was recovered.
- The executables are designed to capture information such as keystrokes and system information.
- Current analysis shows no code related to industrial control systems, exploits, or self-replication.
- The executables have been found in a limited number of organizations, including those involved in the manufacturing of industrial control systems.
- The exfiltrated data may be used to enable a future Stuxnet-like attack.
- Two variants were recovered [...], the first recording of one of the binaries was on September 1, 2011. However, based on file compile times, attacks using these variants may have been conducted as early as December 2010.
Of course this event rises inevitably many security questions: although cyberwar is actually little more than a concept, cyber weapons are a consolidated reality, besides it is not clear if Duqu has been developed by the same authors of Stuxnet, or worst by someone else with access to the source code of the cyber biblical plague (and who knows how many other fingers in this moment will be coding new threats from the same source code).
Anyway one particular is really intriguing: only yesterday the DHS issued a Bulletin warning about Anonymous Threat to Industrial Control Systems (ICS), not event 24 hours after the statement a new (potential) threat for ICS appears in the wild… Only a coincidence?