9 June 2015

Cyberwar: hacking attacks between nations are difficult to prove

James Ball
5 June 2015

Following the large-scale hack of US federal personnel databases, governments need to build up their defences to minimise the impact of future attacks 

It is a story that is becoming all-too-familiar: the US government had to admit on Thursday that one of its key personnel databases, containing the records of up to 4 million staff, had been compromised in a large-scale hacking attack. Officials speaking off the record laid the blame at China’s door, though did not immediately provide any evidence for this claim.

The full scale of the information the attackers accessed remains unknown but could include highly sensitive data such as medical records, employment files and financial details, as well as information on security clearances and more.

The Office of Personnel Management attack is merely the latest of a number of high-profile hacking attacks in the US. Within the last few months, State Department officials had to abandon their email systems for several weeks after a long-term hack was discovered, while Sony executives spent a miserable few weeks watching their internal emails get reported across the world after their own attack.

Those are just a few of the hacking attacks attributed by US officials to nation states – most often China, Russia, or North Korea. But everything about such attacks is murky; finding the perpetrators is difficult if not impossible, as the architecture of the internet allows for hackers to mask their attack through unwitting users and anonymisation software.

Nation states never claim responsibility – the Chinese embassy warned jumping to conclusions about the attack would be “counterproductive” – and no one has any idea of the full scale of hacking attacks, as even those that are discovered have often been going on for months with anyone noticing.

Attribution to nation states often relies merely on analysing the sophistication of the attack – while lone hackers such as Gary McKinnon may have once wandered through top secret databases, such efforts now often require far more resources than even sophisticated criminal gangs can muster.

The back-and-forth of hacking attacks between governments, somewhat melodramatically referred to as “cyberwar” (though they rarely, if ever, involve death), happen entirely in the shadows, with the method or reason behind any given attack hard to divine. Was this the Chinese state? A criminal gang? Or some hybrid of the two?

The nature of the attacker would give some clues to the motive behind the dive into the Office of Personnel Management’s data. For criminals, the value of such a trove is obvious, with financial data aplenty and everything you would need for identity theft on a huge scale.

Similar factors could motivate the Chinese state, or its intelligence agencies, but they could also benefit in more subtle ways. Personnel directories are an excellent route in to find individual targets for specific attacks. It might be tempting to think the senior managers of an agency would be the best target, but in reality it’s often the IT guy – get into his account, get the admin passwords, and you’re everywhere. Others have also suggested the hack may have been motivated by trying to find US personnel with security clearances. We will probably never know.

In the tangled and tortured world of espionage, even the state/criminal gang distinction can prove meaningless – intelligence agencies, including our own, target hacking groups, often not in a bid to shut them down but rather to “piggyback” onto their targets. A criminal gang might break in to steal credit card details, with no idea they’ve got an intelligence agency as an invisible passenger.

Such is the quagmire faced by the people trying to protect sensitive information online – which for governments, are often the same intelligence agencies that perform the hacks against rivals.

Building up defences, getting creative about looking for intruders, and trying to build up attribution for hacks are always going to be less fun and less glamorous than going on the offensive, but those are the measures likely to minimise the impact of similar hacks in future. If they are not given higher priority, Western governments are likely to face many more public embarrassments – or worse – in the near future.

No comments: