Speed and Scale

News about ransomware gang takedowns and ransom recoveries make for great headlines, and the way some people talk you’d think we had this ransomware thing licked. But while these are certainly “wins,” they’re not really having a noticeable impact, and if we keep going at these issues in a plodding, ad hoc, linear fashion they absolutely won’t.

Not that long ago that botnet takedowns were receiving similar levels of attention. I was lucky enough to be a part of some of these actions. Nay-sayers at the time said there was no real impact because replacements popped up so quickly. I was inclined to agree, but argued that the value of such actions would be realized once more people could do them, and do them more often.

Botnet takedowns required a lot of challenging legal legwork. If you’ve ever worked with lawyers, you know very few of them like to be at the cutting edge. In a system that places a high value on precedence, being the first at anything poses a serious risk of failure. But once that nut was cracked and a few cases got through the system, the potential to move a lot faster in more jurisdictions seemed like a real possibility.

Years later, botnet takedowns are still not a frequent occurrence, even though botnets are certainly still a thing. This is, to my mind, one of the bigger ‘shames’ in this space (“it’s a shame that…” not shameful behavior), because if we could manage to take down multiple botnets on a weekly basis vice, say, one a year, it dramatically drives up the risk factor (and potentially the cost) for would-be botnet creators. If you’re more likely to get hit by a meteor than arrested, life as a digital crime lord seems pretty attractive. As soon as prison becomes likely, suddenly it is time to consider getting a regular job.

Bad actors will always have a number of advantages over defenders and law enforcement. In some cases you’re dealing with super-empowered individuals, who can work much faster than adversaries that have to operate in an industrial-age model, be sure to address the ‘equities’ of all the ‘stakeholders’ involved, fight for budget, hunt for increasingly rare talent to do the work, etc. Especially when you’re dealing with governmental organizations, “taking down 1000 botnets” is probably not a bullet on anyone’s performance evaluation. From the organization’s point of view it is important to “measure what matters,” but from the employee’s point of view all that matters when it comes to applying effort is what is measured. These types of activities require extensive industry cooperation, and such measures are not revenue-generating. Read into that what you will.

The work that goes into both botnet and ransomware takedowns is not insignificant, and those involved deserve to be recognized and congratulated. But until actions like these become so commonplace that they cease being news, they are novelties. Unless government, defenders, and industry can devise a system of processes and incentives that make such actions practical and rewarding, such activity will eventually wane, and it will be like nothing anyone did mattered.

Explaining Computer Security Through the Lens of Boston

Events surrounding the attack at the Boston Marathon, and the subsequent manhunt, are on-going as this is being drafted. Details may change, but the conclusions should not.

This is by no means an effort to equate terrorism and its horrible aftermath to an intrusion or data breach (which is trivial by comparison), merely an attempt to use current events in the physical world – which people tend to understand more readily – to help make sense of computer security – a complicated and multi-faceted problem few understand well.

  1. You are vulnerable to attack at any time. From an attacker’s perspective the Boston Marathon is a great opportunity (lots of people close together), but a rare one (only happens once a year). Your business on-line however, is an opportunity that presents itself 24/7. You can no more protect your enterprise against attack than the marathon could have been run inside of a giant blast-proof Habitrail. Anyone who tells you different is asking you to buy the digital equivalent of a Habitrail.
  2. It doesn’t take much to cause damage. In cyberspace everyone is atwitter about “advanced” threats, but most of the techniques that cause problems online are not advanced. Why would you expose your best weapons when simple ones will do? In the physical world there is a complicating factor of the difficulty of getting engineered weapons to places that are not war zones, but like the improved explosives used in Boston, digital weapons are easy to obtain or, if you’re clever enough, build yourself.
  3. Don’t hold out hope for closure. Unless what happens to you online is worthy of a multi-jurisdictional – even international – law enforcement effort, forget about trying to find someone to pay for what happened to you. If they’re careful, the people who attack you will never be caught. Crimes in the real world have evidence that can be analyzed; digital attacks might leave evidence behind, but you can’t always count on that. As I put fingers to keyboard one suspect behind the Boston bombing is dead and the other the subject of a massive manhunt, but that wouldn’t have happened if the suspects had not made some kind of mistake(s). Robbing 7-11s, shooting cops and throwing explosives from a moving vehicle are not the marks of professionals. Who gets convicted of computer crimes? The greedy and the careless.

The response to the bombings in Boston reflect an exposure – directly or indirectly – to 10+ years of war. If this had happened in 2001 there probably would have been more fatalities. That’s a lesson system owners (who are perpetually under digital fire) should take to heart: pay attention to what works – rapid response mechanisms, democratizing capabilities, resilience – and invest your precious security dollars accordingly.

Inside Dope

Don’t know this particular person, but I know his brothers and sisters and their song remains the same (courtesy of Small Wars Journal):

Morale has become bad enough in the Iraq office that DIA has
had to drop the requirement for analysts who deploy to Iraq work in the
office after they return. In the last several months, the office has
experienced an exodus of many of its veteran analysts. The office
remains critically undermanned and short of computers. Analysts have
begun to apply for jobs with local county police departments.

You need to read the whole thing.

I’ve said it before but it is always nice to have corroboration: The longer we tolerate industrial-age processes and cold-war mindsets in the IC, the faster it slides towards irrelevance.