Posts Tagged ‘cyberwar’

The Sportsmanship of Cyber-warfare

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

As a bit of a history buff I can’t avoid a slight tingling of déjà vu every time I read some new story commenting upon the ethics, morality and legality of cyber-warfare/cyber-espionage/cyberwar/cyber-attack/cyber-whatever. All this rhetoric about Stuxnet, Flame, and other nation-state cyber-attack tools, combined with the parade of newly acknowledged cyber-warfare capabilities and units within the armed services of countries around the globe, brings to the fore so many parallels with the discussions about the (then) new-fangled use of flying-machines within the military in the run-up to WWI.

Call me a cynic if you will, but when the parallels in history are so evident, we’d be crazy to ignore them.

The media light that has been cast upon the (successful) deployment of cyber-weapons recently has many people in a tail-spin – reflecting incredulity and disbelief that such weapons exist, let alone have already been employed by military forces. Now, as people begin to understand that such tools and tactics have been fielded by nation-states for many years prior to these most recent public exposures, reactions run from calls for regulation through to global moratoriums on their use. Roll the clock back 100 years and you’ll have encountered pretty much the same reaction to the unsporting use of flying-machines as weapons of war.

That said, military minds have always sought new technologies to gain the upper-hand on and off the battlefield. Take for example Captain Bertram Dickenson’s statement to the 1911 Technical Sub-Committee for Imperial Defence (TSID) who were charged with considering the role of aeroplanes in future military operations:

“In case of a European war, between two countries, both sides would be equipped with large corps of aeroplanes, each trying to obtain information on the other… the efforts which each would exert in order to hinder or prevent the enemy from obtaining information… would lead to the inevitable result of a war in the air, for the supremacy of the air, by armed aeroplanes against each other. This fight for the supremacy of the air in future wars will be of the greatest importance…”

A century later, substitute “cyber-warriors” for aeroplanes and “Internet” for air, and you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference from what you’re seeing in the news today.

Just as the prospect of a bomb falling from the hands of an aviator hanging out the cockpit of a zeppelin or biplane fundamentally changed the design of walled fortifications and led to the development of anti-aircraft weaponry, new approaches to securing the cyber-frontier are needed and underway. Then, as now, it wasn’t until civilians were alerted to (or encountered first-hand) the reality of the new machines of war, did an appreciation of these fundamental changes become apparent.

But there are a number of other parallels to WWI (and the birth of aerial warfare) and where cyber-warfare is today that I think are interesting too.

Take for example how the aviators of the day thought of themselves as being different and completely apart from the other war-fighters around them. The camaraderie of the pilots who, after spending their day trying to shoot-down their counterparts, were only too happy to have breakfast, and exchange stories over a few stiff drinks with the downed pilots of the other side is legendary. I’m not sure if it was mutual respect, or a sharing of a common heritage that others around them couldn’t understand, but the net result was that that first-breed of military aviator found more in common with their counterparts than with their own side.

Today, I think you’ll likely encounter the equivalent social scene as introverted computer geeks who, by way of day-job, develop the tools that target and infiltrate foreign installations for their country, yet attend the same security conferences and reveal their latest evasion tactic or privilege escalation technique over a cold beer with one-another. Whether it’s because the skill-sets are so specialized, or that the path each cyber-warrior had to take in order to acquire those skills was so influential upon their world outlook, many of the people I’ve encountered that I would identify as being capable of truly conducting warfare within the cyber-realm share more in common with their counterparts than they do with those tasking them.

When it comes to protecting a nation, cries of “that’s unfair” or “un-sporting” should be relegated to the “whatever” bucket. Any nation’s military, counter-intelligence organization, or other agency tasked with protecting its citizens would be catastrophically failing in their obligations if they’re not already actively pursuing new tools and tactics for the cyber-realm. Granted, just like the military use of aircraft in WW1 opened a Pandora’s box of armed conflict that changed the world forever, ever since the first byte’s traversed the first network we’ve been building towards the state we’re in.

The fact that a small handful of clandestine, weaponized cyber-arms have materialized within the public realm doesn’t necessarily represent a newly opened Pandora’s box – instead it reflects merely one of the evils from a box that was opened at the time the Internet was born.

– Gunter Ollmann, VP Research



Chinese Hackers and Cyber Realpolitik

Friday, December 16th, 2011

For many people the comments made by Michael Hayden, Former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, at this week’s Black Hat Technical Security Conference in Abu Dhabi may have been unsettling as he commented upon the state of Chinese cyber espionage.

I appreciate the candor of his observations and the distinction he made between state-level motivations. In particular, his comment “We steal secrets, you bet. But we steal secrets that are essential for American security and safety. We don’t steal secrets for American commerce, for American profit. There are many other countries in the world that do not so self limit.”

Perhaps I grew up reading too many spy stories or watched one-too-many James Bond movies, but I’ve always considered one of the functions of government is to run clandestine operations and uncover threats to their citizens and their economic wellbeing. The fact that Cyber is a significant and fruitful espionage vector shouldn’t really be surprising. Granted, it’s not as visual as digging a 1476 foot long tunnel under Soviet Berlin during the Cold War (see The Berlin Tunnel Operation GOLD (U.S.) Operation STOPWATCH (U.K.)) or as explosive as the French infiltration and eventual destruction of the Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand, but in today’s electronic society cyber espionage is a necessary tool.

Personally, I think you’d struggle to find a country or government anywhere around the world that hasn’t invested resources in building out their cyber espionage capabilities in recent years. It’s a tool of modern statecraft and policing.

While the media tends to focus upon the term “cyber warfare” and its many faceted security and safety ramifications, I think that we often fail to divorce a governments need (or even expectation) to conduct espionage and what would logically be covered by the articles (and declaration) of war. Granted it all gets a bit fuzzy – just look at the history of the “Cold War”. Perhaps a more appropriate name for the current situation and tensions would be “Cyber Realpolitik“.

China is often depicted as the bogeyman – rightly or wrongly – when it comes to cyber espionage. We increasingly find ourselves drawn into a debate of whether attacks which are instigated or traced back to the country are state-sponsored, state-endorsed, socially acceptable, or merely the patriotic duty of appropriately skilled citizens. The fact of the matter though is that there’s a disproportionate volume of cyber-attacks and infiltration attempts coming from China, targeting North American and European commercial institutions. You may argue that this is an artifact of China’s population but, if that was the case, wouldn’t India feature more highly then? India is more populous and arguably has a better developed education system in the field of information technology and software development – and yet they are rarely seen on the totem pole of threat instigators.

Michael Hayden alludes that China (and other countries) is not opposed to using cyber espionage for commercial advancement and profit, and based upon past observations, I would tend to agree with that conclusion. That said though, I don’t think that any country is immune to the temptation. Given the hoopla of the recent U.S. congressional insider trading fiasco and French presidential corruption, I’m not sure that “self limit” approaches work in all cases.

Cyber Realpolitik is the world we find ourselves living in and cyber espionage is arguably the latest tool in a government’s clandestine toolkit. We could consume a lot of time debating the ethics and outcomes of modern espionage campaigns but, at the end of the day, it’s a facet of international politics and governmental needs that have existed for millennium. For those commercial entities being subjected to the cyber campaigns directed at them by foreign governments, I don’t believe this threat will be going away anytime in the foreseeable future. Perhaps the noise surrounding the attacks may disappear, but that may just reflect an increase in stealthiness.

– Gunter Ollmann, VP Research.