is the great e-scare finally being toned down?

February 28, 2012 — Leave a comment

So we’ve already seen how some of the more vocal pronouncements about cyber warfare were overhyped by those who think that hackers are nearly omnipotent, and thankfully, more and more skeptics with a good idea of how computers actually work have been published in major publications. One of the promoters of the idea of cyber warfare used for asymmetrical military engagement, Foreign Policy, now has two dueling posts on the subject, one of which puts current examples of cyber war in proper context, and one which tries to spin every act of digital malfeasance as an act of war. Obviously, you know where I stand on the issue and can probably guess that I find few faults with the skeptical column. It does underplay intelligence collection on the web and recurring problems with phishing and whaling for classified information, something which does have a very real impact on military affairs and planning, but otherwise, it’s very well done and researched. And by contrast, its doppelganger seems to mix digital spies, activist DDoS attacks, and what seems to be actual military operations using a computer virus into one huge and scary melting pot of digital gloom and doom.

robot vs. fish

We can’t assume that every major DDoS attack is being executed as an act of war because it’s not. For a long time, these attacks were used to hold certain sites for ransom and occasionally, what looks like an attack is a programming error which triggers internal applications to send way too much data over the wire. Over the last year, it’s also become a form of protest, a means to voice one’s displeasure with the powers that be and do at least something to demonstrate that they’re not invulnerable. So yes, some DDoS attacks could be political in nature, but they’re hardly effective weapons. Take a look at the reality behind the case of the attack on Estonia which was compared to a military blockade of government institutions by the nation’s prime minister…

The well-wired country found itself at the receiving end of a massive distributed denial-of-service attack that emanated from up to 85,000 hijacked computers and lasted three weeks. The attacks reached a peak on May 9th, when 58 Estonian websites were attacked [ simultaneously ] and the online services of Estonia’s largest bank were taken down… It was a nuisance and an emotional strike on the country, but the bank’s network was not even penetrated; it went down for 90 minutes one day and two hours the next.

Would you really claim that an attack that made one major bank’s online dashboard unavailable for three and a half hours over two days was a successful military operation? A similar DDoS attack on Twitter credited to a group of Russian hackers who wanted to silence a Georgian blogger also used to get a lot of traction when a cyber warfare drum needed to be beaten, but the outage lasted just a few hours and did nothing to silence or dissuade the blogger being targeted. Take a look at a much more serious incident when hackers working for a Chinese government project were snooping through Google’s servers for political dissidents’ e-mail. This was a careful, expert attack for political purposes but it was an internal matter rather than an attempt to attack the company or the nation which that company called home. So far, the only real successful example of a well executed act of cyber warfare was the Stuxnet worm. It was written by experts, targeted one specific system to sabotage another nation’s nuclear program, and seems to have achieved its intended goal. A supposed work of a Russian hacker squad to apply their own version of Stuxnet to an Illinois water utility actually turned out to be nothing more than a manufacturer’s employee trying to update the SCADA software from Russia, but it was assumed to be a sinister attack until shown otherwise thanks to the heated rhetoric about cyber war.

As said in the previous post on the subject, cyber warfare is nowhere near as effective or simple as we’re told again and again by the media, politicians, and self-proclaimed security experts why spread gloom and doom so they can sell their services after driving demand for them upwards. Counting every DDoS attack, and every questionable use of a computer as a precursor to cyber warfare diverts our focus from securing what’s really, truly important to secure, misleading those in charge into thinking that every computer virus should be treated as seriously as an active nuclear warhead ready to go off with no warning rather than prioritizing their assets, and developing cost and time-effective measures to avoid easily discoverable and exploitable flaws in the key nodes of their networks. No system will ever be unhackable or invulnerable, but it can be greatly reinforced in the most important points and surrounded by honey nets and powerful firewalls that filter incoming traffic into tools that can examine the probability that an incoming request is malicious. To do that, we need to be sober about the threats we face rather than chasing down every DDoS protest or rumor of a Stuxnet 2.0 co-opted by vicious hackers working for a special ops team with wild abandon while thinking it makes us safer.

[ illustration by Andre Kutscherauer ]

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