why cyberwarfare won’t have a battle of thermopylae

October 20, 2012


While reporting about cyberwarfare and information security has been getting better and better as of late, there are still some articles that posit baffling ideas about how to prevent a massive cyber attack launched by a government. The strange idea in question this time is one which has a good starting point, but ends up imagining cyber attacks as one would imagine a conventional siege, somewhat reminiscent of The Battle of Thermopylae. Rather than envisioning an attack from the cloud able to hit a target out of the blue, it tries to portray network topologies as a kind of unseen battlefield on which one side can gain an advantage by exploiting the landscape…

Cyberspace depends on a physical infrastructure of computers and fiber, and this physical infrastructure is located on national territory or subject to national jurisdiction. Cyberspace is a hierarchy of networks, at the top of which a small number of companies carry the bulk of global traffic over the Internet “backbone.” International traffic, including attacks, enters the United States over this “backbone.” The backbone is a choke point, relatively easy to defend, and something that the NSA is already intimately familiar with (as are the other major powers that engage in signals intelligence). Sit at the boundary of the backbone and U.S. jurisdiction, monitor and intercept malware, and attacks can be blocked.

Technically yes, you can use the main switches where the fiber stretching across the oceans will reach your shores and have a deep packet inspector check the headers of incoming packets to flag anything suspicious. But this really only works for relatively straightforward attacks and can easily be avoided. If you’re trying to inject a worm or a virus into a research lab’s computer, you’ll have to get through an anti-virus system which will scan your malware and compare its bytes to as many virus and worm signatures in its database as it reasonably can. With the sheer amount of malware out there today, these tools are good at stopping existing infections and their mutant versions. However, brand new attacks require reverse engineering and being ran in a simulated environment to be identified. This is how Flame and Gauss went undetected for years and they were most likely not even spread via the web, but with infected flash drives, meaning that efforts to stop them with packet inspection would’ve been absolutely useless.

A deep packet inspector sitting at MAE-East or MAE-West exchange points (or IXPs) would have to work like an anti-virus suite if it is to do what the author is proposing, so it can stop someone from downloading an obvious virus or bit of spyware from a server in another nation or deny an odd stream of packets from China or Iran thought to be malicious, but it’s not a choke point in any conventional sense. IXPs are not in the business of being a traffic cop so having them take on that role could have serious diplomatic repercussions, and aggressive filtering could have all sorts of nasty downstream effects on the ISPs connected to them. Considering that trying to flag traffic by country could be foiled by proxies and IP spoofing, and that complex new attacks would easily be able to slip by an IXP-based anti-virus system, all the effort may might be worth it in the long run and simply cause glitches for users trying to watch Netflix or surfing foreign websites to read the news in another language while trying to prevent threats users can easily manage.

So if creating IXP chokepoints would do little to stop the kind of complex attacks for which they’d be needed, why has there been so much talk about the Pentagon treating the internet as a top national security concern and trying to secure networks across America, or at the very least, be on call should anything go wrong? Why is the Secretary of Defense telling businesspeople that he views cybersecurity as the country’s biggest new challenge and has the Air Force on the job? My guess would be that some organizations and businesses simply haven’t been investing the time and attention they needed to be investing in security and now see the DOD as the perfect, cost-effective way to secure their networks, even though they could thwart attacks and counter-hack on their own without getting the military on the case, perhaps not even realizing that they’re giving it a Sisyphean task. If they know they’re targets, the best thing for them to do is to secure their networks and be aggressive about hiring infosec experts, not call in the cavalry and expect it to stop a real threat from materializing since it simply can’t perform such miracles…

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