Risk
10/1/2013
02:48 PM
50%
50%

Cyberattack Attribution Requires Mix Of Data, Intelligence Sources As False Flag Operations Proliferate

A new report from FireEye outlines some clues that can be used to identify the source of a targeted attack, but false flags make attribution difficult

Even as security pros get better at tracing attacks, proper attribution in the world of cyberwar remains a tricky business.

So while a new report (PDF) from FireEye outlines how certain tactics can serve as fingerprints that tie individual targeted attacks to others from a given region of the world, it does so with a huge caveat: False flag operations are commonplace.

"I would wager my paycheck that they occur every day," says Kenneth Geers, senior global threat analyst with FireEye. "A hacker never wants to be a zebra within a herd of horses. He or she would be wise to route their attack through a nation that is the most obvious guilty party. This leads to tunnel vision on the part of the victim."

For this reason, a mix of both technical and nontechnical information must be used to identify the source of an attack.

"At the nation-state level, computer forensics, reverse-engineering, and log-file analysis are only one part of cyberattack attribution," Geers says. "Governments have human and signals intelligence, 'hack backs,' law enforcement, diplomacy, economic pressure, political incentives, and much more. It is easy to forget how big the national toolbox really is."

But attackers are also working from a metaphorical toolbox as well, and there are some common items inside it. This collection of tools, tactics, and procedures can tie together seemingly disparate attacks in ways that help nation-states determine who is behind an attack. For example, Russian cybercriminals typically include a heavier reliance on human intelligence sources, as well as command-and-control that uses custom embedded encoding.

"TTP [tools, tactics, and procedures] often includes the delivery of weaponized email attachments, though Russian cybercriminals appear to be adept at changing their attack patterns, exploits, and data exfiltration methods to evade detection," according to the report. "In fact, one telltale aspect of Russian hackers seems to be that, unlike the Chinese, they go to extraordinary lengths to hide their identities and objectives. FireEye analysts have even seen examples in which they have run 'false-flag' cyber operations, designing their attack to appear as if it came from Asia."

The Chinese malware that FireEye researchers have analyzed is not always the most advanced or created, but in many circumstances it is very effective, the report notes.

"China employs brute-force attacks that are often the most inexpensive way to accomplish its objectives," according to FireEye. "The attacks succeed due to the sheer volume of attacks, the prevalence and persistence of vulnerabilities in modern networks, and a seeming indifference on the part of the cybercriminals to being caught."

While Asia tends to be home to large, bureaucratic hacker groups such as the "Comment Crew," Eastern European hacking groups tend to be more technically advanced and effective at evading detection, according to FireEye. Western attacks, such as Stuxnet and Gauss, also tend to be highly engineered, the report says.

Viewed outside its geopolitical context, a cyberattack offers little legal maneuvering for a defending state, says Professor Thomas Wingfield of the Marshall Center.

"False flag operations and the very nature of the Internet make tactical attribution a losing game," he says in a statement. "However, strategic attribution -- fusing all sources of intelligence on a potential threat -- allows a much higher level of confidence and more options for the decision maker. And strategic attribution begins and ends with geopolitical analysis."

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Add Your Comment" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message. Brian Prince is a freelance writer for a number of IT security-focused publications. Prior to becoming a freelance reporter, he worked at eWEEK for five years covering not only security, but also a variety of other subjects in the tech industry. Before that, he worked as a ... View Full Bio

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
Peter Fretty
50%
50%
Peter Fretty,
User Rank: Apprentice
10/3/2013 | 2:58:56 PM
re: Cyberattack Attribution Requires Mix Of Data, Intelligence Sources As False Flag Operations Proliferate
The evolving tools, tactics and procedures hackers embrace today strengthen the argument for increased education around security best practices. It also reinforces the importance of having technology in place such as next gen firewalls capable of constantly monitoring network activity at a granular level. Attackers are evolving, the enterprise approach needs to evolve as well.

Peter Fretty, IDG blogger working on behalf of Sophos
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Cartoon
Current Issue
Flash Poll
Video
Slideshows
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2014-7896
Published: 2015-03-03
Multiple cross-site scripting (XSS) vulnerabilities in HP XP P9000 Command View Advanced Edition Software Online Help, as used in HP Device Manager 6.x through 8.x before 8.1.2-00, HP XP P9000 Tiered Storage Manager 6.x through 8.x before 8.1.2-00, HP XP P9000 Replication Manager 6.x and 7.x before ...

CVE-2014-9283
Published: 2015-03-03
The BestWebSoft Captcha plugin before 4.0.7 for WordPress allows remote attackers to bypass the CAPTCHA protection mechanism and obtain administrative access via unspecified vectors.

CVE-2014-9683
Published: 2015-03-03
Off-by-one error in the ecryptfs_decode_from_filename function in fs/ecryptfs/crypto.c in the eCryptfs subsystem in the Linux kernel before 3.18.2 allows local users to cause a denial of service (buffer overflow and system crash) or possibly gain privileges via a crafted filename.

CVE-2015-0656
Published: 2015-03-03
Cross-site scripting (XSS) vulnerability in the login page in Cisco Network Analysis Module (NAM) allows remote attackers to inject arbitrary web script or HTML via unspecified vectors, aka Bug ID CSCum81269.

CVE-2015-0890
Published: 2015-03-03
The BestWebSoft Google Captcha (aka reCAPTCHA) plugin before 1.13 for WordPress allows remote attackers to bypass the CAPTCHA protection mechanism and obtain administrative access via unspecified vectors.

Dark Reading Radio
Archived Dark Reading Radio
How can security professionals better engage with their peers, both in person and online? In this Dark Reading Radio show, we will talk to leaders at some of the security industry’s professional organizations about how security pros can get more involved – with their colleagues in the same industry, with their peers in other industries, and with the IT security community as a whole.