Success, Failure And The Advanced Threat
You can't judge the sophistication of an attack by its success or failure
While advanced threats are commonplace in the security industry dialogue, it has become a phrase that is applied extremely loosely and without clarity. Seemingly, by many standards, any attack that has a degree of success is considered advanced. This two-part blog series attempts to further characterize the advanced threat and hopefully inspire you to question the true nature of threats in a greater level of granularity.
During the summer and fall of 2010, when the Stuxnet dialogue was at its peak, one of the questions I was frequently asked at conferences was in regard to the success or failure of the Stuxnet operation. Let me begin by stating a few points that we can be entirely objective about. First, success is nonbinary: It is entirely shades of often subjective gray. Second, failure of an attack/threat does not make it unsophisticated, and its success does not mean it was highly advanced.
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When Stuxnet C&C activity started showing up on the radars of AV companies monitoring the check-in hosts, and several reports regarding the progress (or lack thereof) of the Iranian nuclear program, many immediately assumed that Stuxnet must have been a success -- without spending much time to more fully characterize its strategic objectives based on other observable threat intelligence.
In late 2010 and early 2011, reports emerged suggesting that although Stuxnet had indeed been the source of much frustration and disruption for Iran and its nuclear enrichment program, Iran had substantial resources awaiting in the sidelines to recover from an event such as the malfunction of enrichment centrifuges. Indeed, videos emerged of equipment being rapidly replaced -- and figures later released by the International Atomic Energy Agency and analyzed in detail by the Institute for Science and International Security suggest that while the Iranian enrichment program might have been set back, the setbacks were nowhere near close to the original projections regarding the potential impact that Stuxnet could have had.
So upon reflection, does this make Stuxnet a success or failure, and what does that say about its level of sophistication? Although from what we can tell it is true to say Stuxnet did have some level of impact, it was in all likelihood seen as a partial success by its perpetrators. Analysis of Stuxnet's process control routines, which had bottom-line responsibility for manipulation of the gas centrifuges utilized by Iran, suggests that it was the intent of the authors to cause sporadic centrifuge failure through device degradation over time, and that without other available data it might very well have taken Iran many months, if not years, to get to the bottom of. The observable, active life span of Stuxnet was significantly less than this -- and from what we can tell, was not revealed by centrifuge trouble-shooting efforts, but by the public disclosure and subsequent analysis of the code that was responsible for this behavior.
Assuming we have already taken into consideration the lesser aspects of Stuxnet (such as its lackluster command-and-control), the fact that Stuxnet might not have been a total success does not make it any less sophisticated. However, it serves to demonstrate that we cannot judge the sophistication of an attack by its success or failure. Similarly, technologically the recent attacks that culminated in an initial entry vector to RSA’s internal network was by many accounts several orders of magnitude less sophisticated than Stuxnet -- but it succeeded. On the surface, this says lots more about the nature of a target than it does about the sophistication of the threat.
In part two, I'll take a closer look at categorizing some of the technical attributes of a threat actor that allow us to begin to profile their true level of sophistication and stand by a determination to truly classify a threat as advanced -- or the same old bag of tricks that account for a majority of attack activity that we see emerge on a daily basis.
Tom Parker is director of security consulting services at Securicon.