Dark Reading is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

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
Threaded  |  Newest First  |  Oldest First
Peter Fretty
50%
50%
Peter Fretty,
User Rank: Moderator
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
News
FluBot Malware's Rapid Spread May Soon Hit US Phones
Kelly Sheridan, Staff Editor, Dark Reading,  4/28/2021
Slideshows
7 Modern-Day Cybersecurity Realities
Steve Zurier, Contributing Writer,  4/30/2021
Commentary
How to Secure Employees' Home Wi-Fi Networks
Bert Kashyap, CEO and Co-Founder at SecureW2,  4/28/2021
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Video
Cartoon Contest
Current Issue
2021 Top Enterprise IT Trends
We've identified the key trends that are poised to impact the IT landscape in 2021. Find out why they're important and how they will affect you today!
Flash Poll
How Enterprises are Developing Secure Applications
How Enterprises are Developing Secure Applications
Recent breaches of third-party apps are driving many organizations to think harder about the security of their off-the-shelf software as they continue to move left in secure software development practices.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2021-27941
PUBLISHED: 2021-05-06
Unconstrained Web access to the device's private encryption key in the QR code pairing mode in the eWeLink mobile application (through 4.9.2 on Android and through 4.9.1 on iOS) allows a physically proximate attacker to eavesdrop on Wi-Fi credentials and other sensitive information by monitoring the...
CVE-2021-29203
PUBLISHED: 2021-05-06
A security vulnerability has been identified in the HPE Edgeline Infrastructure Manager, also known as HPE Edgeline Infrastructure Management Software, prior to version 1.22. The vulnerability could be remotely exploited to bypass remote authentication leading to execution of arbitrary commands, gai...
CVE-2021-31737
PUBLISHED: 2021-05-06
emlog v5.3.1 and emlog v6.0.0 have a Remote Code Execution vulnerability due to upload of database backup file in admin/data.php.
CVE-2020-28198
PUBLISHED: 2021-05-06
** UNSUPPORTED WHEN ASSIGNED ** The 'id' parameter of IBM Tivoli Storage Manager Version 5 Release 2 (Command Line Administrative Interface, dsmadmc.exe) is vulnerable to an exploitable stack buffer overflow. Note: the vulnerability can be exploited when it is used in "interactive" mode wh...
CVE-2021-28665
PUBLISHED: 2021-05-06
Stormshield SNS with versions before 3.7.18, 3.11.6 and 4.1.6 has a memory-management defect in the SNMP plugin that can lead to excessive consumption of memory and CPU resources, and possibly a denial of service.