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Risk

1/23/2015
07:45 AM
Mike Walls
Mike Walls
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Why Russia Hacks

Conventional wisdom holds that Russia hacks primarily for financial gain. But equally credible is the belief that the Russians engage in cyberwarfare to further their geopolitical ambitions.

Third in a series on the motivations that compel nation-states to hack.

The Russian Federation holds an interesting, albeit a dubious position in the ranks of nation state cyber-actors. While ranked third among countries in terms of volume of cyber activity (behind the U.S. and China, according to Deutsche Telekom’s honeypot network data), Russia is widely regarded as a having the most sophisticated and skilled hackers.

Unlike the Chinese government which employs thousands of hackers in the People’s Liberation Army, the Russian government’s relationship with resident hackers is much murkier. The trails to cyber-attacks originating in Russia tend to end at civilian hacktivist groups and criminal organizations, perhaps providing officials with plausible deniability. This may suggest an implicit support for criminal hackers in Russia, given government’s notorious reputation as being inherently corrupt.

Given the highly publicized industry hacks attributed to Russian entities, it’s easy to conclude that the government’s motivation behind hacking is directly related to financial gain. But that conclusion is, perhaps, somewhat simplistic. As an alternative, consider viewing Russian hacking through the prism of geo-politics. It is feasible that the Russian government has established an iniquitous partnership with Russian civilian hackers to achieve geo-political goals. It may not be possible to know with certainty what motivates the government to participate in nefarious cyber activity, but it's equally conceivable that Russian officials views hacking, or more appropriately cyber warfare, as a political tool which, when employed, is extremely effective at helping a nation state achieve a geopolitical goal.

By Coat_of_Arms_of_the_Russian_Federation.[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Coat_of_Arms_of_the_Russian_Federation.[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The notion that the Russian government is willing to use the cyber domain as a political, if not military, arena is not new. Recall the cyber-attacks alleged to have been orchestrated by the Russian Government during the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, a war considered by some to be the first cyber-war. Post war analysis suggests that the Russian Government leveraged the vast network of civilian cyber actors, including organized crime organizations, to conduct the attacks. The military significance of the cyber-targets attacked during the war, and the synchronization of the attacks with Russian military operations may be too coincidental to reasonably conclude Russian civilian hackers were acting autonomously.

In December, the German Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) disclosed that a cyber-attack was executed on a steel plant, resulting in the abnormal shut down of a large blast furnace and associated systems. The BSI report characterized the attackers as highly skilled, and that they used social engineering and extensive knowledge of the network to circumvent security and specialized software designed to prevent such attacks. It is difficult to identify with certainty the parties responsible for these attacks, but the timing of diplomatic talks between the Ukraine and Germany point toward the Russian government. This cyber-attack is significant because it signals an escalation in tactics, a willingness to create physical damage to infrastructure.

More recently, the shutdown of German Government websites, which overlapped with a scheduled meeting this month between German President Joachim Gauck and Ukrainian Prime minister Arsney Yatseniuk, strongly suggests a connection between cyber operations conducted by Russian hacker groups and Russian politicos. The Russian hacktivist group, CyberBerkut, claimed responsibility for the attacks and demanded the Germans withdraw support for Ukraine. We can’t be certain that CyberBerkut was sponsored by the Russian government, but the timing of the cyber attacks with Russian activity in the Ukraine is compelling.

The renowned German military theorist Carl von-Clausewitz believed war to be a political instrument, and we can easily extrapolate Clausewitz’ thought to cyberwar in a modern context. With that point in mind, the Russian government has applied Clausewitz’ theories to achieve national political goals by leveraging an increasingly sophisticated hacker population. While the U.S. and many of her allies grapple with the implications of conducting offensive cyber operations, the Russian Government is writing the first book on geopolitics and global cyber warfare.

More on this topic:

Mike Walls is the Managing Director of Security Operations at EdgeWave. During his time as a captain with the US Navy, he was commander of Task Force 1030 and was directly responsible for the cyberreadiness of more than 300 ships, 4,000 aircraft, and 400,000 Navy personnel. ... View Full Bio
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GonzSTL
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GonzSTL,
User Rank: Ninja
1/23/2015 | 9:09:10 AM
Why ANY Nation Hacks
Let's get down to the brass tacks here. Everybody who thinks that nations do not hack to further their geopolitical ambitions raise their hand. If this were an in-person discussion, I doubt that I will see many hands raised, if any at all. As I think of all the nations and militant organizations out there actively trying to advance their cause, I also think of all the nations actively working to thwart those efforts. To me, it is a matter of national security! I am not saying whether it is a good thing or bad thing; I'm just saying that it is a matter of national survival. Now, ask those nations if they engage in that sort of activity, and I predict that only a handful will admit to it.

We live in an electronically connected world with no physical boundaries, and that is a bit scary. Imagine what it would have been like 5000 or so years ago if people were as scientifically advanced as we are now, but with no national borders. Sort of like a huge global rumble among anarchists. Well, that's what our internet connected world looks like now. Sure, we have laws that attempt to regulate what is legal and what isn't but just how effective can laws really be when illegal activity originates in areas outside of our national borders?

Label me as a paranoid whatever, but personally, I would want my country to have the best hackers around in its employ. I would want them to proactively seek out and thwart all those attacks against my country, and I would also want them to find out as much as possible about all other countries because they too have geopolitical ambitions. Those ambitions may lead to activities not necessarily in the interests of my country, so I definitely want to know what they are. I feel this way because the world is not some global utopian society, and until it is, I will continue feeling this way. Everybody who feels the same way, raise their hand. I'm sure there will be a lot more hands in the air this time around.
mwallsedgewave
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mwallsedgewave,
User Rank: Author
1/23/2015 | 11:57:10 AM
Re: Why ANY Nation Hacks
Thanks for the comments!

Your points are well taken.  To your point about "your country having the best hackers...", the US is building upon what is already a superior cyber capability.  Before he left his position as Director NSA/Commander US Cyber Command, GEN Aleaxander laid the foundation for a national cyber mission force of ~5000 cyber operators.  ADM Rogers, his replacement, is driving that effort forward.  So by 2016, the US will have an extremely capable force of exceptionally well trained cyber operators.  

Thanks again for the thoughtful comments.
GonzSTL
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GonzSTL,
User Rank: Ninja
1/23/2015 | 12:04:38 PM
Re: Why ANY Nation Hacks
Mike Walls, I just read your bio. What a coincidence - I am also a Navy veteran, Vietnam era. I am aware of the US Cyber Command effort. I teach IT Security and tell my students that there may be opportunities there for them.

 
mwallsedgewave
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mwallsedgewave,
User Rank: Author
1/23/2015 | 12:11:53 PM
Re: Why ANY Nation Hacks
GonzSTL,

Glad to exchange thoughts with a "Shipmate" and thanks for your Service!  There are defintely opportunities both in the military (I prefer Navy for obvious reasons) and in the private sector...cyber security is an exciting place to be for young folks looking to make a difference.

 
GonzSTL
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GonzSTL,
User Rank: Ninja
1/23/2015 | 12:40:23 PM
Re: Why ANY Nation Hacks
@Mike Walls: And thank you for yours, shipmate! It really was an honor to serve; I come from a military family. At last count, around 20 veterans (some still serving) in all branches except the Coast Guard.

You are correct; it is an exciting time for young folks to be in IT security right now, as it is a wide open field with many openings in all industry segments. When I teach, I emphasize to my students that in addition to the technical skills, they must also strengthen their business savvy, soft skills like interpersonal relationships, presentation and communication skills, both oral and written. It is tough enough to get the security agenda pushed forward, and even tougher if you cannot communicate it in a way that is fit for executive consumption and for the lay person, and not just for their peers.
Dr.T
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Dr.T,
User Rank: Ninja
1/23/2015 | 12:08:09 PM
Re: Why ANY Nation Hacks
The main reason US has best capabilities to hack is simply because more systems were design out of here and one way or another the most traffics is passing through resources in US regardless where you are in the world.
Dr.T
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Dr.T,
User Rank: Ninja
1/23/2015 | 12:05:34 PM
Re: Why ANY Nation Hacks
I hear you and partial agree, but if we continue to hack we can not complain when others can do the same thing. 
Marilyn Cohodas
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Marilyn Cohodas,
User Rank: Strategist
1/23/2015 | 1:32:19 PM
Re: Why ANY Nation Hacks
To you r point, @Gonz "Everybody who thinks that nations do not hack to further their geopolitical ambitions raise their hand." True, but what I'm taking away from this series is that the what, where and why nations hack are very different.

So my question to Mike is: what can security professionals take away from understanding the various motivations of nation-states, to help them better secure corporate systems and data? Does the "why" really matter?

 
aws0513
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aws0513,
User Rank: Ninja
1/23/2015 | 4:32:58 PM
Re: Why ANY Nation Hacks
Hello @Marilyn,

I think what Mike is providing is a better understanding of the threat side of the risk assesment equation.

The understanding of why state actors may want to target any organization can better help any risk assessment effort for any organization.  This kind of information can help analysts to determine a better threat score to assess against known state actors when compared to their line of business or valued properties. 
Understanding the why could have helped Sony change their risk assessment when they know that the movie they were making would upset or embarrass a dictator.  Although the why seems to be insanity in this case, it is a tangable fact that could have changed the threat value of a risk assessment involving North Korea as the possible threat actor.

This is rock solid analysis @Mike.  Thank you for all of this.

Keep fighting the good fight out there sir!
Marilyn Cohodas
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Marilyn Cohodas,
User Rank: Strategist
1/23/2015 | 4:36:04 PM
Re: Why ANY Nation Hacks
Well said, @aws0513! Thanks.
JJack154
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JJack154,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/5/2015 | 12:13:30 PM
Re: Why ANY Nation Hacks
Putin's KGB roots and his belief that Russia will again become a major world power have given an attitude and the will to do what it takes! That's why Russin Hackers can do their thing in a sheltered environment sanctioned by their government.
rjones2818
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rjones2818,
User Rank: Strategist
1/23/2015 | 10:11:52 AM
Too many ifs and maybes
It reads like a propaganda piece.  Yes, it's a commentary, but opinion is just that.
Dr.T
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Dr.T,
User Rank: Ninja
1/23/2015 | 12:01:19 PM
Financial gain?
 

Unless there is a buyer for list of emails in the market, that may give a financial gain for sure but they do not have to do any hacking for emails, they can just google it. Nobody care about a list username/ password, they will not pay money for that information, it is risky for a legitimate company to utilize that. The other way to use hacking for financial gain is blackmailing, there is more money in that than other options in my view. Most hacking happens simply because they can do it and they want to do it, it is fun.
mwallsedgewave
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mwallsedgewave,
User Rank: Author
1/23/2015 | 12:07:27 PM
Re: Financial gain?
Thanks for the comments Dr.T.!

You are absolutely correct, there is a segment of the hacker population that hacks for fun, and also to feed their egos.  But would you agree that nation states hack for more strategic reasons?

Thanks again!
Dr.T
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Dr.T,
User Rank: Ninja
1/23/2015 | 12:12:57 PM
Re: Financial gain?
Absolutely. Most governments to governments hacking are mainly initiated with a strategic gain, what they end up with is mainly show off and disruption tough, they hardly gain anything that they do not know already in my view.
lynnbr2
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lynnbr2,
User Rank: Strategist
1/26/2015 | 8:52:24 AM
Re: Financial gain?
Russia & China both have a long history of hacking for over fifty years. Their primary reason is military. Remenber the Buran shuttle - amazinging similar to our old Space Shuttle. And now look at the Chinese J-20 & J-31 stealth fighters.

It is incrediby more cost effective to steal information, than it is to invest in the time and resources to design them yourself.

To be able to do this in a way without any fingerprints is a bonus. While military is their state primary goal, to employ third parties, they need a carrot - financial, to keep these third parties motivated and compensated, and up-to-date in their techniques.
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Ninja
1/25/2015 | 8:41:28 PM
FWIW...
I recently saw former DHS chief Michael Chertoff speak at a cybersecurity conference, and he himself outright accused Russia of actively working with and supporting criminal organizations so as to perpetrate cyberwarfare.
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