5/22/2015
10:30 AM
Michael McMahon
Michael McMahon
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Cyber Threat Analysis: A Call for Clarity

The general public deserves less hyperbole and more straight talk



I must admit that I’ve grown increasingly weary over the constant harangue in the popular press about the ever-increasing volume and severity of “cyber attacks” worldwide. The apocalyptic language, the fear mongering, and the dearth of clear and simple explanatory language obscures an already complex topic. The general public deserves less hyperbole and more straight talk.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not downplaying the threats we are facing. Advanced persistent threat actors are homesteading on sensitive federal agency and corporate networks. Cyber threats to industrial control systems (ICS) threaten to hold critical facilities and economic sectors at risk. Denial-of-service attacks, financial compromises, and intellectual property theft disrupt our economy and sow distrust in our banking and commercial sectors.

As analysts, we must better frame this public discussion. We can start by doing what we do best – defining and explaining the nature of the problem we confront. Commentators often lump together a wide range of malicious network activity as “attacks,” disregarding the fact that we can distinguish activity by type, intent, and degree. These differentiations matter; they speak to the nature and intent of the threat actors, which ultimately is what we should be most concerned about.

Espionage & Attack
Traditionally, we differentiate between espionage and attack, and we should do the same with network activity. When the Justice Department indicts a Robert Hanssen, or arrests a group of Russian “illegals” living in the United States, we do not characterize their espionage as “attacks.” Nor should we label the reported intrusions into the White House and State Department networks as “attacks,” lest we conjure up images of combat and destruction that are inappropriate to the event. Perhaps labeling every cyber incident as an “attack” advances some political or corporate purposes. As analysts with a professional commitment to critical thinking, we must play stronger roles in structuring this conversation in ways that advance our collective understanding.

Real network attack modifies the function of a network or a physical system that the network controls. We now witness first-generation network attack capabilities taking the field: industrial control system attacks in Iran (2010) and Germany (2014); and corporate network attacks in Saudi Arabia and Qatar (2012), South Korea (2013) and the United States (2014). Federal agencies and security firms continue to identify industrial control attack tools (some of which had gone unrecognized for years) that may reside on any number of sensitive control systems worldwide. Global proliferation of increasingly destructive network attack capabilities warrants serious attention and should be properly differentiated from espionage.

A Chinese hacker stealing intellectual property from a US defense contractor is qualitatively different from a BlackEnergy implant in a natural gas pipeline control system. Both are malicious activities, but differ substantially in intent and degree of potential impact.

Sometimes clear differentiation eludes us. Espionage and attack often employ similar means of ingress, exploitation, and persistent presence. Some operations—such as the Sony Pictures Entertainment hack—combined elements of both. These challenges should compel us to explore new ways to clearly identify and characterize cyber threats.

A way forward
As analysts with a dedication to tradecraft, we must seek out approaches that better differentiate malicious activity by type and intent. We must move the conversation past malware and digital forensics, which surely play a vital role in cyber intelligence but often offer limited explanatory power for key audiences. Most importantly, we must develop tradecraft that anticipates future threat environments, rather than simply describe and characterize present (or past) ones.

We should resist taking the bait that the popular press offers: to lump together all threat activities under one moniker of “attack.” Failing to offer at least some degree of activity differentiation only contributes to the malaise that strangles our general discussion on the nature of cyber threat.

Do not dismiss the general public as incapable of understanding the technical nuances of cyber threat activity. Our audiences are savvier than we give them credit for; to condescend to them or even write them off altogether is simply high-tech hubris. Even more important, popular understanding matters. An informed public discourse—the cornerstone of any democratic society—forms the basis for developing sound public policy. In our role as analysts, we owe this process the best of our tradecraft, our intellectual rigor, and simple clarity.

Michael McMahon is Director, Cyber Strategy and Analysis at Innovative Analytics & Training, LLC, a Washington, DC-based research consultancy and professional services firm. Mike is a 25-year veteran of the US intelligence community, serving most recently on the National ... View Full Bio
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