In February, incident response firm Mandiant released its much-publicized report outlining the activities of a Chinese espionage group, dubbed APT1, and its connections to the Chinese government. The report linked the group to more than 140 attacks over seven years and postulated that the well-funded actors were likely part of an intelligence unit within the People's Liberation Army.
Initially, the conclusions caused a stir among computer security professionals and policy makers alike. Yet, despite shining the spotlight on the China's connection to the attacks and some uncertain pressure by the U.S. government, the People's Republic of China continued to deny involvement, and the espionage attacks continued to compromise systems.
If companies hoped that shedding light on nation-state attackers would curb their espionage activities, they were disappointed. While the report did a lot to spotlight the issue of nation-state attacks and what companies could do to investigate them, it also showed that plausible deniability is a workable strategy, says Adam Meyers, vice president of intelligence for security services firm CrowdStrike.
"I think we are going to see proliferation in cyberoperations -- that's my biggest concern," he says. "When nation-state actors have calculable successes, other nations are going to jump in."
While the APT1 report has largely failed to impact China's espionage activities, the revelation of another nation's cyberoperations has had quite a dramatic impact on its policies. Whistleblower Edward Snowden's leak of documents outlining the extent to which the National Security Agency collected data and communications on foreign and American citizens has resulted in multiple congressional hearings, an investigation by the Obama administration, and pressure from allies, many of whom were the target of the agency's information gathering efforts.
[Leaked operations manual reveals NSA attack techniques that are not significantly better than common cybercrime capabilities, despite their high cost to government. See NSA Hack Attacks: Good Value For Money?.]
The results of the two cases are different for a variety of reasons, but a significant factor is the type of evidence presented in each, says Michael Sutton, vice president of security research for cloud security provider Zscaler.
"In the Mandiant report, the activity is never tied directly to the Chinese government; they are in a position where they can claim plausible deniability," he says. "Compare that to the Snowden revelations: There is no plausible deniability for the U.S. government. It is very clear that this is business as usual for them. When you are looking at the PowerPoint decks, it is hard to deny that that is your program."
In addition, the United States and China have different cultures, and the NSA's ability to collect and sift through data on U.S. citizens does not sit well with people's expectation of privacy and freedom in the United States, Sutton says.
For companies suffering from probable nation-state attacks, the comparison between outing Chinese espionage and the Snowden revelations leaves little hope that naming and shaming will ease the pressure on their defenses. It's unlikely that a hacker embedded in an espionage group will come forward with documents describing their activities.
Yet attackers do react to being spotlighted by investigations into their activities, according to Mandiant.
Following the report, the incident response firm detected some changes in the behavior of APT1, but almost all of the activity has been aimed at evading future detection, according to the company's intelligence group. APT1 issued commands to their infrastructure to communicate through different servers and, in some case, replaced the malware.
"While Mandiant’s APT1 report appears to have affected [its] operations, APT1 is still active using a well-defined attack methodology with a discernible post-report shift towards tools not included in the ... report," says the intelligence group in a statement sent to Dark Reading. "Mandiant has also observed an overall decrease in APT1 operations volume; however, it is possible [the group] shifted operations into areas we currently lack visibility."
Perhaps the most significant impact of the Mandiant report, however, is that it allowed companies to see what they were up against and to have indicators of compromise that could be used to block the activity, says CrowdStrike's Meyers.
"Only by going public will companies get the resources they need to deal with these issues," he says. "That is far better than sitting passively by and letting them attack over and over again."
Until nations take stronger actions against known espionage activity -- and can claim the moral high ground by eliminating their own espionage activities -- companies and individuals will have to rely on the sharing of such information to help them combat such attacks, he says.
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