Tag Archives: cyberdefense

The Nightmare of Keeping the Lights On

Some 330 million Americans rely on the nation’s critical infrastructure to keep the country humming. Disruptions to electrical grids, communications systems, and supply chains can be catastrophic, yet all of these are vulnerable to cyberattack. According to the government’s 2019 World Wide Threats Hearing, certain adversaries are capable of launching cyberattacks that can disrupt the nation’s critical infrastructure – including electrical distribution networks.

In recognition of the disruptions cyberattacks can cause, DARPA in 2016 established the Rapid Attack Detection, Isolation and Characterization Systems (RADICS) program. The goal of RADICS has been to enable black-start recovery during a cyberattack. Black start is the process of restoring power to an electric substation or part of the grid that has experienced a total or partial shutdown without relying on an external power transmission network to get things back online…

“Cyberattacks on the grid can essentially do two things – make the grid not tell you the truth, and make the grid operate in an unexpected way,” said Walter Weiss, the program manager responsible for RADICS. “For example, the grid could show you that a substation has power when in reality it does not. This could unintentionally prevent power restoration to an entire area since no one thinks there is a need to bring power back online. The technologies developed under RADICS help provide ground truth around grid status, giving responders the ability to quickly detect anomalies and then chart a path towards recovery.”…

 The RADICS testbed is comprised of miniaturized substations that were designed to operate as they do in the real world, but with safeguards to protect the system and those operating the substations. The substations are connected via power lines, forming a multi-utility crank path. With a crank path, power is generated to black start one utility that then powers the next utility and the next until the grid is fully restored.

DARPA substation, Plum island NY

Technologies to Rapidly Restore the Electrical Grid after Cyberattack Come Online, DARPA Website, Feb. 23, 2021

Who is the Boss? Cyber-War

A new National Cyber Power Index by the Belfer Centre at Harvard University ranks 30 countries on their level of ambition and capability…That America stands at the top of the list is not surprising. Its cyber-security budget for fiscal year 2020 stood at over $17bn and the National Security Agency (NSA) probably gets well over $10bn. The awesome scale of America’s digital espionage was laid bare in leaks by Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor, in 2013, which showed the agency hoovering up vast amounts of the world’s internet traffic and trying to weaken encryption standards.

China, in second place, has demonstrated a voracious appetite for commercial cyber-espionage abroad and an iron grip on the internet at home. Britain, whose National Cyber Security Centre has parried over 1,800 cyber-attacks since its creation in 2016, is third. Russia, whose spies interfered with America’s last election, is in fourth place. The big surprise is the Netherlands in fifth place, ahead of France, Germany and Canada. Dutch expertise in analyzing malware is particularly sharp…

Many countries outsource the dirtiest work to deniable proxies, like “hacktivists” and criminals….But while stealing things and disrupting networks is important, what matters most over the longer term is control of digital infrastructure, such as the hardware that runs mobile telecommunications and key apps. Dominance there will be crucial to economic strength and national security.

Excerpt from Digital dominance: A new global ranking of cyber-power throws up some surprises, Economist, Sept. 19, 2020

Algorithms as Weapons –Tracking,Targeting Nuclear Weapons

New and unproved technologies—this time computer systems capable of performing superhuman tasks using machine learning and other forms of artificial intelligence (AI)—threaten to destabilise the global “strategic balance”, by seeming to offer ways to launch a knockout blow against a nuclear-armed adversary, without triggering an all-out war.

A report issued in November by America’s National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, a body created by Congress and chaired by Eric Schmidt, a former boss of Google, and Robert Work, who was deputy defence secretary from 2014-17, ponders how AI systems may reshape global balances of power, as dramatically as electricity changed warfare and society in the 19th century. Notably, it focuses on the ability of AI to “find the needle in the haystack”, by spotting patterns and anomalies in vast pools of data…In a military context, it may one day find the stealthiest nuclear-armed submarines, wherever they lurk. The commission is blunt. Nuclear deterrence could be undermined if AI-equipped systems succeed in tracking and targeting previously invulnerable military assets. That in turn could increase incentives for states, in a crisis, to launch a devastating pre-emptive strike. China’s rise as an AI power represents the most complex strategic challenge that America faces, the commission adds, because the two rivals’ tech sectors are so entangled by commercial, academic and investment ties.

Some Chinese officials sound gung-ho about AI as a path to prosperity and development, with few qualms about privacy or lost jobs. Still, other Chinese fret about AI that might put winning a war ahead of global stability, like some game-playing doomsday machine. Chinese officials have studied initiatives such as the “Digital Geneva Convention” drafted by Microsoft, a technology giant. This would require states to forswear cyber-attacks on such critical infrastructure as power grids, hospitals and international financial systems.  AI would make it easier to locate and exploit vulnerabilities in these…

One obstacle is physical. Warheads or missile defences can be counted by weapons inspectors. In contrast, rival powers cannot safely show off their most potent algorithms, or even describe AI capabilities in a verifiable way….Westerners worry especially about so-called “black box” algorithms, powerful systems that generate seemingly accurate results but whose reasoning is a mystery even to their designers.

Excerpts from Chaguan: The Digital Divide, Economist, Jan 18, 2019

Who is Afraid of Shamoon? How to Wipe a Country Off the Face of the Earth

Suspected Iranian hackers infiltrated critical infrastructure and government computers in the Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain in July-August  2019, raising fears among leaders in the region that Tehran is stepping up its cyberattacks amid growing tensions…Hackers broke into the systems of Bahrain’s National Security Agency—the country’s main criminal investigative authority—as well as the Ministry of Interior and the first deputy prime minister’s office, according to one of the people familiar with the matter.

On July 25, 2019 Bahrain authorities identified intrusions into its Electricity and Water Authority. The hackers shut down several systems in what the authorities believed was a test run of Iran’s capability to disrupt the country, the person said. “They had command and control of some of the systems,” the person said.  The breaches appeared broadly similar to two hacks in 2012 that knocked Qatar’s natural-gas firm RasGas offline and wiped data from computer hard drives belonging to Saudi Arabia’s Aramco national oil company, a devastating attack that relied on a powerful virus known as Shamoon.  Bahrain is the smallest country in the Persian Gulf, but it is strategically important because it’s the permanent home of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and Navy Central Command. It is closely allied with its much larger neighbor, Saudi Arabia, a regional rival of Iran.

The Bahrain authorities haven’t definitively attributed the attack to Iran, but they have been provided intelligence by the U.S. and others suggesting Iran is behind it, the people familiar with the matter said….“In the first half of 2019, the Information & eGovernment Authority successfully intercepted over 6 million attacks and over 830,000 malicious emails. The attempted attacks did not result in downtime or disruption of government services,” 

Excerpt from High-Level Cyber Intrusions Hit Bahrain Amid Tensions With Iran, WSJ, Aug. 7, 2019

Power Grid: smart and sensitive

Raytheon Company  and Utilidata have formed a strategic alliance to help power utilities proactively detect, defend against and respond to cyber threats.  The effort will combine Utilidata’s experience in the use of real-time data from the electrical grid to detect and respond to cyber attacks and Raytheon’s expertise in proactive cyber threat hunting, automation and managed security services to provide world-class cybersecurity, analytics and other innovative technologies….

[According to] Scott DePasquale, chairman and CEO of Utilidata. “With more and more devices and systems connected to the internet, and all of them needing electrical power, these challenges are increasing exponentially. This new alliance will help define the future of cybersecurity in the power utilities sector.”  In December 2015, a cyber attack shut down a large section of the Ukrainian power grid – an incident that the Department of Energy identified in the 2017 installment of the Quadrennial Energy Review as an ‘indicator of what is possible.’

Excerpts from  Raytheon, Utilidata to deliver defense-grade cybersecurity for utilities, PRNewswire, Feb. 8, 2017

Biometrics: Behavioral and Physical

From DARPA pdf document available at  FedBizOpps. Gov Enhanced Attribution
Solicitation Number: DARPA-BAA-16-34

Malicious actors in cyberspace currently operate with little fear of being caught due to the fact that it is extremely difficult, in some cases perhaps even impossible, to reliably and confidently attribute actions in cyberspace to individuals. The reason cyber attribution is difficult stems at least in part from a lack of end-to-end accountability in the current Internet infrastructure…..The identities of malicious cyber operators are largely obstructed by the use of multiple layers of indirection… The lack of detailed information about the actions and identities of the adversary cyber operators inhibits policymaker considerations and decisions for both cyber and non-cyber response options (e.g., economic sanctions under EO-13694).

The DARPA’s Enhanced Attribution program aims to make currently opaque malicious cyber adversary actions and individual cyber operator attribution transparent by providing high-fidelity visibility into all aspects of malicious cyber operator actions and to increase the Government’s ability to publicly reveal the actions of individual malicious cyber operators without damaging sources and methods….

The program seeks to develop:

–technologies to extract behavioral and physical biometrics from a range of devices and
vantage points to consistently identify virtual personas and individual malicious cyber
operators over time and across different endpoint devices and C2 infrastructures;
–techniques to decompose the software tools and actions of malicious cyber operators into semantically rich and compressed knowledge representations;
–scalable techniques to fuse, manage, and project such ground-truth information over time,toward developing a full historical and current picture of malicious activity;

–algorithms for developing predictive behavioral profiles within the context of cyber campaigns; and
–technologies for validating and perhaps enriching this knowledge base with other sources of data, including public and commercial sources of information.

Excerpts from Enhanced Attribution, Solicitation Number: DARPA-BAA-16-34, April 22, 2016

Forecast a CyberAtttack: IARPA

From the website of IARPA (Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) — a US research agency under the Director of National Intelligence.

“Approaches to cyber defense typically focus on post-mortem analysis of the various attack vectors utilized by adversaries. As attacks have evolved and increased over the years, established approaches (e.g., signature-based detection, anomaly detection) have not adequately enabled cybersecurity practitioners to get ahead of these threats. This has led to an industry that has invested heavily in analyzing the effects of cyber-attacks instead of analyzing and mitigating the “cause” of cyber-attacks,

The CAUSE   (Cyber-attack Automated Unconventional Sensor Environment)Program seeks to develop cyber-attack forecasting methods and detect emerging cyber phenomena to assist cyber defenders with the earliest detection of a cyber-attack (e.g., Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS), successful spearphishing, successful drive-by, remote exploitation, unauthorized access, reconnaissance). T

he CAUSE Program aims to develop and validate unconventional multi-disciplined sensor technology (e.g., actor behavior models, black market sales) that will forecast cyber-attacks and complement existing advanced intrusion detection capabilities. Anticipated innovations include: methods to manage and extract huge amounts of streaming and batch data, the application and introduction of new and existing features from other disciplines to the cyber domain, and the development of models to generate probabilistic warnings for future cyber events. Successful proposers will combine cutting-edge research with the ability to develop robust forecasting capabilities from multiple sensors not typically used in the cyber domain…”

Excerpt from IARPA website


The Secret Bugs: Exploits

Packets of computer code, known as “exploits”, allow hackers to infiltrate or even control computers running software in which a design flaw, called a “vulnerability”, has been discovered. Criminal and, to a lesser extent, terror groups purchase exploits on more than two dozen illicit online forums or through at least a dozen clandestine brokers, says Venkatramana Subrahmanian, a University of Maryland expert in these black markets. He likens the transactions to “selling a gun to a criminal”.

Just a dozen years ago the buying and selling of illicit exploits was so rare that India’s Central Bureau of Investigation had not yet identified any criminal syndicates involved in the trade, says R.K. Raghavan, a former director of the bureau. Underground markets are now widespread, he says. Exploits empower criminals to steal data and money. Worse still, they provide cyber-firepower to hostile governments that would otherwise lack the expertise to attack an advanced country’s computer systems, worries Colonel John Adams, head of the Marine Corps’ Intelligence Integration Division in Quantico, Virginia.

Exploits themselves are generally legal. Several legitimate businesses sell them. A Massachusetts firm called Netragard last year sold more than 50 exploits to businesses and government agencies in America for prices ranging from $20,000 to more than $250,000. Adriel Desautels, Netragard’s founder, describes some of the exploits sold as “weaponised”. The firm buys a lot from three dozen independent hackers who, like clients, are carefully screened to make sure they are not selling code to anyone else, and especially not to a criminal group or unfriendly government.

More than half of exploits sold are now bought from bona fide firms rather than from freelance hackers, says Roy Lindelauf, a researcher at the Netherlands Defence Academy. He declines to say if Dutch army or intelligence agencies buy exploits, noting that his government is still figuring out “what we’re allowed to do offensively”.Laws to ban the trade in exploits are being mooted. Marietje Schaake, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, is spearheading an effort to pass export-control laws for exploits. It is gathering support, she says, because they can be used as “digital weapons” by despotic regimes. For example, they could be used to monitor traffic on a dissident’s smartphone. However, for a handful of reasons, new laws are unlikely to be effective.

Exploits are a form of knowledge, expressed in computer code. Attempting to stop people from generating and spreading knowledge is futile, says Dave Aitel, a former computer scientist at America’s National Security Agency (NSA) who went on to found Immunity, a computer-security firm in Florida. He says that legal systems would not even agree on which code is good and which is bad. Many legal experts say code should be protected by free-speech laws—it is, after all, language expressed as strings of zeros and ones.

Moreover, tracking down exploits is hard. Hackers keep them secret so that the intended victim doesn’t identify and fix the vulnerability, thereby rendering the exploit worthless. As a French exploit developer puts it, those liable to be rapidly detected are about as useful as a “disposable gun” that can be fired just once. Secrecy surrounding the design, sale and use of exploits makes protecting computer networks from them akin to finding “unknown unknowns”, says Kenneth Geers, a cyber-security specialist at America’s Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

Several governments want firms to develop exploits. In 2010 a computer worm called Stuxnet was revealed to have attacked Iran’s nuclear kit. It used four main exploits to get in; at least one appears to have been bought rather than developed in-house by the government that launched the attack (presumably America or Israel), says David Lindahl, an IT expert at the Swedish Defence Research Agency, a government body in Stockholm. An unprecedented weapon, Stuxnet remained undetected for years by quietly erasing its tracks after “planting sabotage charges at exactly the right place” in Iran’s uranium-enrichment centrifuges, Mr Lindahl says.

Nearly all well-financed intelligence agencies buy exploits, says Eric Filiol, a lieutenant-colonel in computer intelligence for France’s army until 2009. Computer experts who years ago would reveal software vulnerabilities for mere prestige have realised that they were treating “diamonds as pebbles”, says Mr Filiol, now head of the Operational Cryptography and Computer Virology Lab in Laval. His lab is partly financed by France’s defence ministry to provide it with exploits.

The price of exploits has risen more than fivefold since 2004, Mr Filiol says, referring to a confidential document. They vary greatly, depending on three main factors: how hard the exploit is to develop; the number of computers to which it provides access; and the value of those computers. An exploit that can stealthily provide administrator privileges to a distant computer running Windows XP, a no-longer-fashionable operating system, costs only about $40,000. An exploit for Internet Explorer, a popular browser, can cost as much as $500,000 (see chart).

Software firms also buy exploits to identify and repair vulnerabilities in their products before others take advantage of them. A small Vancouver firm called Tarsnap, for example, has paid 30 people who pointed out flaws in its encryption software for online PC backups. To develop better defences for its clients’ computer systems, HP, an American giant, has spent more than $7m since 2005 buying hundreds of “zero days”, as undiscovered exploits are also known in hacker slang. (Once discovered, an exploit’s days are numbered, literally: it becomes a “one day”, then a “two day”, and so on until the vulnerability it exploits is patched.)

Such “bug bounty” schemes, however, will struggle to compete with buyers who want to exploit rather than seal vulnerabilities. Tarsnap’s biggest payout was just $500. Last year Google offered Vupen, a French firm, $60,000 for an exploit that burrowed into its Chrome browser. Vupen’s boss, Chaouki Bekrar, balked, noting that he could get more elsewhere.

Other reputable customers, such as Western intelligence agencies, often pay higher prices. Mr Lindelauf reckons that America’s spies spend the most on exploits. Vupen and other exploit vendors decline to name their clients. However, brisk sales are partly driven by demand from defence contractors that see cyberspace as a “new battle domain”, says Matt Georgy, head of technology at Endgame, a Maryland firm that sells most of its best exploits for between $100,000 and $200,000. He laments a rise in sales by unscrupulous vendors to dangerous groups.

On March 12th the head of the Pentagon’s Cyber Command, General Keith Alexander, warned the Senate Armed Services Committee that state-sponsored groups are stepping up efforts to steal and destroy data using “cybertools” purchased in illicit online markets. As an American military-intelligence official points out, governments that buy exploits are “building the black market”, thereby bankrolling dangerous R&D. For this reason, governments appear increasingly keen to develop exploits in-house. Paulo Shakarian, a cyberwar expert at West Point, an American military academy, says China appears to be moving in this direction.

Developing exploits in-house reduces the risk that a double-dealing vendor will resell code meant to be exclusive. Even so, the trade isn’t likely to fade away. When developers work out a trick that gives them control over the targeted software, they like to yell out a celebratory “who’s your daddy?” notes Pierre Roberge, boss of Arc4dia, a Quebec firm that sells exploits to spy agencies. Exploit trading will continue as long as people pay big money for the opportunity to utter the same joke—this time at the expense of a victim who has been hacked.

Cyber-security: The digital arms trade, Economist, Mar. 30, 2013, at 65.