Tag Archives: cyberespionage

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

The Repressive Digital Technologies of the West

A growing, multi-billion-dollar industry exports “intrusion software” designed to snoop on smartphones, desktop computers and servers. There is compelling evidence that such software is being used by oppressive regimes to spy on and harass their critics. The same tools could also proliferate and be turned back against the West. Governments need to ensure that this new kind of arms export does not slip through the net.

A recent lawsuit brought by WhatsApp, for instance, alleges that more than 1,400 users of its messaging app were targeted using software made by NSO Group, an Israeli firm. Many of the alleged victims were lawyers, journalists and campaigners. (NSO denies the allegations and says its technology is not designed or licensed for use against human-rights activists and journalists.) Other firms’ hacking tools were used by the blood-soaked regime of Omar al-Bashir in Sudan. These technologies can be used across borders. Some victims of oppressive governments have been dissidents or lawyers living as exiles in rich countries.

Western governments should tighten the rules for moral, economic and strategic reasons. The moral case is obvious. It makes no sense for rich democracies to complain about China’s export of repressive digital technologies if Western tools can be used to the same ends. The economic case is clear, too: unlike conventional arms sales, a reduction in spyware exports would not lead to big manufacturing-job losses at home.

The strategic case revolves around the risk of proliferation. Software can be reverse-engineered, copied indefinitely and—potentially—used to attack anyone in the world…. There is a risk that oppressive regimes acquire capabilities that can then be used against not just their own citizens, but Western citizens, firms and allies, too. It would be in the West’s collective self-interest to limit the spread of such technology.

A starting-point would be to enforce existing export-licensing more tightly… Rich countries should make it harder for ex-spooks to pursue second careers as digital mercenaries in the service of autocrats. The arms trade used to be about rifles, explosives and jets. Now it is about software and information, too. Time for the regime governing the export of weapons to catch up

The spying business: Western firms should not sell spyware to tyrants, Economist, Dec. 14, 2019

The Right Way to Steal

Chinese government hackers have compromised the computers of a Navy contractor, stealing massive amounts of highly sensitive data related to undersea warfare — including secret plans to develop a supersonic anti-ship missile for use on U.S. submarines by 2020, according to American officials.   The breaches occurred in January and February  2018, the officials said… The hackers targeted a contractor who works for the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, a military organization headquartered in Newport, R.I., that conducts research and development for submarines and underwater weaponry.

Taken were 614 gigabytes of material relating to a closely held project known as Sea Dragon, as well as signals and sensor data, submarine radio room information relating to cryptographic systems, and the Navy submarine development unit’s electronic warfare library…This fact raises concerns about the Navy’s ability to oversee contractors tasked with developing ­cutting-edge weapons.

For years, Chinese government hackers have siphoned information on the U.S. military, underscoring the challenge the Pentagon faces in safeguarding details of its technological advances. Over the years, the Chinese have snatched designs for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter; the advanced Patriot PAC-3 missile system; the Army system for shooting down ballistic missiles known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense; and the Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ship, a small surface vessel designed for near-shore operations, according to previous reports prepared for the Pentagon.  In some cases, suspected Chinese breaches appear to have resulted in copycat technologies…

Investigators say the hack was carried out by the Chinese Ministry of State Security, a civilian spy agency responsible for counterintelligence, foreign intelligence and domestic political security. The hackers operated out of an MSS division in the province of Guangdong, which houses a major foreign hacking department….

In September 2015, in a bid to avert economic sanctions, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to President Barack Obama that China would refrain from conducting commercial cyberespionage against the United States. …Both China and the United States consider spying on military technology to fall outside the pact.

Excerpts from Ellen Nakashima and Paul Sonne, China hacked a Navy contractor and secured a trove of highly sensitive data on submarine warfare, Washington Post, June 8, 2018

Cyber-Warriors: US and China

On May 19th, 2014 the Justice Department unveiled 31 charges against five members of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), involving breaking six laws, from relatively minor counts of identity theft to economic espionage, which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years. This is the first time the government has charged employees of a foreign government with cybercrime. The accused are unlikely ever to stand trial. Even so, the Justice Department produced posters with mugshots of the men beneath the legend “wanted by the FBI”. They may never be punished, but that is not the point. Google any of their names and the mugshots now appear, the online equivalent of a perp walk.

That China’s government spies on the commercial activities of companies in America is not news in itself. Last year Mandiant, a cyber-security firm based in Virginia, released a report that identified Unit 61398 of the PLA as the source of cyber-attacks against 140 companies since 2006. But the indictment does reveal more details about what sorts of things the Chinese cybersnoops have been snaffling.

Hackers stole designs for pipes from Westinghouse, an American firm, when it was building four nuclear power stations in China, and also took e-mails from executives who were negotiating with a state-owned company. They took financial information from SolarWorld, a maker of solar panels; gained access to computers owned by US Steel while it was in a trade dispute with a state-owned company; and took files from Alcoa, an aluminium producer, while it was in a joint venture with another Chinese government-backed firm. ATI, another metal firm, and the United Steelworkers union were hacked, too.

American firms that do business in China have long lobbied behind closed doors for Uncle Sam to do something about Chinese hackers. America’s government has hitherto followed a similar logic, pressing China in private. The decision to make a fuss reflects the failure of that approach. When the existence of Unit 61398 became public its troops paused for a while, then continued as before.

Confronting the PLA’s hackers comes at a cost. China has pulled out of a bilateral working group on cyber-security in response to the indictments. Global Times, a Chinese English-language daily, denounced America as: “a mincing rascal”. But doing nothing has a cost, too. Companies like Westinghouse and US Steel have a hard enough time competing with Chinese firms, without having their business plans and designs pinched by thieves in uniform. Nor is the spying limited to manufacturers: tech companies have been targeted by the same group…

Second, America’s spying on Huawei, a Chinese maker of telecoms and networking equipment, makes China’s government doubt that America follows its own rules.

Chinese spying: Cybersnoops and mincing rascals,  Economist, May 24, at 28

Cyber-Attacks on South Korea 2009-2013

The massive cyber attacks on South Korean banks and broadcasters earlier this year were part of a broad campaign of cyber espionage which dates back at least to 2009, a US security firm has concluded. The study by the firm McAfee  (Dissecting Operation Troy: Cyberespionage in South Korea) stopped short of blaming specific entities for the March 20 onslaught but said it found a pattern of sophisticated attacks, including efforts to wipe away traces that could lead to detection.  “The level of sophistication would indicate it is above and beyond your average individual or run-of-the mill hacktivism group,” said James Walter, a McAfee researcher and co-author of the study.

An official South Korean investigation in April determined North Korea’s military intelligence agency was responsible for the attacks which shut down the networks of TV broadcasters KBS, MBC and YTN, halted financial services and crippled operations at three banks….

But McAfee said the attacks represented only a small portion of the cyber campaign being carried out since 2009.  “One of the primary activities going on here is theft of intellectual property, data exfiltration, essentially stealing of secrets,” Walter said.  The report said the attacks, known first as Dark Seoul and now as Operation Troy were “more than cybervandalism… South Korean targets were actually the conclusion of a covert espionage campaign.”  McAfee concluded that two groups claiming responsibility for the attack were not credible.  “The clues left behind confirm that the two groups claiming responsibility were a fabrication to throw investigators off the trail and to mask the true source,” the report said.

Walter said that it is possible that with the campaign nearing detection, the hackers launched these attacks to distract the public and then sought to blame them on little-known entities, the NewRomanic Cyber Army Team, and the Whois Hacking Team.  He added that up to now, the cyber espionage effort “has been very successful in being under the radar” and that “what we see now was a more visible activity that is coupled with a distraction campaign.”

McAfee concluded that the remote-access Trojan was compiled January 26, and a component to wipe the records of numerous systems was compiled January 31.”The attackers who conducted the operation remained hidden for a number of years prior to the March 20 incident by using a variety of custom tools,” the report said.  “Our investigation into Dark Seoul has found a long-term domestic spying operation underway since at least 2009… We call this Operation Troy, based on the frequent use of the word ‘Troy’ in the compile path strings in the malware.”  McAfee carried out the study as part of its research into cybersecurity issues, Walter said.

The attack came days after North Korea had accused South Korea and the United States of being behind a “persistent and intensive” hacking assault that temporarily took a number of its official websites offline.  It also coincided with heightened military tensions on the Korean peninsula, following Pyongyang’s nuclear test in February.

South Korean cyber attacks tip of the iceberg: McAfee, Associated Press, Agence France Press, July 10, 2013