The Electronic Theatre of War

Apr 21, 2015

We have to face the fact that in our current day and age our communications systems have become a theatre of war.

Where once only specific systems were hotspots of electronic conflict, we now see that almost any device, almost any peripheral, is being employed in the activities of the illegal gathering of information, subversion of countermeasures, destruction and ransoming of digital assets and overall disruption of services.

The sheer diversity of attack vectors and the massive amount of information transferred by the ever increasing number of clients makes keeping track of who does what and when, and whether this is within the desired parameters a herculean task indeed.

To compound matters even further, a single user now has multiple devices and workplaces from which she can use the resources; each utilizing different routes and intermediary systems at different times and from different locations, depending on her life- and work-habits.

Each of these devices can be compromised in various ways; a malicious application can be installed, like worms or viruses, the hardware can be compromised, like the BAD BIOS or the USB Microcontroller bug, the encrypted link can be compromised by Man-In-The-Middle attacks that spoof certificate authorities or by just counting on the indifference of the end-user.

If the opponent were just one single party with known goals, the aforementioned would be somewhat manageable.

But alas, this is not the case; from single disgruntled individuals, via hacktivistic groups, through to criminal organizations and nation-states: all of these can be adversaries in the electronic theatre of war.

If you put all of these together, their compound budget easily exceeds any single country in the world and so each organization has to fend off this amorphous unknown Goliath with a disadvantages from the start; less budget, no specific opponent, no specific target with the own organisation.

And finally we have the biological malware; a person within the organization that has access to information (most often legally or because of job responsibilities). People could access information, copy it and disseminate it via alternate channels.

But to defend each and every asset with the utmost and extreme measures available would stifle and choke the organization’s ability to perform well in its primary function (whether business, public service or law/military).

So, is this fight already lost? The answer to that is: not by a long shot.

But the first realization that any organization needs to have is that, whether they choose to or not, it is in a battle for the integrity and ownership of its assets and that the only way it can retain these is to fully commit to keeping in control.

Next, the organization needs to understand that it is compromised right now. Whether it is because of foreign agency hardware on the mainboards, backdoors in routers, viruses and worms, infected printers, tablets or any other information or communications device, it does not really matter, it is compromised.

But, just as the human body can cope with infections and intruders, so can an organisation.

At best, an intruder just wastes computing cycles (and appropriately only raises the temperature a little), at worst, the intruder is intend on using the infrastructure to spread and misuse the environment for its own nefarious purpose.

So, just as the human body, the organization needs a method of detecting any violations of its integrity.

Here is where there’s a break; most of the opponents do not have direct physical access to any of the organization’s assets and therefore need to use the networking capabilities to assess and control their tools.

Now, because the organization has, at least partial, control over the network infrastructure, there are chokepoints where traffic must pass through. Most likely this will be the main routers or firewalls. If proper detection systems are hooked into these chokepoints then the dispersion traffic, information transport traffic and control traffic can be seen and the organization can act upon these findings.

Finally, the organization needs to prevent or quell the rate of malware distribution within its infrastructure. This is easier said than done, since it is mostly a matter of ultimate trust in the vendors of the hardware and software. In recent years there have been pre-infected system components like disks, mainboards, USB keys and others. Also, in closed software, it is the organization`s trust that at the origin (i.e. the vendor) there have been no backdoors added and that all known best practices to avoid security loopholes have been executed properly.

The gist of this is actually to be pro-active rather than reactive; every minute that an organization needs to think of a policy and how to implement it is a minute that malware can burrow deeper into the organization and entrench itself. Software does not sleep and malware purveyors of malware have a 24/7 business.

By Adrianus Warmenhoven, Security Evangelist at RedSocks

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