Defending Your Digital Domain Redux: Take 2

I've written about the idea that 'hacking back' is a bad idea, illegal, and even a little dangerous before. Interesting how topics have a way of re-surfacing from different angles. First, I'll just restart that I'm not an expert on 'cyber warfare' or a lawyer offering legal advice, in fact I'd simply rather not touch that whole angle at all. I'm much more comfortable addressing this issue as it came up today from a more sensible perspective. What follows in this post is an editorial opinion...


WHY does the topic come up?


The topic of "hacking back" or organizations having an offensive posture comes from, I believe, the frustration that many organizations out there feel as they're relentlessly and continually attacked. Playing defense is tiring, even exhausting both mentally and physically. The attackers have such an upper hand that we're left playing defense by finding where they've broken through our defenses, adapting to their attacks, and responding in near-real-time to cut their attack lines. This frustration leads to a mindset where we're easily mentally pushed to believe that it's desirable and even intelligent to go on the offensive. This isn't in reference to any 'cyber war' nonsense talk, but rather to the run-of-the-mill corporate enterprise strategy.


As a strategy for an enterprise, "going on the offensive" is, I believe, small-minded. here's why. With so many difficult factors to consider which I'll discuss in a minute, it's really hard to allocate resources to offensive strategy. Let's take even one more step backwards, first. When thinking about offensive security measures as a means of digital defense, we have to ask ourselves what the return on effort is. What is there to gain? With the precious resources of capital, people, and time all rarely in abundance is your time really best spent attacking your attackers? Even if you believe the right thing to do is find someone else to do the 'dirty work' for you, for example an organization like CrowdStrike, are you really willing to allocate the capital?


Let's look at why I believe it's difficult to take an offensive posture, and gain anything... with the exception of a few corner cases I'll bring up at the very end.


Challenge 1: Who is the 'enemy'?


Today's digital battles are very asymmetric. My friend Will Gragido, who has put his 10k hours into researching adversaries, likes to point out that while it's certainly possible to identify the source of the attack against you, finding the 'attacker' or 'enemy' is extremely difficult and costly. This type of research is also very difficult to do because unlike in the physical world, a digital asset such as a server build and maintained for legitimate purposes, may not actually be the 'attacker', but rather another compromised asset. Let me give you a for example here to make it clear. You're experiencing a menacing attack against one of your systems from IP address With even a light amount of due diligence you find that this machine is also serving up some encrypted traffic between what appears to be financial firms. Legitimately, this machine is a compromised host, performing legitimate financial transactions between banks, but also now being used to attack you. In the absence of finding someone to complain to - you decide to attack it and 'make the attack stop'. In the process, you take down a crucial financial service which is traced to your enterprise... guess where the FBI comes knocking?


Look, attackers don't always use their home computers directly to attack you. The intelligent attacker, which I hope is who we're talking about here, will compromise multiple layers of assets to come after you. They're likely to pop a box (as Dave Kennedy of TrustedSec says), then another, then another, then another until they're far enough away from their 'home' to start launching attacks. When you see an attack coming from China (our favorite country to blame) how do you know it's sponsored by the nation-state, and not your competitor who has compromised a host in China and is using it to attack you? It takes lots of research, often times research we have no access to, to determine attribution correctly. Attackers often hide themselves inside the borders of nation-states that don't cooperate with the United States because that foreign government will likely block your legal attempts to go find the source of the attack, and trace the actual attacker - so you're left making best-guesses. These are not good enough to make a judgment call.


Finally - this whole topic makes little sense to me because as a corporate entity who is the 'enemy' I'm going to go pre-emptively strike at? I fully understand the notion of adaptive defense but to attempt pre-emptive strikes is just silly, period. When do you make the decision to become 'offensive'? When does a port scan turn into an attempted intrusion, turn into a level of attack that you're going to go on the offensive? I believe this is something that would need to be defined within some legal and standards framework somewhere first - and we're ridiculously far away from the maturity it takes as an industry to be ready for that.


Challenge 2: Offensive, so now what?


When I hear people talk about being offensive it's largely all very theoretical. I haven't seen anyone discuss the framework they would use to actually determine source of attack, successfully attribute, identify an attack strategy and execute the task, and then monitor for collateral damage. It's nice theoretically, but who's really willing to do this as a business model, or open their organization/enterprise up to this kind of liability?! I think you'd have to be out of your mind...or have an endless bucket of capital.


Robert Westervelt made an interesting point that attribution and liability are key issues when deciding to 'strike back', with reference to motivations. If you know your data was stolen and is now sitting on a server somewhere, what are the legal and ethical guideposts to help you decide whether you should go get your data back or wipe it as Robert puts it. Obviously in the digital world there is no such thing as 'taking your data back' because everything is just copied from point to never actually lose it unless it was destroyed in the process of exfiltration. Even if you know for certain your data is on that server, are you sure you can safely go destroy it without harming someone else's system (which is presumably the host, since you can't know for sure)? I believe you have an obligation not to cause more damage, in the very least, and since you simply don't know the parameters of this foreign system you can't safely do anything against it.


Wait... step back... how do you even know your data is sitting on that box? Unless it's obvious such as being available for public view, you can't! What about when someone pastes your corporate database to, say, pastebin? Are you seriously going to try and go attack pastebin (you wouldn't since they'd likely take it down, but there are plenty who don't care) or another host like it to try to eradicate your data?! Think of the collateral damage! The minute you attack another system, meaning the second you have to act like an attacker you've now become just that - an attacker - and are subject to the same legal issues. This leads down some uncomfortable rabbitholes, but we largely seem to be ignoring that in public discussions. Is it because 'striking back' is cool?


More realistically - active or adaptive defense


I'd like us as a community to start to talk more about active defense. Active defense, in my opinion, does not involve this 'strike back' nonsense that's being discussed. While I believe we in the enterprise space will always be on the defensive, there are methods we can use to our advantage to make defense more effective, rather than just running from tower to tower repelling attackers scaling the castle wall.


I'd like to have a definition of 'active defense' that encompasses 'adaptive defensive strategies' which means effectively modifying defenses on-the-fly to meet your attacker's offensive moves. Yes, this means you will continue to play the chess game where you're going to be a step behind, and your method of 'winning' is to make the attacker fail, and go away, even if for a short time. If you're being attacked on your web server infrastructure and application-level attacks are the arrow of choice then you can deploy counter-measures such as tarpits, honey-pots and other methods to keep your attacker busy or frustrate them. If your applications are hardened and not susceptible to obvious forms of SQL Injection, yet someone is attempting to SQL Inject your databases... perhaps you could use a method like slowing down their server response time to 60-seconds... that'll serve to slow them down and give you a heads-up to carefully monitor that potential attack. I'm not saying I have all the answers here, just a better one than going shooting arrows into the unknown and potentially creating more damage along the way.




No, I don't believe in 'hacking back' or 'preemptive hacking' or many of the other methods we're discussing. They're illegal and the potential for causing more collateral damage is too great. Think how you would feel if one of your critical systems was compromised and used in the commission of an attack and then was 'hacked back' and disabled by some other enterprise! You'd likely go after them for creating a disruption of your services (which the stealthy attacker, the real one, likely won't do... keep that in mind).


This is a tricky, messy, and business fraught with pitfalls. Paying someone else to do it doesn't make it better, and doesn't absolve you of your legal and ethical responsibilities. As @DrHaxs summarizes nicely "If the box you disable is used for FDA, FAA, PCI, Etc, that is crime. You are the aggressor"


... Let's not lose our heads...



Additional Reading...

...via @Krypt3ia who is quite the authority on the topic, and has written a significant amount...


Richard Steven Hack(anon) | ‎11-01-2012 02:52 PM
I agree completely. The whole idea comes from people who are simply pushing an agenda to get page views or hype themselves in the industry, IMO. I can see a company trying to extract as much intel about a given attacker as they can - and good luck with that if the attacker is competent - and handing it over to law enforcement, but that's as far as it should go. The reality is the attacker will always have the upper hand on the Net and there's really nothing to be done about that. Recon, react, and remediate are the only available options.
Robert Westervelt(anon) | ‎11-01-2012 07:29 PM

Very thoughtful post. When I speak to security experts like yourself about this issue, immediately I'm met with "it's illegal."  I wonder if an enterprise with deep pockets can find an attorney who will say otherwise, or insulate themselves from liability by outsourcing the activity. There are also some jurisdictional issues. How about organizations that have operations in countries where laws are limited and unlikely to cover anything "cyber?" I can think of some very large energy companies that have operations in these countries. A McAfee-CSIS report a few years back spoke about cyberespionage and data-hostage/ransome activities in this sector. It might be in those firms' best interest to hire a crisis response team to track down the cybercriminals to deter future attackers. If the company's IP is exposed, it's very existance is at stake. Some firms would stop at nothing to regain control of its prescious data, even if the legality of the activity was questionable.I don't know. Maybe the real question is: How responsible are the people who advocate these offensive tactics that put the rest of us at risk?

James Jardine(anon) | ‎11-02-2012 02:48 PM

Great Post!!  I am curious to know that if going on the offensive was an approach that was given the green light, how many orgs would put less effort into defense and be swayed into just being offensive.  Would it be possible for a company to build up such a reputation for smacking down would-be intruders that attackers would just stay away from them?   My thought is a definite NO.  I am sure someone would try this approach however.  What would that do to your company reputation?


Another problem with going on the offensive is that the enemy can get bigger and stronger while you are most likely staying at the same resource level.  Say you did hack back to one attacker.   You run the chance that you have touched a nerver with someone that has deeper ties.  Now, more attackers are coming to the initial attacker's aid and you are stuck with lots of people attacking you.  This situation could get deep and fast.  Hacker's like challenges.  Once you turn it into this type of game, they will put a lot of resources into winning it.

Rafal Los (Wh1t3Rabbit) ‎11-02-2012 05:50 PM - edited ‎11-02-2012 05:51 PM


  If "going on the offensive" was somehow granted the green light and we ignored liability, international law and all that it wouldn't help one teencie, tiny bit.  You can see the effects of 'deterrence' to criminals in the real world through stiffer sentences, and more harsh penalties - nothing... they just work harder not to get caught.


  "Cyber deterrence" is a ridiculous idea.  I can't possibly see how "preemptively striking" would deter the 'real' attacker, beyond the script kiddie or casual attacker.  Your point about "poking the gorilla" is well taken - and probably would be more true than not.  Remember these are determined attackers, which have you as the target of their operation and won't just move on to the next victim... they want your intellectual property, data or whatever.


I had an interesting exchange on Twitter today with Dmitri of CrowdStrike (link here) that seemed to bring us to agreement that it's not really "hacking the hackers" we want, but to institute protocol that as a last resort will go after take-downs and other means... I'm interested in his follow-up which is coming soon.


This is definitely an interesting conversation, which I intend on following up with.  Heck I may even do a panel discussion style recording on my podcast... stay tuned.

James Jardine(anon) | ‎11-02-2012 06:41 PM

"Poking the Gorilla"  - Now why couldn't I come up with that? 


I can understand the concerns for companies wanting to do something to stop an active attack.  The most recent news, all the major banks taking a beating with DoS attacks against them.  At some point there is going to be that feeling that no one can help us, so lets help ourselves.  Unfortunately, in cyber, there are too many unknowns for someone to decide that offense is the appropriate answer.  And then if it is, to what extent?   Is the corporation going to hack into the attacker's compute and steal information to sell on the black market?  A far stretch to say that they are going to go in digging for information to just hand over to the authorities.  If we have the ability to access the attacker's computer we must already have the information needed to send to the authorities. 


I look forward to following this topic as I have heard people talking about this for years and it never seems to go away.  I don't think it will go away soon either.  People are getting fed up with getting breached and attacked.  Maybe their defenses are weak, maybe they are not, but they are getting fed up with it.  Unfortunately, with all the different laws in different regions it is difficult at times to prosecute.  If the authorities can't get the bad guys, when do you send in the mercenaries?

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