Crime, Terrorism, Spying, and War
America's Dilemma: Close Security Holes, or Exploit Them Ourselves
Originally published in Wired News, May 1, 2008
On April 27, 2007, Estonia was attacked in cyberspace. Following a diplomatic incident with Russia about the relocation of a Soviet World War II memorial, the networks of many Estonian organizations, including the Estonian parliament, banks, ministries, newspapers and broadcasters, were attacked and - in many cases - shut down. Estonia was quick to blame Russia, which was equally quick to deny any involvement.
It was hyped as the first cyberwar: Russia attacking Estonia in cyberspace. But nearly a year later, evidence that the Russian government was involved in the denial-of-service attacks still hasn't emerged. Though Russian hackers were indisputably the major instigators of the attack, the only individuals positively identified have been young ethnic Russians living inside Estonia, who were pissed off over the statue incident.
You know you've got a problem when you can't tell a hostile attack by another nation from bored kids with an axe to grind.
Separating cyberwar, cyberterrorism and cybercrime isn't easy; these days you need a scorecard to tell the difference. It's not just that it's hard to trace people in cyberspace, it's that military and civilian attacks - and defenses - look the same.
The traditional term for technology the military shares with civilians is "dual use." Unlike hand grenades and tanks and missile targeting systems, dual-use technologies have both military and civilian applications. Dual-use technologies used to be exceptions; even things you'd expect to be dual use, like radar systems and toilets, were designed differently for the military. But today, almost all information technology is dual use. We both use the same operating systems, the same networking protocols, the same applications, and even the same security software.
And attack technologies are the same. The recent spurt of targeted hacks against US military networks, commonly attributed to China, exploit the same vulnerabilities and use the same techniques as criminal attacks against corporate networks. Internet worms make the jump to classified military networks in less than 24 hours, even if those networks are physically separate. The Navy Cyber Defense Operations Command uses the same tools against the same threats as any large corporation.
Because attackers and defenders use the same IT technology, there is a fundamental tension between cyberattack and cyberdefense. The National Security Agency has referred to this as the "equities issue," and it can be summarized as follows: When a military discovers a vulnerability in a dual-use technology, they can do one of two things. They can alert the manufacturer and fix the vulnerability, thereby protecting both the good guys and the bad guys. Or they can keep quiet about the vulnerability and not tell anyone, thereby leaving the good guys insecure but also leaving the bad guys insecure.
The equities issue has long been hotly debated inside the NSA. Basically, the NSA has two roles: eavesdrop on their stuff, and protect our stuff. When both sides use the same stuff, the agency has to decide whether to exploit vulnerabilities to eavesdrop on their stuff or close the same vulnerabilities to protect our stuff.
In the 1980s and before, the tendency of the NSA was to keep vulnerabilities to themselves. In the 1990s, the tide shifted, and the NSA was starting to open up and help us all improve our security defense. But after the attacks of 9/11, the NSA shifted back to the attack: vulnerabilities were to be hoarded in secret. Slowly, things in the US are shifting back again.
So now we're seeing the NSA help secure Windows Vista and releasing their own version of Linux. The DH