To the New President: Secure Cyberspace

As the transition period leading to the new presidency is almost coming to an end, everyone will probably have multiple requests to the president, and of those is to increase cyber defence. In this optic, a new report created by the “CSIS Commission on Cybersecurity for the 44th Presidency[1]” has release its recommendations on how to secure cyberspace. They consist of:

  • Create a Comprehensive National Security Strategy for Cyberspace
  • Organizing for Cybersecurity
  • Rebuilding Partnership with the Private Sector
  • Regulate for Cybersecurity
  • Identity Management for Cybersecurity
  • Modernize Authorities
  • Build for the Future

This report comes 5 years after the “National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace” document released in 2003 by the National Advisory board which goal was to “engage and empower Americans to secure the portions of cyberspace that they own, operate, control, or with which they interact[2]“. The CSIS’ document doesn’t mention the previous efforts by the National Advisory Board but declares the previous efforts of the Bush administration as “good but not sufficient[3]“.

As usual, it remains difficult to see how much of this report is based on real facts or just a way to secure funds from the new president by linking potential damage to the cyberspace infrastructure to the economy . It states that “America’s failure to protect cyberspace is one of the most urgent national security problems facing the new administration that will take office in January 2009[4]“. It uses the cyber attack that occurred on various American networks in 2007 as an example[5].

While they may be some part of fear mongering in this report, we should not completely put aside threats mentioned in this report. As cyber warfare is mostly a war happening without much fanfare and therefore happens in the shadows, it is hard to really determine what’s going on. Since there is no open war between modern countries, we won’t see any cyber warfare for the time being. For the moment, cyberspace will be used for spying mostly and this is what this document mostly addresses.

The unclassified e-mail of the secretary of defense was hacked … A senior official at the Department of State told us the department had lost “terabytes” of information,” declares the report, also: “Senior representatives from the intelligence community told us that they had conclusive evidence, covertly obtained from foreign sources, that U.S. companies have lost  billions in intellectual properties.

Unfortunately, “senior representatives“, “conclusive evidence” and “foreign sources” are so vague that it’s impossible to validate the scope of the problem…or even believe it. Another document though[6], mentioned in the present reading give some examples of the uses of terrorists for cyberspace. It mentions among others the “Muslim Hackers Club” website and the information posted to it, and the use of stolen credit cards and bank account information to finance the Bali attack in 2002[7].

The authors are putting a lot of emphasis on treating cybersecurity as a priority on the same levels as WMD and any other subject that requires national attention therefore requiring that the federal government take charge of the national cybersecurity instead of IT departments. It proposes that:

1)      Standards for computer security be enforce for to the industry such as manufacturing plants and power plants.

2)      Cyberspace security be overlook by a cybersecurity chief and that security agencies such as the National Cyber Security Center (NCSC) and the Joint Inter-Agency Cyber Task Force (JIACTF) be merged into one.

A central office in charge of enforcing computer security standards will have to be formed later or sooner. Fortunately this will be sooner. Information Technology departments should not only have a national reference on the standards to achieve, but also have the opportunity to know how to implements those standards by having government-accredited security companies implementing those standards to networks of various industries. I also believe this new agency should periodically test the security of those networks, as I presume, should already be done. The reports propose that instead of a new agency, the Whitehouse be in charge of the national cybersecurity with an assistant to the president.

The difficulty in this resides in the fact that only one weak link is sufficient to be able to attack the entire system. Therefore, it is necessary to screen the entire critical infrastructure in order to be efficiently secured. And since this implies that systems are often connected internationally for large industries, it means an international consensus.

One thing is for sure, is that all the existing computer-security related need to be consolidated in order to focus on a common goal, and that is the protection of cyberspace. As the report states, it also need to be working hand-to-hand with the private sector in order to have a quick reaction to emergencies. Unfortunately this is only another report amongst other. Maybe a more tech-savvy president such as Barack Obama will catch on quicker to this threat. Until then, the battle still rages on in the shadows of the Internet…

See also

“Obama urged to create White House cybersecurity chief “, Dan Goodin, The Register, December 8, 2008, http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/12/08/cyber_security_report/ (accessed on December 10, 2008)

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[1] “Securing Cyberspace for the 44th Presidency”, CSIS Commission on Cybersecurity for the 44th Presidency, December 8, 2008, http://www.csis.org/component/option,com_csis_pubs/task,view/id,5157/ (accessed on December 10, 2008)

[2] “The National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace”, National Advisory Board, February 2003, p. VII

[3] “Securing Cyberspace for the 44th Presidency”, CSIS Commission on Cybersecurity for the 44th Presidency, December 8, 2008, p.15

[4] Ibid. p.11

[5] “Pentagon shuts down systems after cyberattack’, Robert McMillan, InfoWorld, June 21, 2007, http://www.infoworld.com/article/07/06/21/Pentagon-shuts-down-systems-after-cyberattack_1.html(accessed on December 10, 2008)

[6] “Threats Posed by the Internet”, CSIS Commission on Cybersecurity for the 44th Presidency, October 2, 2008, http://www.csis.org/component/option,com_csis_pubs/task,view/id,5146/type,1/ (accessed on December 10, 2008)

[7] “Bali death toll set at 202”, BBC News, February 19, 2002, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/2778923.stm (accessed on December 10, 2008)

NSA’s new data center in San Antonio

San Antonio will be hosting the new data center of the National Security Agency reports the San Antonio Current[1]. An old Sony factory on the West Military Drive, near San Antonio’s Loop 410 freeway, will be transformed to accommodate enormous size of data, which will mainly be electronic communications such as phone conversations and emails according to author James Bamford:

“No longer able to store all the intercepted phone calls and e-mail in its secret city, the agency has now built a new data warehouse in San Antonio, Texas.”

This city have been chosen for it’s cheap electricity, provided on an independent power grid since Texas as its own, unconnected to the other states’ grid, making it more reliable.

NSA's Datacenter in San Antonio
NSA's Datacenter in San Antonio

Another factor that played was the location of a similar size Microsoft datacenter a few miles away. This center will be the third largest data center of San Antonio.

As for the Sony plant, it’s made out of two connected buildings, offering offices and research areas and totals around 470 000 square feet[2]. It is expected that 1500 employees will work there initially and may employ up to 4000 personnel.


[1] “The panopticon economy”, Greg M. Schwartz, San Antonio Current, December 3, 2008, http://www.sacurrent.com/news/story.asp?id=69607 (accessed on December 8, 2008)

[2] “NSA Plans San Antonio Data Center”, Rich Miller, Data Center Knowledge, April 19, 2007,  http://www.datacenterknowledge.com/archives/2007/04/19/nsa-plans-san-antonio-data-center/ (accessed on December 8, 2008)

Use of Cyber Warfare Will Limit U.S Freedom of Action says Intelligence

Not entirely cyber warfare related but still a very interesting read, but according to the Global Trends 2025 report by the National Intelligence Council, irregular warfare, which cyber warfare is part of, will play a determinant part into the future of the United States:

“… expanded adoption of irregular warfare tactics by both state and nonstate actors, proliferation of long-range precision weapons, and growing use of cyber warfare attacks increasingly will constrict US freedom of action.[1]

Unfortunately this is the only mention of cyber warfare in the report, which fails to go into further details. This shouldn’t come to a surprise to anyone though. We all know how reliant on technology everything is nowadays and the interconnection between every part of the modern society. Not only does the United States recognized that cyber warfare will be an important part of the upcoming conflicts, but also does China and Russia, which are stated to become heavyweights on the world stage:

“Few countries are poised to have more impact on the world over the next 15-20 years than China. If current trends persist, by 2025 China will have the world’s second largest economy and will be a leading military power.[2]

Right now, even with her very large armed forces of 2 million active personnel[3], China is trying to modernize its military to be more mobile and efficient. In order to accomplish that modernization, it has explored many new avenues that western societies are still trying to grasp. In 1999, two Chinese Air Forces colonels discussed new ways to conduct war in a guide titled “Unrestricted Warfare”, where they describe the use of computers as new weapons for future warfare:

“With technological developments being in the process of striving to increase the types of weapons, a breakthrough in our thinking can open up the domain of the weapons kingdom at one stroke. As we see it, a single man-made stock-market crash, a single computer virus invasion, or a single rumor or scandal that results in a fluctuation in the enemy country’s exchange rates or exposes the leaders of an enemy country on the Internet, all can be included in the ranks of new-concept weapons.[4]

Experts seem to agree that this kind of “new weapon” could do far more damage than one can imagine:

“If someone is able to attack information that is needed by decision makers, or that is crucial to organizing logistics and supply lines of an army on the ground, that means they can induce chaos in a nation[5] said Sami Saydjari, who worked as a Pentagon cyber expert for 13 years and now runs a private company, Cyber Defence Agency.

. If current trends persist, by 2025 China will have the world’s second largest economy and will be a leading military power
... by 2025 China will have the world’s second largest economy and will be a leading military power

We don’t know how much of the concepts explained in this book as been accepted by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), but events from the last decade can gave us clues as how much China has developed cyber warfare capacities based on the text of the two colonels. . Concretes realizations of these ideas may have happened as soon as four years after the publication of the guide during Operation Titan Rain in 2003. With a computer network of more than 3.5 million computers spread across 65 countries, the Pentagon faces many challenges against a strong and sophisticated attack and Operation Titan Rain proved this. According to an article on ZDNet[6], 20 hackers, based or using proxies based in China, successfully attacked American networks in a coordinated attack:

 

  • At 10:23 p.m. PST, the Titan Rain hackers exploited vulnerabilities at the U.S. Army Information Systems Engineering Command at Fort Huachuca, Ariz.

  • At 1:19 a.m., they exploited the same hole in computers at the Defense Information Systems Agency in Arlington, Va.

  • At 3:25 a.m., they hit the Naval Ocean Systems Center, a Defense Department installation in San Diego, Calif.

  • At 4:46 a.m., they struck the U.S. Army Space and Strategic Defense installation in Huntsville, Ala.

The results from this operation were the theft of several classified information:

“From the Redstone Arsenal, home to the Army Aviation and Missile Command, the attackers grabbed specs for the aviation mission-planning system for Army helicopters, as well as Falconview 3.2, the flight-planning software used by the Army and Air Force,” according to Alan Paller, the director of the SANS Institute[7].

Many other attacks have been suspected to originate from China afterwards. Attacks against most of the G7 countries such as France[8], UK and Germany[9], New Zealand[10] and India[11] have been reported by many medias.

Cyber War
Attacks against most of the G7 countries such as France, UK and Germany, New Zealand and India have been reported

Although evidence gathered shows that China is aggressively pursuing irregular warfare, Russia is also gaining a strong cyber warfare reputation on the world scene. Its attack against Estonia has won world coverage and succeeding attacks on Georgia gave the country experience in that domain. It is again unclear though if attacks from Russia are actually coming from government agencies or from criminal behaviour.

The first incident concerning Russia goes back to 1999, before the Chinese cyber attacks. American networks went under siege in what is now called Operation Moonlight Maze. Back then, FBI officials were investigating a breach into the DOD satellite control systems. Again, while the first accusations for the source of this attack were Russian authorities, it was soon shown that they were not implied in this attack[12]. The only certitude about this operation was that the attack went through a Russian proxy.

Nevertheless, Russia cyber warfare was displayed on Estonia in 2007. Once against, it was unclear if the government was involved or if Russian patriotism over the removal of the war memorial[13] caused Russian script kiddies and botnets to answer with a massive DDoS attack. Moscow always denied any involvement in that case. It is also well known that major botnets that are lurking on the net are often controlled by Russian cyber-criminal gangs such as the Russian Business Network. It’s quite possible that those cyber-gangs ordered their botnets to retaliate against Estonia, especially since the attack consisted mostly of a denial-of-service attack, and wasn’t not as sophisticated as a coordinated hacking attack on networks. Another plausible option would be that Russia’s cyber army is a mercenary force.

A repetition of the Estonia cyber attack then took place against Georgia during the Russia-Georgian conflict. The same kind of attack occurred and took down various governmental and commercial websites: HTTP floods were send to www.parliament.ge and president.gov.ge. Some other sites were hi-jacked and displayed fake information. The Georgian government had to put up a temporary website on Blogspot. This time, the Russian Business Network was openly suspected by many analysts to be behind the attacks[14].

HTTP floods were send to www.parliament.ge and president.gov.ge.
HTTP floods were send to www.parliament.ge and president.gov.ge.

McAfee claims that 120 countries around the world are now developing cyber warfare strategies[15]. It is inevitable that countries without cyber warfare capacities will be at great disadvantage in any arising conflict, as disruption of communications will be the first objective of any belligerent. It’s crucial that a strong offensive and defensive cyber war force be developed in order to not only defend against cyber threats, but also wage war in cyberspace.

See also:

“Inside the Chinese Hack Attack”, “Nathan Thornburgh”, Time, August 25, 2005, http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1098371,00.html (accessed on November 21, 2008)

“Coordinated Russia vs. Georgia cyber attack in progress”, Dancho Danchev, August 11, 2008, http://blogs.zdnet.com/security/?p=1670 (accessed on November 21, 2008)


[1] “Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World”, National Intelligence, U.S Government, November 2008, p. XI

[2] Ibid. p. 29

[3] The Asian Conventional Military Balance in 2006: Overview of major Asian Powers”, Anthony H. Cordesman, Martin Kleiber, CSIS, June 26, 2006, p.24

[4] Translation from “Unrestricted Warfare”, Qiao Liang, Wang Xiangsui, PLA Literature and Arts Publishing House, February 1999. p. 25

[5] “China flexes muscles of its ‘informationised’ army”, Ed Pilkington, Bobbie Johnson, The Guardian, September 5, 2007, http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2007/sep/05/hacking.internet (accessed on November 21, 2008)

[6] “Security experts lift lid on Chinese hack attacks”, “Tom Espiner”, ZDNet, November 23, 2005, http://news.zdnet.com/2100-1009_22-145763.html (accessed on November 21, 2008)

[7] Ibid.

[8] “French government falls prey to cyber-attacks ‘involving China'”, Agence France-Presse, September 9, 2007, http://www.france24.com/france24Public/en/news/france/20070909-Internet-piracy-france-secuirty-china-hacker.php (accessed on November 21, 2008)

[9] “Chinese government at the center of five cyber attack claims”, Jeremy Reimer, September 14, 2007, http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20070914-chinese-government-at-the-center-of-five-cyber-attack-claims.html (accessed on November 21, 2008)

[10] “New Zealand hit by foreign computer hacking”, Agence France-Presse, The Age, September 11, 2007, http://www.theage.com.au/news/Technology/New-Zealand-hit-by-foreign-computer-hacking/2007/09/11/1189276701773.html (accessed on November 21, 2008)

[11] “China mounts cyber attacks on Indian sites”, Indrani Bagchi, The Times of India, May 5, 2008, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/China_mounts_cyber_attacks_on_Indian_sites/articleshow/3010288.cms (accessed on November 21, 2008)

[12] “Russia hacking stories refuted”, Federal Computer Weekly, September 27, 1999, http://www.fcw.com/print/5_188/news/68553-1.html?page=1 (accessed on November 21, 2008)

[13] “Estonia hit by ‘Moscow cyber war'”, BBC News, May 17, 2007,  http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/6665145.stm (accessed on November 21, 2008)

[14] “Georgia: Russia ‘conducting cyber war'”, Jon Swaine, The Telegraph, August 11, 2008, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/georgia/2539157/Georgia-Russia-conducting-cyber-war.html (accessed on November 21, 2008)

[15] “China Disputes Cyber Crime Report”, Jordan Robertson, Washington Post, November 29, 2007, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/11/29/AR2007112901588.html (accessed on November 21, 2008)

Both U.S Presidential Campaigns Hacked

Newsweek reports that the computer systems of M. Obama and M. McCain were both hacked by unknown attackers during their campaigns[1]. Very little information is available, but according to Newsweek, the FBI and the Secret Services claimed that several files from the Obama servers had been compromised by a “foreign entity” in midsummer. The same happened to the McCain campaign.

According to the FBI, documents were stole by foreign powers (probably Russia or China) in order to gather information for future negotiations.

But the former director of technology for the 2004 presidential campaign of Rep. Dennis Kucinich expressed skepticism about the claims. Henry Poole from CivicActions, a firm that offers Internet campaign consulting services, said “It’s unlikely that either campaign would have stored sensitive data on the same servers that were being used for public campaigning purposes[2]“.

It is unclear if anyone got compromised at all. If so, why would the FBI and Secret Services report such events? Hopefully there is more to come on this…

See also:

“Hackers and Spending Sprees”, Newsweek, November 5, 2008, http://www.newsweek.com/id/167581/page/1 (accessed on November 6, 2008)

“Both US political campaigns got hacked”, Egan Orion, The Inquirer, November 6, 2008, http://www.theinquirer.net/gb/inquirer/news/2008/11/06/both-political-campaigns-got (accessed on November 6, 2008)


[1] “Hackers and Spending Sprees”, Newsweek, November 5, 2008, http://www.newsweek.com/id/167581/page/1 (accessed on November 6, 2008)

[2] “Report: Obama, McCain campaign computers were hacked by ‘foreign entity'”, Jaikumar Vijayan, ComputerWorld, http://www.computerworld.com/action/article.do?command=viewArticleBasic&taxonomyName=Cybercrime+and+Hacking&articleId=9119221&taxonomyId=82&pageNumber=1 (accessed on November 6, 2008)