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May 182013
 

The strange thing about being involved in information security is the phenomena of cyber warfare.

After all, what does tinkering with computers have to do with real war? Well it depends what all that tinkering leads to, and we simply do not know what would happen in a real war. We are in the beginning of the era when aggressive hacking supports war.

But probably the overwhelming majority of activities labelled as cyber warfare are in fact espionage, or a grey area in between. Any kind of hacking that leads to information disclosure, is espionage rather than warfare. More aggressive hacking – such as writing malware to spin centrifuges into destruction – falls into the grey area between espionage and warfare; it’s too aggressive to be labelled espionage, but isn’t part of a legal war (and yes there is such a thing). In terms of legality, it could well be that such acts are illegal acts of war, but morally justified.

And why is China always the bad actor here? Practically every hacking conference video dealing with cyber warfare drops big hints about the activities of China with little in the way of evidence. There is some evidence that China may be involved in cyber espionage, but as for cyber warfare itself, there is far more evidence for the involvement of the US, Israel, and even the UK; although the rumoured replacement of an Al-Qaeda recipe for a pipe bomb with one for cupcakes doesn’t seem like an act of war, but perhaps an exhibit of the English sense of humour.

Part of the problem is that anyone who reads their firewall logs will find a huge number of attacks coming from Chinese address space. As an example, a quick inspection of the addresses blocked on one of my servers for attempted ssh brute force attacks gives the following table :-

Count Country Code Country
255 CN China
51 US United States …
29 KR Korea (South)
19 BR Brazil
17 DE Germany
15 IN India
13 RU Russia
13 GB Great Britain
13 FR France
11 ID Indonesia

This is not intended to be an accurate reflection of anything other than the number of infected machines trying to brute force accounts on my server.

The high presence of China is an indication of the number of malware infections within China, and the large population of the Chinese. It doesn’t actually say anything about where those attacks originate. Every hacker with enough sense to tie up their shoe laces will be pivoting through privacy proxies, and using armies of infected hosts to send out their attacks. These infected hosts are the ones whose addresses show up in your logs.

Assuming that because these addresses are Chinese means that the Chinese state is behind attacks is faulty logic. There is no reason why the Chinese state hackers (if they exist … although it is almost certain they do) would use Chinese addresses to attack from; they are more likely to be using addresses from the US, Europe, South America, etc. If anything, attacks coming from Chinese addresses indicate :-

  1. Private sector hacking (which is the majority)
  2. Attacks from state groups other than China.

It may well be that China is engaged in industrial scale cyber espionage; it may also be that what people assume are Chinese attacks are in fact other states. After all cyber espionage is probably one of the cheapest ways to get involved; within the means of even the smallest and poorest states.

Dec 082010
 

If anyone has been following the news closely over the last few days, they will be aware of the attempt that the Swedish authorities are making to extradite Julian Assange to face an assortment of sex charges including rape. Even by itself, there is enough suspicion about the timing of this given previous history of the charges to cause any neutral observer to wonder just what is going on here.

For those who have not dug into the details, the charges were first investigated in August 2010 and then dropped before being re-opened. All the while Julian Assange was either in Sweden, or willing to talk to the prosecutor although not prepared to travel to Sweden at his own expense. The escalation to a request for extradition was unfortunately timed happening at the same time as the latest WikiLeaks (linking to a mirror as the main site is mysteriously down) publications.

By itself it is just about enough to cause a sensible to person to say to themselves … “I wonder … Nah!”, but there are other things happening to WikiLeaks.

WikiLeaks appears to be under a continual distributed denial of service attack where many computers are used to send traffic to the WikiLeak servers. There are two sets of servers involved in hosting the WikiLeaks sites – the actual web servers themselves, and the DNS servers hosting the name.

In the case of the web servers, the servers were first moved to the Amazon cloud service in the middle of a denial of service attack – so Amazon can hardly complain about this as it was known about at the time. Yet after less than a week, the site was booted off the Amazon cloud without a public explanation. The suspicion is that political pressure was brought to bear especially given one of the earliest statements about the issue was from a certain Joseph Lieberman – a US Senator.

WikiLeaks then went to a French hosting company – OVH – who have stated that they will honour their contract. Presumably providing that the French courts do not insist that they terminate the contract, which is possible given that the case is under review.

Separately to this, the Wikileaks domain (or “name”) has itself been under attack. Large scale distributed denial of service attacks took place against the EveryDNS infrastructure servers that provide the name wikileaks.org, and every other name hosted by the same infrastructure. EveryDNS took the step of terminating their domain hosting. As of now, the domain wikileaks.org is not available via the DNS servers I run, indicating that either they have not found another hosting company for the name, or their alternative arrangements are under sufficiently serious attack.

Those are the technical attacks.

In addition, a number of financial companies have frozen WikiLeaks accounts preventing funds from being used, or donations being made – PayPal (who admit that their decision was influenced by the US Government) and Mastercard amongst them.

Add all the attacks together and you start to think that there is some kind of conspiracy behind all this – perhaps the US government is waging cyberwar against WikiLeaks. It is almost certain that they have this capability and there are indications that they are annoyed enough with WikiLeaks to do this.

However it is still more probable that this is a combination of :-

  1. Annoyed US (and possibly other) “hackers” making denial of service attacks against the WikiLeaks infrastructure and the associated infrastructure.
  2. Various commercial organisations deciding that it is too much hassle to “help” WikiLeaks and deciding to terminate their contracts.

Probably the harshest criticism should be directed at PayPal who have just said in a TV interview that they received advice from the US State Department that the WikiLeaks site was probably illegal under US law. Well the opinion of a government in a free society should not be enough to condem an organisation, and the directors of PayPal could deservedly be called chickenshit arse-lickers for their actions.

Perhaps you do not believe that WikiLeaks is in the right here. I’m not entirely sure myself – leaking US diplomatic cables is one thing, but perhaps publishing a list of potential targets the US government feels are critical to its security was a step too far. But there is a bigger issue here than “merely” WikiLeaks itself. We are seeing a situation where a website that has not been condemned for their actions in any court of law has been pushed around and to some extent off the Internet by the actions of a few – both people engaged in illegal activities (denial of service attacks) and people making commercial decisions (terminating contracts).

Imagine if you will, this website is something controversial in a country that is considered a pariah by most of the world – Iran perhaps; perhaps they publish allegations with evidence of widespread government crimes and corruption. Iran and supporters of Iran undertake to destroy that website with “cyberwarfare”. Wouldn’t we want that website to be protected in some way ? Perhaps you are thinking that Iran doesn’t have the resources to undertake such an attack; well think again. Many of the largest botnets capable of carrying out widespread denial of service attacks are under the control of organised criminals (spammers) who have less resources than any government – it takes little more than a spotty teenager in a basement to control tens of thousands of compromised machines and target whatever they like.

In such a situation, it would seem to make sense to provide a hosting service of last resort. Presumably a volunteer effort as it would have to be immune to commercial interests, and presumable massively parallel to ensure that there are many servers providing service so that a distributed denial of service attack would fail to hit everywhere.

Lastly, the US reaction to WikiLeaks seems to me to be a little over the top. And I am not talking about the lunatic fringe who are likely to jump and down screaming at the slightest criticism of the US, but at more respected figures. Some of the reactions verge on coming close to events such as the Fatwwā against Salman Rushdie way back in the 1980s.

For example :-

  • Jeffrey T Kuhner wrote in an editorial in the Washington Times that Julian Assange should be treated “the same way as other high-value terrorist targets” and be assassinated.
  • Gordon Liddy has suggested that Julian Assange should be added to a “kill list” of terrorists to be assassinated without trial.
  • Mitch McConnell has called Julian Assange a “high-tech terrorist”.
  • Newt Gingrich has stated “and Julian Assange is engaged in terrorism. He should be treated as an enemy combatant.”. Well it would be a start to treat any terrorist as an enemy combatant (the US doesn’t as enemy combatants have rights).

Calling for the assassination of Julian Assange is no better than a radical Islamist calling for the assassination of Salman Rushdie – we’re supposed to be better than the knuckle dragging fundamentalists frothing at the mouth. Seems that some in the US aren’t. A reminder to those people – we supposedly live in countries where the rule of law is supposed to be followed, and nobody has tried and convicted Julian Assange of anything in relation to WikiLeaks.

As for calling Julian Assange a terrorist, that is blatantly ridiculous. However annoyed you may be with him, none of his actions equate to driving a truck packed with explosives into a crowded shop entrance, or hijacking a plane and flying it into a large city killing thousands. Even if any information published by WikiLeaks has led to the death of anybody (and nobody has managed to demonstrate this – merely raised ill-founded concerns about the possibility), the responsibility for those deaths belongs to those carrying out the killings and not WikiLeaks. At most (in such circumstances), WikiLeaks might be guilty of incitement to murder – and in a much less obvious way than those calling for the head of Julian Assange to be delivered to them on a platter.

The US is beginning to look like the fool in all of this – their information security is a joke, and their reaction to their inability to keep secrets is to shoot the messenger in a way that makes them look no better than those rogue regimes they complain so much about.

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