Malware Wars!… Cyber-Wars!.. Cyber-Espionage-Wars! OH MY
Flame, DuQU, STUXNET, and now GAUSS:
Well, it was bound to happen and it finally did, a third variant of malware that is ostensibly connected to the story that Mikko Hypponen posted about after an email he got from a nuclear scientist in Iran has come to pass as true. The email claimed that a new piece of malware was playing AC/DC “Thunderstruck” at late hours on systems it had infected within the labs in Iran. I took this with a grain of salt and had some discussions with Mikko about it offline, he confirmed that the email came ostensibly from a known quantity in the AEOI and we left it at that, its unsubstantiated. Low and behold a week or two later and here we are with Eugene tweeting to the world that “GAUSS” is out there and has been since about 2011.
Gauss it seems had many functions and some of them are still unknown because there is an encryption around the payload that has yet to be cracked by anyone. Eugene has asked for a crowd sourced solution to that and I am sure that eventually someone will come out with the key and we will once again peer into the mind of these coders with a penchant for science and celestial mechanics. It seems from the data provided thus far from the reverse R&D that it is indeed the same folks doing the work with the same framework and foibles, and thus, it is again easily tied back to the US and Israel (allegedly per the mouthiness of Joe F-Bomb Veep) and that it is once again a weapon against the whole of the middle east with a decided targeting of Lebanon this time around. Which is an interesting target all the more since there has been some interesting financial news of late concerning banks and terror funding, but I digress…
I am sure many of you out there are already familiar with the technology of the malware so I am leaving all of that out here for perhaps another day. No, what I want to talk about is the larger paradigm here concerning the sandbox, espionage, warfare, and the infamous if not poorly named “CyberWar” going on as it becomes more and more apparent in scope. All of which seems to be centered on using massive malware schemes to hoover data as well as pull the trigger when necessary on periodic digital attacks on infrastructure. Something that truly has not been seen before Stuxnet and seems to only have geometrically progressed since Langer et al let the cat out of the bag on it.
Generally, in the information security sector, when I explain the prevalence of malware today I often go back to the beginning of the Morris worm. I explain the nature of early virus’ and how they were rather playful. I also explain that once the digital crime area became profitable and firewalls became a standard appliance in the network environment, the bad actors had to pivot to generally tunnel their data from the inside out home through such things as a firewall. This always seems to make sense to those I explain it to and today it is the norm. Malware, and the use of zero day as well as SE exploits to get the user to install software is the the way to go. It’s a form of digital judo really, using the opponents strength against them by finding their fulcrum weakness.
And so, it was only natural that the espionage groups of the world would turn to malware as the main means of gaining access to information that usually would take a human asset and a lot of time. By leveraging human nature and software flaws it has been a big win for some time now. I was actually amused that Henry Crumpton in the “Art of Intelligence” talks about how the CIA became a very early adopter of the network centric style of warfare. I imagine that some of the early malware out there used by spooks to steal from unprotected networks was CIA in origin and in fact that today’s Gauss probably has some relatives out there we have yet to see by people who have been doing this for some time now and we, the general public had no idea.
Times change though, and it seems that Eugene’s infrastructure for collecting data is creating a very wide dragnet for his people to find these infections and then reverse them. As we move forward expect to see more of these pop up, and surely soon, these will not just be US/UK/IL based attempts. Soon I think we will see the outsourced and insourced products of the likes of Iran and other nation states.. Perhaps we already have seen them, well, people like Mikko and Eugene may have at least. Who knows, maybe someday I will find something rooting about my network huh? Suffice to say, that this is just the beginning folks so get used to it.. And get used to seeing Eugene’s face and name popping up all over the place as well.. Superior showman that he is.
An Interesting Week of News About Lebanon and Bankers:
Meanwhile, I think it very telling and interesting as we see the scope of these malware attacks opening up, that not only one or two countries were targeted, but pretty much the whole of the Middle East as well. Seems its an equal opportunity thing, of course the malware never can quite be trusted to stay within the network or systems that it was meant for can we? There will always be spillage and potential for leaks that might tip off the opposition that its there. In the case of Gauss, it seems to have been targeted more at Lebanon, but, it may have been just one state out of a few it was really meant for. In the case of Lebanon though, and the fact that this piece of malware was also set to steal banking data from that area, one has to look on in wonder about the recent events surrounding HSBC.
Obviously this module was meant to be used either to just collect intelligence on banking going on as well as possibly a means to leverage those accounts in ways as yet undetermined by the rest of us. Only the makers and operators really know what the intent was there, but, one can extrapolate a bit. As terror finances go, the Middle East is the hotbed, so any intelligence on movement of money could be used in that light just as well as other ways to track the finances of criminal, geopolitical, and economic decisions being made there. Whether it be corporations or governmental bodies, this kind of intelligence would be highly prized and I can see why they would install that feature on Gauss.
All of this though, so close to the revelations of HSBC has me thinking about what else we might see coming down the pike soon on this front as well. Cur off the funding activities, and you make it much harder to conduct terrorism huh? Keep your eyes open.. You may see some interesting things happening soon, especially given that the Gauss is out of the bag now too. Operations will likely have to roll up a bit quicker.
Espionage vs. Sabotage vs. Overt Warfare of Cyber-Warfare:
Recently I have been working on some presentation stuff with someone on the whole cyberwar paradigm and this week just blew the lid off the whole debate again for me. The question as well as the rancor I have over the term “Cyberwar” has been going on some time now and in this instance as well as Stuxnet and Flame and DuQu, can we term it as cyberwar? Is this instead solely espionage? What about the elements of sabotage we saw in Stuxnet that caused actual kinetic reactions? Is that cyberwar? If there is no real war declared what do you term it other than sabotage within the confines of espionage and statecraft?
Then there is the whole issue of the use of “Cold War” to describe the whole effect of these operations. Now we have a possible cold war between those states like Iran who are now coding their own malware to attack our systems and to sabotage things to make our lives harder. Is that a war? A type of war? All of these questions are being bandied about all the while we are obviously prosecuting said war in theater as I write this. I personally am at a loss to say exactly what it is or what to term it really. Neither does the DoD at this point as they are still working on doctrine to put out there for the warriors to follow. Is there a need for prosecuting this war? It would seem that the US and others working with them seem to think so. I for one can understand the desire to and the hubris to actually do it.
Hubris though, has a funny way of coming back on you in spectacular blowback. This is my greatest fear and seemingly others, however, we still have a country and a government that is flailing about *cough the Senate cough* unable to do anything constructive to protect our own infrastructure even at a low level. So, i would think twice about the scenarios of actually leaking statements of “we did it” so quickly even if you perceive that the opposition has no current ability to strike back.. Cuz soon enough they will. It certainly won’t be a grand scale attack on our grid or telco when it does happen, but, we will likely see pockets of trouble and Iran or others will pop up with a smile, waving, and saying “HA HA!” when it does occur.
The Sandbox and The Wars We Are Prosecuting There by Malware Proxy:
Back to the Middle East though… We have been entrenched in there for so so long. Growing up I regularly watched the news reports about Lebanon and Israel, Iran and the hostages, Iraq, Saddam, Russian Proxy wars via terrorism, Ghadaffi and his ambitions as well as terror plots (which also hit close to home with the Lockerbee bombing) You kids today might think this is all new, but let me tell you, this has been going on for a long long time. One might even say thousands of years (Mecca anyone? Crusades?) So, it’s little wonder then that this would all be focused on the Med.
We are conducting proxy wars not only because of 9/11 but also economic and energy reasons as well. You want a good taste of that? Take a look at “Three Days of the Condor” a movie about a fictional “reader” for the CIA who stumbles on to a plan to disrupt governments in the Middle East to affect oil prices and access. For every person that said the Iraq war and Afghanistan wasn’t about oil, I say to them look at the bigger picture. There are echoes there of control and access that you cannot ignore. Frankly, if there wasn’t oil and money in the region, I think we would have quite a different story to look on as regards our implementing our forces there.
So, with that in mind, and with terrorism and nuclear ambitions (Iran) look at the malware targeting going on. Look at all of the nascent “Arab Springs” going on (albeit really, these are not springs, these are uprisings) we have peoples who want not to live under oppressive regimes not just because they aren’t free to buy an iPhone or surf porn, but they are also oppressed tribes or sects that no longer wish to be abused. All of this though, all of the fighting and insurgency upsets the very delicate balance that is the Middle East. Something that we in the US for our part, have been trying to cultivate (stability) even if that stability came from another strongman that we really don’t care for, but, who will work with us in trade and positional relevance to other states.
In goes the malware.. Not only to see what’s going on, but also to stop things from happening. These areas can be notoriously hard to have HUMINT in and its just easier to send in malware and rely on human nature to have a larger boon in intelligence than to try and recruit people to spy. It’s as simple as that. Hear that sucking sound? That’s all their data going to a server in Virginia. In the eyes of the services and the government, this is clearly the rights means to the ends they desire.
We Have Many Tigers by The Tail and I Expect Blowback:
Like I said before though, blowback has a nasty habit of boomeranging and here we have multiple states to deal with. Sure, not all of them has the ability to strike back at us in kind, but, as you have seen in Bulgaria, the Iranians just decided to go with their usual Hezbollah proxy war of terrorism. Others may do the same, or, they may bide their time and start hiring coders on the internet. Maybe they will hire out of Russia, or China perhaps. Hell, it’s all for sale now in the net right? The problem overall is that since we claimed the Iran attack at Natanz, we now are not only the big boy on the block, we are now the go to to be blamed for anything. Even if we say we didn’t do it, who’s gonna really believe us?
The cyber-genie is out of the cyber-bottle.
Then, this week we saw something new occur. A PSYOP, albeit a bad one, was perpetrated by the Assad regime it seems. Reuters was hacked and stories tweeted/placed on the net about how the rebel forces in Aleppo had cut and run. It was an interesting idea, but, it was ineffective for a number of reasons. The crux though is that Reuters saw it and immediately said it was false. So, no one really believed the stories. However, a more subtle approach at PSYOPS or DISINFO campaigns is likely in the offing for the near future I’d think. Surely we have been doing this for a while against them, whether it be in the news cycles or more subtle sock puppets online in social media sites like Twitter or Facebook. The US has been doing this for a long time and is well practiced. Syria though, not so much.
I have mentioned the other events above, but here are some links to stories for you to read up on it…
- PSYOPS Operations by the nascent Syrian cyber warfare units on Reuters
- Hezbollah’s attack in Bulgaria (bus bombing) in response to STUXNET and other machinations
- Ostensible output of INTEL from Gauss that may have gotten HSBC in trouble and others to come (Terrorism funding and money laundering)
All in all though, I’d have to say that once the players become more sophisticated, we may in fact see some attacks against us that might work. Albeit those attacks will not be the “Cyber Pearl Harbor” that Dr. Cyberlove would like you to be afraid of. Politically too, there will be blowback from the Middle East now. I am sure that even after Wikileaks cables dump, the governments of the Med thought at least they could foresee what the US was up to and have a modicum of statecraft occur. Now though, I think we have pissed in the pool a bit too much and only have ourselves to blame with the shit hits the fan and we don’t have that many friends any more to rely on.
It’s a delicate balance.. #shutupeugene
Pandora’s Box Has Been Opened:
In the end, we have opened Pandora’s box and there is no way to get that which has escaped back into it. We have given the weapon framework away due to the nature of the carrier. Even if Gauss is encrypted, it will be broken and then what? Unlike traditional weapons that destroy themselves, the malware we have sent can be easily reverse engineered. It will give ideas to those wishing to create better versions and they will be turned on us in targeted and wide fashions to wreak as much digital havoc as possible. Unfortunately, you and I my friends are the collateral damage here, as we all depend on the systems that these types of malware insert themselves into and manipulate.
It is certainly evident as I stated above, our government here in the US is unable to come up with reasonable means to protect our systems. Systems that they do not own, Hell, the internet itself is not a government run or owned entity either, and yet they want to have an executive ability to shut it down? This alone shows you the problem of their thinking processes. They then decide to open the box and release the malware genie anyway… It’s all kind of scary when you think about it. If this is hard to concieve, lets put it in terms of biological weapons.. Weapons systems that have been banned since Nixon was in office.
The allusion should be quite easy to understand. Especially since malware was originally termed “Virus” There is a direct analogy there. Anyway, here’s the crux of it all. Just like bioweapons, digital “bioware” for lack of a better term, also cannot be controlled once let into the environment. Things mutate, whether at the hand of people or systems, things will not be contained within the intended victims. They will escape (as did all the malware we have seen) and will tend to have unforeseen consequences. God forbid we start really working on polymorphics again huh? If the circumstances are right, then, we could have a problem.
Will we eventually have to have another treaty ban on malware of this kind?
Time will tell.. Until then, we all will just be along for the cyberwar ride I guess. We seem to be steadily marching toward the “cyberwar” everyone is talking about… determined really to prosecute it… But will it get us anywhere?