DD0S: Posters From Walls To Legitimate Weapon Of War and Its Possible Use Scenarios
Distributed Denial of Service has been the go to tool for the script kiddie and Anonyous over the years but recent developments have shown that this tool may be evolving and maturing with new use by actors within the nation state arena. In fact DDoS has been used before by Russia on Georgia in 2008 and again recently on the attack of the power grid in Ukraine. The types of attacks varied but the end state of denying service to sections of infrastructure have been the same in each of those occasions.
What was once considered to be just a tool for skids is now fast becoming a dangerous tool for other attacks that in tandem with kinetic action, could be the prelude to war or, more to the point, smaller actions that may not lead to the intensity of war by the standard definition by countries like the USA. This blog post contains a set of scenarios that could possibly play out but they are more so thought experiments to show the potential use of a denial of service in hybrid or network centric war that includes information warfare, CNO, and CNE implications.
Directed Attacks on Infrastructure and Defense (Schneier)
In a recent post on his blog, Bruce Schneier alluded to some very directed DoS activity against infrastructure of the internet. He was not really forthcoming with the data but I too had heard of some activity and thus began to ponder who might be carrying out tests of new denial of service tools. His go to on who was carrying out the attacks was China, which was a poor choice in my opinion and wrote an off the cuff retort here. I believe that another actor is afoot in that one and as you read below that actor is DPRK. I think this for many reasons that I will cover later.
In any case, the attacks have been systematic and show planning in a way that alludes to a desire to take out large areas of the internet and or command and control systems for the nation(s) that would degrade our abilities to fight a war, carry out daily business, or just surf the web. Of course the former is the most important and likely the aegis here rather than the latter for this adversary.
Another event that has taken place in rapid succession to the attacks on infrastructure was the DDoS of Brian Krebs website after he outed a company that performs DDoS as a service in Israel. This attack for the most part appears to me to be revenge for the takedown he was part of, but he has over the years managed to piss off many of the skidz out there today so the list of names grows exponentially there. What struck me though in this attack was that the tool used was then burned by it’s one time use on Brian. If this actor were someone within the space of nation state, they would not want to burn the tool so to speak.
In fact, post the hubbub of the determination that the tool in question leveraged a botnet consisting of IoT devices (Internet of Things) the author dumped his code online because within days he already was seeing his output diminish because ISP’s were cleaning up their acts and denying access to insecure IoT devices and telnet sessions that had default creds. With this revelation it leaves the tool up for use to some, upgrades to others, but overall it is burned as tools go for surprise attacks. Of course the tool’s DDoS is carried out by GRE packets which is a hard one to stop. If others find new sources of bots for the botnets then the tool once again can be fired and take down the targets pretty readily, so there is that.
South Korean Router Hack
The Yonhap News agency recently put out a report stating that the ROK military had suffered an attack on a ‘Vaccine Routing Server’ at their cyber command in Seoul. I am still not sure what a vaccine routing server is other than perhaps a bad translation from Korean to English but if it is in fact a router, then this attack could further a DDoS quite well. Of course this attack if carried out the right way, could be just like the OVH attack that leveraged traffic directly through to the back end of the OVH infrastructure. This type of attack would be devastating on any network. If in fact the OVH attack was another “test” of another, as yet un-named tool, then leveraging such a router compromise on the ROK cyber command by DPRK would be the next best thing to just dropping a missile on the building, which would likely happen right after the DDos begins in a lightning war.. But I digress.
So with all of these things in mind, I would like to next discuss the tactical use of DDoS in a hybrid warfare scenario. In the cases earlier stated with Russia, both types of denial of service were used in differing capacities. In Georgia, they used the DoS to cut off the country’s communications both internally and externally leaving them dark the rest of the world. In the case of the recent attack in Ukraine they did not use the common tactic of DoS by packet, instead they used a phone DoS on the helpdesk at the power company as well as other tricks like attempting to re-write the firmware in the ICS/PLC environment so that the power would stay down after the attack. Both of these attacks plainly show the value of this type of attack but below I will go into the thought process behind their use.
Deny, Degrade, Disrupt & Psyops
DoS of any kind’s main goal in a warfare sense is to deny access and communications, degrade access and communications, and disrupt access & communications. These primary goals have sub goals of slowing the adversary, denying the adversary, and disrupting their abilities to respond to attacks. If you carry out these denial of service attacks on communications lines for say military command and control (C4ISR) then you are effectively blinding the enemy and or disrupting their ability to respond and prosecute a war.
Years ago an example of this was carried out in Syria by Israel when they attacked a radar station electronically and allowed their jets to make it through unseen by the air defense of the country. This operation (Orchard) leveraged this electronic attack to destroy a nuclear facility before it went live. In certain situations these attacks also can have the added benefit, or even the main goal, of prosecuting a PSYOP (Psychological Operations) on the affected country by destabilizing their networks (public and mil) and sow distrust of the infrastructure as well as cause pandemonium. I will write further on the PSYOPS angle below in one of the scenarios.
Signal To Noise
In some cases a DdoS can be used to distract an adversary while you are attacking a specific asset(s) in a hack. This type of activity has been seen in some of the Chinese activity in the past. This type of attack is quite successful as the IR teams are otherwise engaged in trying to mitigate being offline, it is easy to miss a certain network or device that may still be connected and being attacked. With the masses of data being aimed at the defenses it is easy to miss the attack within the deluge of bad data.
Scenario One: Core Infrastructure Attacks on ROK and USA
With the attacks on infrastructure mentioned above, and the ROK Cyber Command attack on a “router” this scenario concerns a “short war” which is the favored type of warfare by the DPRK. In this attack the following happens:
- DPRK launches a DDoS of some kind(s) on ROK and US assets to disrupt C4ISR
- DPRK engages their rocket batteries just outside of the DMZ with a three minute flight time to Seoul
- DPRK launches other forces and attempts to overtake ROK
It is within the nature of DPRK to attempt this kind of attack because it is doctrine for them, they have nothing to lose, and they would aim to deny, degrade, and disrupt ROK’s allie, the US with the types of attacks we have seen recently with the GRE packet attacks. Of course there would have to be other maneuvers going on and other attacks within the spectrum, but this attack vector would be easy enough for DPRK to leverage in a kinetic hybrid war scenario.
Additionally, the use of DDoS by DPRK is a natural fit because of the lack of infrastructure within the hermit kingdom. If DPRK were to leverage DDoS like the GRE elsewhere, it could easily do so because of the aforementioned lack of connectivity as well as the norms today for warfare do not really cover DDoS (yet) as a type of attack that would require a kinetic response. DoS and DDoS are the perfect asymmetric cyber warfare tool for DPRK and I for one would not be surprised to see in the near future, it’s use by them in scenarios like these.
Directed Attacks In Concert on US Elections
The following scenario concerns the upcoming US election and the possible use of DoS/DDoS as a tool to sow mayhem during the process. Russia seems to be actively tampering with the US electoral process in 2016 through direct means by way of hacking and cyber warfare tactics. However, this attack could be just as easily leveraged by DPRK or anyone else. I am using Russia in this instance because it is October and, well, you all have seen the news lately right?
- Russia attacks the internet infrastructure within the united states to deny and degrade access large scale
- Russia attacks polling places connectivity either by the larger DoS or direct action against polling places and the electronic voting machines connection to upload results
The net effects of these types of attacks on the voting systems on the day of the election would have these potential effects on the process:
- Insecurity and fear that the US is under attack
- Insecurity and mistrust of the electoral process through electronic means
- Not all voting systems have the paper backup so counting ballots would be null and void in some areas
- Re-counts would occur
- The parties (Dem and Rep) specifically in this heated election race would demand redress on the systems being corrupted by possible hacking attacks
- Election results could be null and void
This scenario is quite possible and it does not have to be fully successful technically to actually be successful as an attack. The net effect of PSYOPS on the American process and people would already be carried out and in effect. Given this election cycle’s level of crazy, this one would be very hard to control and not have it spin into disarray. It does not take a lot to throw a monkey wrench into an already contentious election where persistent October surprises from hacked data are being splayed across the scrolling bars of CNN.
With all the scenarios laid out, it is important to now cover the two actors and circle back to the events recently concerning DDoS. In Bruce’s piece he immediately went to the old stand by that; “China did it” I however do not agree with this assessment and the reasons are due to the nature of the actors and their motivations. Rational actors versus irrational actors are key points to consider when you are trying to attribute an attack like these recent attacks. All of this is speculative to start, so please bear that in mind with the attribution I make. (see dice above) For all I know these attacks could all just be cyber criminals seeking to hawk their “booter” service.
Who’s to say really?
Per the assessments of CSIS and other experts on DPRK there is not much to go on in the way of hard data on cyber capabilities and actions from North Korea. However, they do have patterns of behavior and doctrine that has been smuggled out of the country in the past. The use of asymmetric attacks that take very little resources would fit perfectly with the DPRK’s desires and modalities. As mentioned above also, this type of attack would fit well with their “short war” stratagem.
North Korea under Un has shown a willingness to use cyber warfare tactics in attacks like Sony and understands they have nothing to use by leveraging them. Sanctions are not going to work on them even with the pain they may cause. The same can be said for attacks like DDoS, there is a low threshold to entry and use and they have a large asymmetric win in the eyes of DPRK. I would recommend that you call click the link at the top of this post for the CSIS paper on DPRK’s cyber capabilities and structure.
Russia is another animal altogether. Russia plays the game brashly but most of the time very smart. In the case of DDoS use we have already seen them leverage it in tandem with kinetic warfare and do so with success. Their recent use of it as a digital stick on Ukraine as well show’s that they are not afraid to use the attack in their back yard. However, use of it against other nations might be a bridge too far in some cases. The scenario I have laid out though with regard to the nations elections in November 2016 is quite plausible and the burden of proof that the DoS was carried out by Russia or a proxy would be hard to prove in an international court.
Another aspect of this scenario is just how far of a response would the US take if such attacks happened? With attribution being what it is, how would the country respond to an attack of this nature and what good would it do if the process is already tampered with? This scenario is mostly a PSYOP and once again, the damage would have been done. With Putin’s recent aggressive moves (re-forming the KGB and now walking away from the nuclear treaty) it is not beyond the scope of possibility that his penchant for disruption would win out.
Russia is a rational actor and this would be a rational attack. Imagine if by an attack of this kind it tips the election in favor of Trump?
The DDoS attacks that have been happening recently do show that something is afoot. That something is coordinated and is being used to target key aspects of the net as well as DIB partners. What the end goal is and who is doing it all is still a mystery, but, these scenarios above are just as valid as once again pointing at China and yelling “THEY DID IT!”
Maybe something will happen in the near future…
Either way, one should consider the adversaries who might be at play.
UPDATE: Evidently I am not the only one who is thinking along these lines… The Daily NK had an article come out the same day, thanks to @JanetInfosec for the tip! According to this article they are assessing that on or near 10/10/2016 DPRK may attack ROK with electronic/hacking attacks as well as perhaps more launches of provocation.