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Burning Down the House for Fun and Profit

In October of 1962, during the buildup to the Cuban Missile Crisis, a debate between Adlai Stevenson and Valerian Alexandrovich Zorin at the United Nations Security Council, revealed how far the U.S. was willing to go to produce evidence that the Soviet Union was indeed stockpiling tactical nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in North America.  The Soviet reluctance to be truthful “in the court of world opinion”, forced the hand of the U.S. to produce the very intelligence that the Soviets’ claimed the U.S. did not have.  Once the overhead photos of the missiles were shared publicly, the Soviets immediately countered that the imagery was fake. We knew the truth then and we know it today, the Soviets had been caught in their lie.

What we saw this week was very similar to what we saw in 1962.  What is most interesting in this case is that the bombshell was not dropped in a stuffy chamber full of wrinkly policy makers, nor was it used by the administration to draw a hard line under Executive Order 13636 that President Obama signed last week.  No, the story was brought to light by a single, private sector entity using unclassified information that was publicly available for anyone to put together.  By doing so, a precedent has been set.  Finally, the veil has been lifted. Now, the public was able take a glimpse at an unseen threat that many within the security industry have been following closely for nearly a decade.  A complex, intangible idea has a face, or rather a building, attached to it.

So what does this mean? Is this good, bad or somewhere in the middle?

Operational Caveat: 

Since 13 February, Cyber Squared’s ThreatConnect.com has detected an unknown security research group, (believed to be Mandiant) sink-holing known “Comment Group” command and control infrastructure to a variety of named Virtual Private Servers (VPS) ahead of their 19 February report release.  All “Comment Group” infrastructure has been freely available to vetted ThreatConnect users since November 2012.

The Pros:

Unfortunately, there are no lanes in the road that point out clear-cut standards by which organizations can measure if they are responsibly or irresponsibly disclosing cyber threat information. While not everyone supports public disclosures of this nature, we can look at both sides of what has occurred and find the benefits and cost of this massive disclosure.

PRO1: Finally an organization has developed a public attribution picture, publicly naming and shaming China for behavior that many have observed internationally for over a decade.

PRO2: A precedent has now been set for the entire security community; there are many others who have chosen to hold off on disclosing details of attacks or operationalizing infrastructure take downs out of concerns with tipping the threat actors and forcing them to change their TTPs and operational security.  Now a green-light has been given to disclose similar details and to unilaterally act to take down large chunks of malicious infrastructure associated with APT’s.

PRO3: The United States Government (USG) appears to have handed over the issue of Chinese cyber espionage to commercial industry.  Some may argue that this level of disclosure should only be part of an official USG response.  However, allowing industries to self-regulate and establish norms of internet behavior may serve as a more efficient way to manage threats of this nature.

PRO4: This now gives the security industry something to measure against.  Not only can the industry observe and measure how “Comment Group” will respond to the disclosure, but also their reactions to sweeping sinkhole operations in addition to target reacquisition efforts.  The industry can also pay attention to general responses from other Chinese APT groups.

PRO5:  A disclosure at this level raises the issue of nation state sponsored or sanctioned cyber espionage to a larger audience, keeping the issue in the spotlight and increasing overall global awareness of the threat posed by Chinese cyber espionage.

The Cons:

On the flipside, despite the new opportunities that this may present the industry, there are untold numbers of secondary effects that could come to light because of this disclosure.

CON1: The USG appears to be sidestepping a strategic national policy issue by allowing a commercial entity to assume all of the risk by acting as the mouthpiece that may influence U.S.-China relations.  If the USG is to send a message, it needs to send it unequivocally with no appearance of a puppet.

CON2: This may increase the precedent for foreign governments or non-U.S. companies that wish to embarrass the U.S. or western allies by attributing details of other sophisticated threats to western powers.

CON3: “Comment Group”, while quite effective, could be considered “low hanging fruit”.  There were many "eyes on" from across the global security community which were actively monitoring the threat.  Many organizations that had adequate visibility of “Comment Group” infrastructure, capabilities and operations now find themselves exposed to the unknown.  Assuming a Chinese military intelligence unit isn’t just going to give up and go home, everyone is now equally vulnerable to whatever they use next.

CON4: A single Chinese APT group out of an average of approximately 20 APT groups would only address 5% of the overall problem.  By disclosing details of just one threat group, the effect to Chinese cyber espionage operations would be minimal.

CON5: A detailed disclosure at this level reveals a laundry list of specific items that the Chinese can now use as lessons learned to improve upon overall tradecraft.  This increases the probability of Chinese counter intelligence operations, operations security, oversight and an overall process improvement which will diminish the security industries ability to effectively combat the threat of Chinese APT’s in the future.

Conclusion:

Only time will tell if the gains outweigh any losses associated with the disclosure.  Despite growing evidence that this is the work of the Chinese, the official response has been no different than what we have seen before.  A poor embassy spokesperson, followed by spokespeople for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Defense, are forced to respond with the standard canned and reflexive denial stating that accusing China without evidence is “irresponsible” and “unprofessional” or that China is ultimately the victim and would never do such a thing.  What this spokespersons probably doesn’t understand, through the layers of party bureaucracy, is how “irresponsible” and “unprofessional” the Chinese Computer Network Exploitation (CNE) machine actually is.  If this is the case, it highlights how intentionally deceptive the PRC is or that the left hand has no idea what the right hand is doing in the shadows.

Ultimately, what is truly “irresponsible” and “unprofessional” is targeting the same individual four times a day through emails written in broken English with an attached implant embedded in a self extracting archive.  For those who bear the scars of APT attacks or organizations who specialize in protecting customers from such threats, it becomes quite clear, the Chinese, in their hunger to support their modernization and economic rise, have compromised themselves before a global economy.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rich is a pioneer in threat intelligence analysis and is the Chief Intelligence Officer and Director of Threat Intelligence at ThreatConnect. In 2011, Rich sought likeminded security experts and together they founded ThreatConnect. Rich has more than 15 years supporting DC’s most elite cyber defense and intelligence organizations from within both public and private sector as former U.S. Army Intelligence Analyst and security consultant. Rich is an analyst at heart, and his technical and operational vision is truly what makes ThreatConnect a disruptive new technology for organizations worldwide. Rich leads the ThreatConnect Intelligence Research Team , a globally recognized threat research team. Rich maintains a variety of professional industry certifications, and a BS in Information System Security. Rich is married and is a proud father.