Problems with Cyber-Attack Attribution

Things were easy back when dusting for prints and reviewing security camera footage was enough to find out who stole your stuff. The world of cyber isn’t so simple, for a few reasons:

Everything is accessible to a billion blurred-out faces

The Internet puts the knowledge of the world within reach of a large portion of its inhabitants. It also puts critical infrastructure and corporate networks within the reach of attackers from all over the world. No plane ticket or physical altercation is necessary to rob and sabotage even high-profile entities.

Keeping your face out of sight of the security cameras that are now commonplace in most cities around the world whilst managing to avoid arousing suspicion requires significant finesse. It’s likely the most difficult aspect of any physical crime in a public space. But if you look at the virtual equivalents of cameras and cautious bystanders, intrusion detection/SIEM systems and operations staff, you quickly realize that they monitor information about devices, not people. A system log which shows that a user “John” logged on to the corporate VPN at 2:42 AM on a Saturday may appear at first glance to indicate that John logged on to the corporate VPN at 2:42 AM on a Saturday, but what it actually shows is that one of John’s devices, or another one entirely, did so. John may be fast asleep. We (hopefully) have very little information about that.

When digital forensics teams are sifting through the debris after a cyberattack, this is what they find (if they find anything.) They don’t have the luxury of weeding out a grainy picture of a face that can be authenticated by examining official records or verifying with someone who knows the suspect.

The Internet stinks

Imagine if you could take your pick from any random passerby in the street, assume control of their body, and use it to carry out your crime from the safety and comfort of your living room. If the poor sap gets caught, they might exclaim that they have no idea what happened, and that they weren’t conscious of what they were doing, but to authorities the case is an open-and-shut one: It’s all right there on the camera footage, clear as day. And even if they were willing to believe this lunatic’s story, they know that random crimes (where the perpetrator has no connection to the victim) are nearly impossible to solve, and since they’d be embarking down a rabbit hole by entertaining more complex possibilities, it’s easier to just keep it simple.

In cyber, this strange hypothetical isn’t strange at all. It’s the norm. Very few attackers use their own devices to carry out crimes directly. They use other people’s compromised machines (e.g. botnet zombies), anonymization networks, and more. It’s virtually impossible to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person whose device or IP address has been connected to a crime was therefore complicit in it. All it takes is one link in a cleverly-crafted phishing email, or a Word attachment that triggers remote code execution, and John’s device now belongs to somebody whose politics differ greatly from his.

A forensic expert may find that John’s device was remote-controlled from another device located in Germany. Rudimentary analysis would lead to the conclusion that the real perpetrator is thus German. But what really happened is a layer has been pulled off an onion that may have hundreds of layers. Who’s to say our German friend Emma, the owner of the other device, is any more conscious of what it’s been doing than John was of his? It’s very difficult to know just how stinky this onion is based on a purely technical analysis.

It’s not just like in the movies; it’s worse.

Planting evidence is child’s play

It’s very difficult for me to appear as someone else on security footage, but it’s trivial to write a piece of malware that appears to have been designed by anyone, anywhere in the world. Digital false flag operations have virtually no barriers to entry.

Malicious code containing an English sentence with a structure that’s common for Chinese speakers may indicate that the author of the code is Chinese, or it may mean nothing more than someone wants you to think the author is Chinese. Malicious code that contains traces of American English, German, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Japanese, but not Italian, is interesting, but ultimately gives the same false certainty.

But let’s say you know exactly who wrote the code. How do you know it’s not just being used by somebody else who may be wholly unaffiliated with the author?

Any technical person can be a criminal mastermind online

I worry about the future because any cyberattack of medium-or-higher sophistication will be near-impossible to trace, and we seem reluctant to even look beneath the surface (where things appear clear-cut) today, preferring instead to keep things simple. That an IP address isn’t easily linkable to an individual may be straightforward to technical readers, but it is less so to lawmakers and prosecutors. People are being convicted, on a regular basis, of crimes that are proven using the first one or two layers of the onion (“IP address X was used in this attack, and we know you’ve also used this IP address,”) and we seem to be satisfied with this.

Go up to the most competent hacker you know, and ask them how they’d go about figuring out who’s behind an IP address, or how you can distinguish between actions performed by a user and ones performed by malicious code on the user’s device, and they are likely to shrug their shoulders and say, “That’s pretty tricky,” or launch into an improv seminar on onion routing, mix networks and chipTAN. Yet we are willing to accept as facts the findings of individuals in the justice system who in many cases have performed only a simple analysis of the proverbial onion.

(Don’t get me wrong: Digital forensics professionals often do a fine job, but I’m willing to bet they are a lot less certain in the conclusions derived from their findings than the prosecutors presenting them and the presiding judges are.)

We have to be more careful in our approach to digital forensics if we want to avoid causing incidents more destructive than the ones we’re investigating, and if we want to ensure we’re putting the right people behind bars. If we can figure out who was behind a sophisticated attack in only a few days, there is a very real possibility we are being misled.

Technical details are important, but it’s only when we can couple them with flesh-and-blood witnesses, physical events, and a clear motive that we can reach anything resembling certainty when it comes to attribution in cyberspace.