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Observations from out on the rim...

Active Defense

Dr. Peter Stephenson

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An interesting story came across my desk this week – the topic was active defense or, in the vernacular, “hack-back”.  I found this interesting because it seems so controversial and I really don’t understand why.  Before we explore this a bit deeper and I tell you my position on it (you may or may not agree – that’s your prerogative) let’s just get the facts out of the way.  First, in the U.S. it’s illegal and second, more often than not it simply does not work.  When it does work it’s because you were amazingly lucky or very, very skilled.  That certainly narrows the probability for success. 

So if active defense is illegal and unreliable, why would anyone do it? Two answers come to mind: revenge and greed. 

On the revenge side it must feel good to get inside the server of the twerp who just sent a bot into your system through a phishing email.  “I got that sucker… he won’t come after me again!”  Think again… the stories of the hackers turning back on folks who hack back are legion. 

This is Stephenson’s Theory of Rattlesnakes.  If you are stupid enough to pick up one – and it doesn’t bite you – you can’t just put it down.  If you do you’re toast.  The snake will turn on you and now it’s really mad.  You have to fling the snake as far from you as you can.  Same with hack-back.  If you go after the hackers you’d better be prepared for retaliation ‘cause that snake now is really angry.

Now we come to greed.  There are several consultancies – usually boutiques – that specialize in active defense.  They get good money for breaking the law. There is no lack of clients, either.  One consultant who does this told the author of the story:

“It has been attack after attack after attack. My business has skyrocketed. I feel like I should send the Chinese a Christmas card saying thank you for a wonderful year.”

The story that got me thinking about this, (http://www.pymnts.com/in-depth/2015/attacking-hackers-the-next-security-frontier/#/Vco7407D_bU), talks about the “three As” of active defense: annoy, attribution and attack.  Annoy, as the author of this piece describes it is really nothing more than a honeypot. That is useful for research but I fail to see how it would annoy the attacker beyond getting frustrated by not finding anything of value and being led down a rabbit-hole. There’s nothing illegal about this and you may learn something that would allow competent authority to take down the server.

Attribution is the hardest problem in cyber attacks. ADHD has an app called Honey Badger that uses geolocation to pinpoint attackers.  I have not tried it, I have no idea at this pont how – or even if – it works. The other way, of course, is beacons.  These are tokens that are inserted in data that the hacker wants to steal and that reports its true destination.

At this point I must say that so far I would only expect to be successful against script kiddies.  The real bad guys are writing good software (or really bad, depending upon your viewpoint) and the cyber crooks are buying/renting and using it.  There’s a full-blown underground economy here, but that’s a story for another time.

The third piece, obviously, is attack.  This is a bad idea.  It’s illegal (I already said that but it bears repeating) and you are more likely to nuke some computer that belongs to a mom-and-pop store and has been pwned by the bad guys than you are to hit the bad guys themselves.

So, what’s the point?  Can’t answer that, really… I suppose it just feels good… but so does stopping when you’ve been smacking your head against a brick wall.

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