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Active Defense
8/11/2015 3:05:20 PM
Dr. Peter Stephenson

I'll begin by announcing our new sponsor, Intel471.  Intel471 is a threat actor-centered service that has a database of over a million threat actors and that tracks actors through participation in the underground forums where the hackers do their work and sell their warez.  Click on the link below to visit their web site.Welcome to the Threat Hunter Blog!

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.
 


Welcome to the Threat Hunter Blog
8/4/2015 1:34:00 PM
Dr. Peter Stephenson

This is a more frequent continuation of my blog - which was rather inactive - while I was a professor at Norwich University in Vermont.  I have retired now and am pursuing my research in cyber crime and cyber threat analysis. I will post the results of that research here along with my periodic observations and cyber threat intelligence/anlysis.
 
Since I am retired and have more time available for research and writing, expect to see more frequent entries here.  Also, please feel free to comment and add your two cents worth. Threat hunters are a relatively small community so I trust that this blog will be one of your frequent visits if you are part of that community.  If you are a newbie, you are most welcome.  Ask questions... contribute... we'll all be better for it.
 
I also invite you to follow my columns as thechnology editor for SC Magazine.  Each month I look at products and services in the cyber security space.  Who knows? You might find something interesting there.  It's available on-line at http://www.scmagazine.com.
 
Finally, I am working on a book series for Auerbach Publishing: The Peter Stephenson Series on Cyber Investigation.  Watch for titles in that series.  I'll post them here. Also, if you are an author in that area and want to contribute or write a book in that series, please feel free to email me.  I'm always on the prowl for good, cutting edge authors.
 
That's it for now... stay tuned... we'll get serious in my next posting.

 
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