2016 kept us on our toes right up to the very end - and its last curveball will have implications lasting well past the beginning of the new year.
Speculation on Russian hacking is nothing new, but it picked up notably with the DNC hack prior to the presidential election and the subsequent release of stolen emails, which the intelligence community later described as an information operation aimed at influencing the election. And then on December 29th we saw the US government's response, the coordinated release of a joint report detailing the hacking efforts attributed to Russian intelligence agencies, economic sanctions, and the expulsion of Russian diplomats.
This blog is not going to discuss the merits – or otherwise - of various political actions, nor whether cyberespionage should warrant different responses to other types of espionage. Instead, I’m going to focus on the learnings we can take away from the Joint Analysis Report (JAR). The report is not perfect, but nonetheless, I believe it can be valuable in helping help us, as an industry, improve, so I’m choosing to focus on those points in this post.
The Joint Analysis Report won’t change much for some defenders, while for others it means a reevaluation of their threat model and security posture. But given that the private sector has been tracking these actors for years, it’s difficult to imagine anyone saying that they are truly surprised Russian entities have hacked US entities. Many of the indicators of compromise (IOCs) listed in the JAR have been seen before -- either in commercial or open source reporting. That being said, there are still critical takeaways for network defenders.
1) The US government is escalating its response to cyber espionage. The government has only recently begun to publicly attribute cyberattacks to nation states, including attributing the Sony attacks to North Korea, a series of industrial espionage-related attacks to Chinese PLA officers, and a series of attacks against the financial sector to Iran-backed actors. But none of those attack claims came with the expulsion of diplomats or suspected intelligence officers. The most recent case of a diplomat being declared persona non grata (that we could readily find) was in 2013 when three Venezuelan officials were expelled from the US in response to the expulsion of US diplomats from Venezuela. Prior to that was in 2012, when a top Syrian diplomat was expelled from the Washington Embassy in response to the massacre of civilians in the Syrian town of Houla. Clearly, this is not a step that the United States take lightly.
These actions are more significant to government entities than they are to the private sector, but being able to frame the problem is crucial to understanding how to address it. Information and influence operations have been going on for decades, and the concept that nations use the cyber domain as a means to carry out these information operations is not surprising. This is the first time, however, that the use of the cyber domain means has been met with a public response that has previously been reserved for conventional attacks. If this becomes the new normal then we should expect to see more reports of this nature and should be prepared to act as needed.
2) The motivation of the attackers that are detailed in the report is significant. We tend to think of cyber operations as fitting into three buckets: cyberespionage, cybercrime, or hactivism. The actions described in the JAR and in the statement from the President describe influence operations. Not only do the attackers want to steal information, but they are actively trying to influence opinions, which is an area of cyber-based activity we are likely to see increasing. The entities listed in the JAR, who are primarily political organizations (and there are far more political organizations out there than just the two primary parties’ HQ), as well as organizations such as think tanks, should reevaluate their threat models and their security postures. It is not just about protecting credit card information or PII, anything and everything is on the table.
The methods that are being used are not new – spear-phishing, credential harvesting, exploiting known vulnerabilities, etc. – and that fact should tell people how important basic network security is and will remain. There was no mention of zero-days or use of previously undetected malware. Companies need to understand that the basics are just as, or even more, important when dealing with advanced actors.
3) We need to work with what we have – and that doesn’t mean we just plug and play IOCs. It’s up to us to take the next step. So, what is there to do with the IOCs? There are a lot of people who are disappointed about the quality and level of detail of the IOCs on the JAR. It is possible that what has been published is the best the government could give us at the TLP: White level, or that the government analysts who focus on making recommendations to policy makers simply do not know what companies need to defend their networks (hint: it is not a Google IP address). We, as defenders, should never just take a set of IOCs and plug them into our security appliances without reviewing and understanding what they are and how they should be used.
Defenders should not focus on generating alerts directly off the IOCs provided, but should do a more detailed analysis of the behaviors that they signify. In many cases, even after an IOC is no longer valid, it can tell a story about an attacker behavior, allowing defenders to identify signs of those behaviors, rather than the actual indicators that are presented. IOC timing is also important. We know from open source reporting, as well as some of the details in the JAR, that this activity did not happen recently, some of it has been going on for years. That means that if we are able to look back through logs for activity that occurred in the past then the IOCs will be more useful than if we try and use them from this point in time forward, because once they are public it is less likely that the attackers will still be employing them in the way they did in the past.
We may not always get all of the details around an IOC, but it’s our job as defenders to do what we can with what we have, especially if we are an organization who fits the targeting profile of a particular actor. Yes, it would be easier if the government could give us all of the information we needed in the format that we needed, but reality dictates that we will still have to do some of our own analysis.
We should not be focusing on any one aspect of the government response, whether it is the lack of published information clearly providing attribution to Russia, or the list of less-than-ideal IOCs. There are still lessons that we, as decisions makers and network defenders, can take away. Focusing on those lessons requires an understanding of our own networks, our threat profile, and yes, sometimes even the geo-political aspects of current events so that we can respond in a way that will help us to identify threats and mitigate risk.