FireStarter: APT—It’s Called “Espionage”, not “Information Warfare”

There’s been a lot of talk on the Interwebs recently about the whole Google/China thing. While there are a few bright spots (like anything from the keyboard of Richard Bejtlich), most of it’s pretty bad. Rather than rehashing the potential attack details, I want to step back and start talking about the bigger picture and its potential implications. The Google hack – Aurora or whatever you want to call it – isn’t the end (or the beginning) of the Advanced Persistent Threat, and it’s important for us to evaluate these incidents in context and use them to prepare for the future. As usual, instead of banding together, parts of the industry turned on each other to fight over the bones. On one side are pundits claiming how incredibly new and sophisticated the attack was. The other side insisted it was a stupid basic attack of no technical complexity, and that they had way better zero days which wouldn’t have ever been caught. Few realize that those two statements are not mutually exclusive – some organizations experience these kinds of attacks on a continuing basis (that’s why they’re called “persistent”). For other organizations (most of them) the combination of a zero-day with encrypted channels is way more advanced than what they’re used to or prepared for. It’s all a matter of perspective, and your ability to detect this stuff in the first place. The research community pounced on this, with many expressing disdain at the lack of sophistication of the attack. Guess what, folks, the attack was only as sophisticated as it needed to be. Why burn your IE8/Win7 zero day if you don’t have to? I don’t care if an attack isn’t elegant – if it works, it’s something to worry about. Do not think, for one instant, that the latest wave of attacks represents the total offensive capacity of our opponents. This is espionage, not ‘warfare’ and it is the logical extension of how countries have been spying on each other since the dawn of human history. You do not get to use the word ‘war’ if there aren’t bodies, bombs, and blood involved. You don’t get to tack ‘cyber’ onto something just because someone used a computer. There are few to no consequences if you’re caught. When you need a passport to spy you can be sent home or killed. When all you need is an IP address, the worst that can happen is your wife gets pissed because she thinks you’re browsing porn all night. There is no motivation for China to stop. They own major portions of our national debt and most of our manufacturing capacity, and are perceived as an essential market for US economic growth. We (the US and much of Europe) are in no position to apply any serious economic sanctions. China knows this, and it allows them great latitude to operate. Ever vendor who tells me they can ‘solve’ APT instantly ends up on my snake oil list. There isn’t a tool on the market, or even a collection of tools, that can eliminate these attacks. It’s like the TSA – trying to apply new technologies to stop yesterday’s threats. We can make it a lot harder for the attacker, but when they have all the time in the world and the resources of a country behind them, it’s impossible to build insurmountable walls. As I said in Yes Virginia, China Is Spying and Stealing Our Stuff, advanced attacks from a patient, persistent, dangerous actor have been going on for a few years, and will only increase over time. As Richard noted, we’ve seen these attacks move from targeting only military systems, to general government, to defense contractors and infrastructure, and now to general enterprise. Essentially, any organization that produces intellectual property (including trade secrets and processes) is a potential target. Any widely adopted technology services with private information (hello, ISPs, email services, and social networks), any manufacturing (especially chemical/pharma), any infrastructure provider, and any provider of goods to infrastructure providers are on the list. The vast majority of our security tools and defenses are designed to prevent crimes of opportunity. We’ve been saying for years that you don’t have to outrun the bear, just a fellow hiker. This round of attacks, and the dramatic rise of financial breaches over the past few years, tells us those days are over. More organizations are being deliberately targeted and need to adjust their thinking. On the upside, even our well-resourced opponents are still far from having infinite resources. Since this is the FireStarter I’ll put my recommendations into a separate post. But to spur discussion, I’ll ask what you would do to defend against a motivated, funded, and trained opponent? Share:

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Some APT Controls

Now, all of that said, the world isn’t coming to an end. Just because we can’t eliminate a threat doesn’t mean we can’t contain it. The following strategies aren’t specific to any point technology, but can help reduce the impact when your organization is targeted: Segregate your networks and information. The more internal barriers an attacker needs to traverse, the greater your likelihood of detection. Network segregation also improves your ability to tailor security controls, especially monitoring, to the needs of each segment. Invest heavily in advanced monitoring. I don’t mean only simple signature-based solutions, although those are part of your arsenal. Emphasize two categories of tools- those that detect unusual behavior/anomalies, and those will extensive collection capabilities to help in investigations once you detect something. Advanced monitoring changes the playing field! We always say the reason you will eventually be hacked is that when you are on defense only, the attacker only needs you to make a single mistake to succeed. Advanced monitoring gives you the same capability- now the attacker needs to execute with near-perfection, over a sustained period of time, or you have a greater chance of detection. Upgrade your damn systems. Internet Explorer 6 and Windows XP were released in 2001; these technologies were not designed for today’s operating environment, and are nearly impossible to defend. The anti-exploitation technologies in current operating systems aren’t a panacea, but do raise the barrier to entry significantly. This is costly, and I’ll leave it to you to decide if the price is worth the risk reduction. When possible, select 64 bit options since they include even stronger security capabilities. Longer term, we also need to pressure our application vendors to update their products to utilize the enhanced security capabilities of modern operating systems. For example, those of you in Windows environments could require all applications you purchase to enable ASLR and DEP (sorry Adobe). By definition, advanced persistent threats are as advanced as they need to be, and won’t be going away. APT the logical extension of all of human history, let’s not pretend it is anything more or less. Share:

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Low Hanging Fruit: Security Management

To wrap up my low hanging fruit series (I believe Rich and Adrian will be doing their own takes), let’s talk about security management. Yes, there were lots of components of each in the previous LHF posts (network security & endpoint security) that had “management” components, but now let’s talk about the discipline of management, not necessarily the tools. Think and Be Program Some folks would rather think and be rich, but if you do security for a living, you need to be thinking about a security program. To be clear, establishing a security program is the single hardest thing any security professional has to do. Period. Nothing else comes close in heartburn, futility, angst, or importance. The folks residing in a hamster wheel of pain (a great term coined by Andy Jaquith, I think) tend to spend most of their time in fire-fighting mode. OK, being honest, they spend all their time fire-fighting. That also means a program is not really low hanging fruit (it’s more like skyscraper hanging fruit), but I don’t think you’ll make much headway with any kind of security management without having the structure of a program in place. Thus, this is really about context and the importance of that context as you look to other security management techniques. So why is it so hard to get a program off the ground? Per usual, it gets back to shiny objects and your to-do list. It’s just easier to do something else. Senior management doesn’t have to agree to fixing a firewall rule, re-imaging a machine, or patching a bunch of devices. But they do have to buy into a program. Your peers have to agree to think about security before they do things. Since they don’t like to do that, getting consensus is hard. So most folks just don’t do it – and that’s a big mistake. Without the program in place, your likelihood of success is small. Best of all, you don’t have to implement a full program to greatly increase your chance of success. Yet, all is not lost. You can start slowly with the program and do a few things (kind of low hanging) to get you going: Define success: Without a clear and agreed-upon definition of security success, you may as well give up now. So this really has to be the first step in the process. Communication: How often do you get face time with senior management? It’s probably not enough. Make sure you get an audience as often as you need. In the initial stages probably once a month (if not more often), later on maybe not as much. But if you don’t have something set in stone, scheduled on the calendar, it won’t happen. Accountability: In most organizations, the security team is not well liked. In order to have any chance to implement a security program, you need to change that perception. That’s done one step at a time. Tell them what you are going to do and then do it. Yes, it seems pretty easy. But if it was really easy, everyone would be doing it, right? Just to throw in a shameless plug, I discussed how to implement a security program in The Pragmatic CSO. It goes into a lot of detail on how to structure the program and get acceptance with your business leaders. Incident Response No matter what time it is, it’s time to revisit your incident response plan. Hopefully you haven’t had to use it lately, but don’t get lulled into a false sense of security. Before long you’ll be compromised, and whether you live to fight another day has everything to do with how you respond to the incident. The worst time to learn your IR plan sucks is when you are in the middle of an attack. First make sure senior management understands roles and responsibilities. Who runs point for what? When do the CEO and board need to be notified? When does law enforcement get involved? All of this needs to be documented and agreed upon. Next run simulations and practice. Lots of my practitioner friends practice using live ammo, but if you aren’t under constant attack, then you’ll need to schedule time to practice. Yes, shiny objects and fires to fight make it hard to carve out the time to practice the IR process, but don’t neglect your preparation. Monitor Everything If there is anything the recent APT (advanced persistent threat) hysteria has shown, it’s that we have little chance against a well-funded and patient attacker. The only chance we have is to figure out they are in the house as soon as possible. I call this Reacting Faster, which of course Rich has to improve by reminding us all to React Faster, and Better. The point remains that we don’t know where the attacks are coming from (0-day, by definition, means you don’t know about it, so it’s pretty laughable when an IPS vendor says they can protect against a 0-day attack), so we’d better get better at detecting funky behavior. Anomaly detection is your friend. You need to monitor everything you can, baseline the “normal” course of events, and look for something that is not normal. That gives you something to investigate, as opposed to the literally infinite places where you could be looking for an attack. Logging: Your regulations say you need to log stuff, so you probably have some rudimentary logging capability in place. Or you are looking at one. That’s a good idea because all security management starts with data, and a good portion of your data is in log files. So having an automated mechanism to gather and parse logs is a critical first step. Change detection: Malware tends to leave a trail. Well, most malware anyway. To change behavior usually requires some kind of operating system file change. So seeing those changes will usually give you an indication that something is wrong. Look at key network devices and servers, since those are the interesting targets. Network behavioral analysis: Network flow analysis yields some very interesting perspective on what folks are doing with

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