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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Do not think, for one instant, that the latest wave of attacks represents the total offensive capacity of our opponents.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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?