Lately I’ve seen many articles about “active defense” and “hack back.” This is good because current defenses aren’t working and being in a constant state of defensive mode is not a lot of fun. Something needs to be done. The problem is many of these articles take a doomsday approach to the topic.
Comments like, “it’s illegal, you can’t do it;” “you will disrupt someone’s life support in a hospital;” “we will end up with vigilantes hacking back;”and many more, do not facilitate a discussion but appear to seek to end the debate. Many of the naysayers claim the only solution is law enforcement and more of it. How many more police would be enough and is this a realistic response?
Consider this: one person can command a million bot attack from the comfort of his living room; nation-states are training their people to use cyberspace to attack, steal, disrupt; and working for organized crime and terrorist groups pays much better than working a legitimate job in many countries. So, what will it take to raise the stakes and make hacking a more risky business?
Active defense will actually improve security for those who consider it. However, regardless of how the debate proceeds and no matter what the perceived outcome, companies are not likely to suddenly flip a switch and begin hacking back. There are still too many variables and unknowns involved, e.g. risks, liability and legal issues. There will continue to be much caution and debate, primarily since the law on this topic is so unsettled and at this point it is difficult to tell from one jurisdiction to the next how this activity will be perceived.
A company with any sense of corporate responsibility will attack this problem with a very cautious approach. For instance, if your company is persistently attacked the first question is why and how. Is the company being targeted for a particular reason or is your security so crappy that every hacker and his brother are using you as their playground?
If your security is good, which is relative because no matter whom you are, your security can always be improved, you will likely take an escalated approach to the problem and not jump right in to hacking back. During this escalated approach you should be collecting the necessary intelligence to evaluate the problem.Â
To use an analogy, let’s say you are in a combat zone and encounter a sniper. In most circumstances you will not call in an airstrike on the sniper. There are many factors to consider, like where is he, what type of collateral damage may occur, what is the least amount of effort and resources necessary to take him out, etc.? So, when facing a cyber-attack the same considerations apply:
- Where is the hacker coming from;
- What is his motive and end-state;
- Based on the Intel you have collected, what tools and techniques can you use;
- What collateral damage may occur; and,
- Since time and resources are money, what is the least time and resource intensive course of action you can take to resolve this issue?
Companies have too much to lose to take this lightly and jump forward without a very careful analysis. It is this analysis that will inevitably lead to much better security and more focus on the problem.
Other questions for a company to ask are, is the attack persistent or a one-time hit and how much Intel can be collected regarding the attack: can a motive be determined, what is the source and means of the attack, potential location and/or identity of the attacker, how many hops in-between your network and the attacker, what type of servers and who owns those servers; then, what is your end-state (block attack, find hacker, prevent further disruption, retrieve intellectual property/trade secrets, etc.), and finally, what are the risks, liability, and legal issues involved?
Any company that would attempt to hack back without ensuring that their security is good or better than average is just asking for trouble. A lot of avenues of approach beyond the standard defenses currently employed exist for companies persistently attacked. The fear mongering spewed in many articles over active defense and hack back will simply drive companies, which are persistently attacked and frustrated with the state of security, to go underground with their response, act in a haphazard manner, and hope they don’t get caught.