Hacking isn’t new. If you follow the 2600 Magazine culture of know the name Mitnick or Draper you know that hacking has been a part of systems as long as their have been systems. What has changed in recent years is the malicious aspect of what’s going on in the acts themselves. The pioneers of hacking culture were focused on short term gains or personal exploitation. It was more about proving you could break into a system and getting the side benefit of free phone calls or an untraceable mobile device. Today’s hacking cultures are driven by massive amounts of theft and exploitation of resources to a degree that would make any traditional hacker blush.
It’s much like the difference between petty street crime and “organized” crime. With a patron and a purpose, the organizers of the individual members can coordinate to accomplish a bigger goal than was ever thought possible by the person on the street. Just like a wolf pack or jackals, you can take down a much bigger target with come coordination. I talked a little bit about how the targets were going to start changing almost seven years ago and how we needed to start figuring out how to protect soft targets like critical infrastructure. What I didn’t count on was how effectively people would create systems that can cripple us without total destruction.
Deny, Deny, Deny
During RSA Conference this year, I had a chance to speak briefly with Tom Kellerman of Carbon Black. He’s a great guy and I loved the chance to chat with him about some of the crazy stuff that Carbon Black has been seeing in the wild. He gave me a peek at their 2020 Cybersecurity Report and some of the new findings they’ve been seeing. A couple of things jumped out at me during our discussion though.
The first is that the bad actors that have started pushing attacks toward critical infrastructure have realized that denying that infrastructure to users is just as good as destroying it. Why should I take the time to craft a beautiful and elegant piece of malware like Stuxnet to deny a key piece of SCADA systems when I can just use a cyptolocker to infect all the control boxes for a tenth of the cost? And, if the target does pay up to get things unlocked, just leave them there in a state of shutdown!
A recent episode of the Risky Business podcast highlights this to great effect. A natural gas processing plant system was infected and needed to be cleaned. However, when gas is flowing through the pipelines you can’t just shut off one site to have it cleaned. You have to do a full system shutdown! That meant knocking the entire facility offline for two days to restore one site’s systems. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Imagine if you could manage to shut down a hospital like the accidental spanning tree meltdown at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in 2002. Now, imagine a cyptolocker or a wiper that could shut down all the hospitals in California during a virus outbreak. Or maybe one that could infected and wipe out the control systems for all the dams providing power for the Tennessee Valley Authority. Getting worried yet? Because the kinds of people that are targeting these installations don’t care about $5,000 worth of Bitcoin to unlock stuff. They care about causing damage. They want stuff knocked offline. Or someone that organizes them does. And the end goal is the same: chaos. It doesn’t matter if the system is out because of the malware or down for days or weeks to clean it. The people looking to benefit from the chaos win no matter what.
Money, Money, Money
The biggest key to this kind of attack is the same as it always has been. If you want to know where the problems are coming from, follow the money. In the past, it was following the money to the people that are getting paid to do the attacks. Today, it’s more about following the money to the people that make the money from these kinds of attacks. It’s not enough to get Bitcoin or some other amount of peanuts in an untraceable wallet. If you can do something that manipulates global futures markets or causes fluctuations in commodity prices on the order of hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars you suddenly don’t care about whether or not some company’s insurance is going to pay out to unlock their HR files.
Think about it in the most simple terms. If I could pay someone to shut down half the refineries in the US for a month to spike oil prices for my own ends would that be worth paying a few thousand dollars to a hacking team to pull off? Better yet, if that same hacking team was now under my “protection” from retaliation from the target, do you think they’d continue to work for me to ensure that they couldn’t be caught in the future? Sure, go ahead and freelance when you want. Just don’t attack my targets and be on-call when I need something big done. It’s not unlike all those crazy spy movies where a government agency keeps a Rolodex full of assassins on tap just in case.
The thought of what would happen in a modern unrestricted war scares me. Even 4-5 years from now would be a massive problem. We don’t secure things from the kind of determined attackers that can cause mass chaos. Let’s just shut down all the autonomous cars or connected vehicles in NY and CA. Let’s crash all the hospital MRI machines or shut down all the power plants in the US for a day or four. That’s the kind of coordination that can really upset the balance of power in a conflict. And we’re already starting to see that kind of impact with freelance groups. You don’t need a war to deny access to a service. Sometimes you just need to hire it out to the right people for the right price.