Cyber arms race, too many shadows on the future

Pierluigi Paganini February 24, 2012

The Mehr News Agency has published a declaration of brigadier general Gholamreza Jalali collected during an official conference that demonstrate the high interest in warfare of Iran.

“The US is downsizing its army for bigger cyber defense infrastructure. So countries like Iran also have to set up and upgrade their cyber defense headquarters and even [build] a cyber army.”

The military has discussed regarding the intention of its country to develop a very effective cyber strategy, a must to reply to the cyber attacks which have been conducted against Iran. Of course the reference to the cyber weapon Stuxnet it’s clear, the virus has been developed with the purpose to damage the Iranian nuclear program.

Iran’s commitment to developing a cyber strategy, indicates that the country is investing in the sector also in terms of cyber offense, this consideration must alarm the West countries and all those states considered enemies of Tehran.  As said many times the effect of the use of cyber weapons could be devastating in relation to the real state of critical infrastructuresthat western countries have discovered suddenly vulnerable. Stuxnet marked a turning point in revealing all the limitations of defense capabilities of those who presumably created the malware.  Industrial sabotage made using cyber weapon is a reality of this days, a military option that can be adopted on large scale against critical infrastructures. I share the same conviction of Eugene Kaspersky that during event in Cancun has declared:

“I’m afraid yes.” Because so much of our physical infrastructure is internet-connected and computer-controlled, it’s possible to stop critical equipment from working.

… it’s a shame I did not have the opportunity to hear him live.

The cyber weapons have several advantages in adopting them, mainly:

  • the disclosure of such agents is silenced for the nature of the vulnerabilities that are exploited. The study of new zero-day vulnerability provides a real advantage to those who attack and the related risks of failure of operations is minimal.
  • the anonymous nature of the offense allow countries to circumvent the approval of the world wide community in case of a military offensive.
  • The costs involved in developing solutions such as that at issue are relatively low compared to other conventional weapons.

We are confronted in recent years with a new arms race for cyber weapons development, governments around the world compete for the project of innovative weapons, a cultural revolution which is able to put on the same plane superpowers as U.S. and China and nations have always have considered minor as Iran and Bangladesh. The consequence is the redrawing of a new political map in which countries join forces to deal with such giants as Israel.

The only way to avoid catastrophic event is to make a strong reality cooperation between states, only joining their cyber capability is possible to guarantee a mutual protection against cyber threats.

Of course, while cooperation can create new synergies on the other hand it can creates new monsters. Business from the real world, from high finance, consolidate agreements in cyber space. Hence arise alliances that scare like China – Iran or China-North Korea and even Russia and China.

Army Lt. Gen. Ronald L. Burgess, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, disclosed new details of China’s space weapons programs last week declaring that it includes anti-satellite missiles and cyber warfare capabilities.  According Burgess the main real cyber threat is China that apparently is supporting civil projects but in reality is preparing an efficient weapons program.

“China’s successfully tested a direct ascent anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) missile and is developing jammers and directed-energy weapons for ASAT missions,” he said.
“A prerequisite for ASAT attacks, China’s ability to track and identify satellites is enhanced by technologies from China’s manned and lunar programs as well as technologies and methods developed to detect and track space debris.”

Analysts estimate that with as many as two-dozen ASAT missiles, China could severely disrupt U.S. military operations through attacks on satellites. China’s Beidou global positioning system satellites will be available for regional users this year and globally by 2020.

The Chinese, Russians and also North Korea have developing capabilities to interfere with or disable U.S. space-based navigation, communications, and intelligence satellites.

There is another aspect that should lead to concern, the proliferation of these weapons and the simplicity to find them in cyberspace makes possible infiltration of criminals.
The cyber crime is refining its techniques and turns increasingly to the technology sector for the creation of new complex fraud. What could happen if using a process of reverse engineering of a cyber weapon criminals will be able to develop new one?

While governments are confronted in the new cyberspace uncontrollable forces can break patterns and balances, a cross threat without borders before which all countries are still unprepared.  Think is enough? Wrong! I purposely left for last the phenomenon of hacktivism. Today we are witnessing an escalation of operations of groups like Anonymous, but I think it unlikely that famous groups can really offend critical structures. I’m more afraid of those who wish we believe it. However, the management of the threat Anonymous involves a significant deployment of energy for its victims.

How to explain the risks and dangers that threaten our facilities to persons not involved in the work?

We can identify a multitude of dangers, the technological impetus behind each infrastructure has brought several vulnerabilities. Layers and layers of software levels or components badly developed by third parties that have not followed strict recommendations on security in the design phase, the need for a remote control ever more stringent, vulnerabilities in the authentication processes … and still, malware able to operate silently watching for years the facilities and gathering info for future attacks, exposure of services simply identifiable and that could be impaired by all sorts of attacks (e.g. SLQ injection rather than DDoS), thin perimeter security , sometimes the lack of adequate security policies, and finally the factor of greatest risk, the human factor. Just the human component is often unmanageable, be it an insider or an user that superficially make unauthorized use of storages and supports (e.g. USB token) or circumvents security policies to chat with him girl​​friend.

When we talk about cyber weapon we have to contextualize it the typical operational scope just described .

The availability of a multitude of information on each possible target. Without resorting to sophisticated OSINT techniques just browse the internet to know the planimetry of a place, critical structures around it, evaluate the response time to an attack by the authorities and even know the type of exposure system runs on a network, vulnerabilities notes and instructions to exploit them. We can also make some research on the companies that has access to the plan, we can collect information attacking contractor usually more vulnerable and the game is done. That is a cyber war scenario, simply as dangerous.

I conclude with a reflection on our future that I find extremely significant. While nations such as China, India and Iran are investing to spread knowledge among their young people about methods of cyber defense and cyber offense.
China first is suspected of using patriotic hackers and cyber militias for defense and offense. According to the Financial Times, Nanhao Group, a web company outside of Beijing, has departments tasked for attacks and defense, and this Chinese report mentions cyber militias in Tianjin’s Hexi District. It is completely different the approach followed in Europe, in these countries this kind of information is limited to a small circle of people with distressing consequences, security is oligarchy.
In Italy the person involved in security scenarios are always the same, little innovation and little investments in the future. On long period this attitude will lead to an unbridgeable gap, and we will face with serious problems.

Pierluigi Paganini


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