US's 'Cyberwar' Strategy: Making The Public Less Secure In The Name Of 'Security'
from the adding-up-wrongs-to-make-a-right dept
The US government seems to be responding to “cyber Pearl Harbor” by heading out on bombing runs of its own. All the concern for the safety of the American public displayed in Congress during the CISPA push seems to have been nothing more than the empty words we expect from our representatives. Americans and American companies are now being caught in the crossfire — some of it “friendly.”
The US government is waging electronic warfare on a vast scale — so large that it’s causing a seismic shift in the unregulated grey markets where hackers and criminals buy and sell security exploits, Reuters reports.
Former White House cybersecurity advisors Howard Schmidt and Richard Clarke say this move to “offensive” cybersecurity has left US companies and average citizens vulnerable, because it relies on the government collecting and exploiting critical vulnerabilities that have not been revealed to software vendors or the public.
“If the US government knows of a vulnerability that can be exploited, under normal circumstances, its first obligation is to tell US users,” Clarke told Reuters. “There is supposed to be some mechanism for deciding how they use the information, for offense or defense. But there isn’t.”
I’m not sure how increasing user vulnerability helps win a cyberwar, but no doubt any home team casualties will be written off as sacrifices for the greater good. Even more troubling than the government’s willingness to sacrifice security for security (??) is the fact that it’s unwilling to share this information. What good are those provisions in CISPA and President Obama’s recent cybersecurity executive order about the government sharing cybersecurity info with companies, if the government hoards the information for their own hacking purposes? More details from the Reuters report.
Top U.S. officials told Congress this year that poor Internet security has surpassed terrorism to become the single greatest threat to the country and that better information-sharing on risks is crucial. Yet neither of the two major U.S. initiatives under way – sweeping cybersecurity legislation being weighed by Congress and President Barack Obama’s February executive order on the subject – asks defense and intelligence agencies to spread what they know about vulnerabilities to help the private sector defend itself.
When a U.S. agency knows about a vulnerability and does not warn the public, there can be unintended consequences. If malign forces purchase information about or independently discover the same hole, they can use it to cause damage or to launch spying or fraud campaigns before a company like Microsoft has time to develop a patch. Moreover, when the U.S. launches a program containing an exploit, it can be detected and quickly duplicated for use against U.S. interests before any public warning or patch.
Is it any surprise the public distrusts the government? It claims to be fighting a cyberwar in order to make us more secure and yet, when it goes on the attack, it values its own secretive efforts over the security of the public.
As the government purchases more of these exploits to help fight its cyberwar, the lines on the battlefield are continuously redrawn and obscured. Buying exploits from independent hackers leaves them free to sell to other high bidding countries when not using the exploits themselves. This arms race also creates a perverse set of incentives. As the demand for new exploits increases, security companies and contractors that used to release information to those affected are now keeping their discoveries to themselves to preserve “market value.”
The Reuters report also notes that this new breed of security contractor is offering up, among other things, keys to criminal botnets. Endgame, a heavily funded tech startup with close ties to the intelligence community, is more than willing to hand over control of thousands of zombie computers for the right price.
Some of Endgame’s activities came to light in purloined emails published by hackers acting under the banner Anonymous. In what appear to be marketing slides, the company touted zero-day subscriptions as well as lists of exactly which computers overseas belonged to specific criminal “botnets” – networks of compromised machines that can be mobilized for various purposes, including stealing financial passwords and knocking websites offline with traffic attacks.
The point was not to disinfect the botnet’s computers or warn the owners. Instead, Endgame’s customers in the intelligence agencies wanted to harvest data from those machines directly or maintain the ability to issue new commands to large segments of the networks, three people close to the company told Reuters.
So, we’re engaged in a cyberwar that’s going to help us by hurting us, is that it? I understand that no one wants to be outgunned when facing the enemy, but what’s being detailed here looks like a whole lot of collateral damage in the pursuit of unattainable goals. The same exploits will be used on both sides of the battle, and with end users and the companies they rely on being cut out of the loop, it will be the civilians who fare the poorest. We’ll just be asked to pretend the government’s saving us from something even worse.