Should hacking back be legal?

Two reports, one recent and one from last year have been published about the state of active cyber defense strategies.

 The first one is Into the Gray Zone: The Private Sector and Active Defense Against Cyber Threats, it covers the work of a committee of government and industry experts put together by the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security of George Washington University and came out last October. The second report just came out this month and is called, Private Sector Cyber Defense: Can Active Measures Help Stabilize Cyberspace? It is published by Wyatt Hoffman and Eli Levite, two fellows at the Carnegie Endowment, a DC think tank. 

Both reports review the range of active cyber defense strategies. There are a variety of techniques that range from the more common honeypots (where IT folks set up a decoy server that looks like it contains important information but is used as a lure to attract hackers) to botnet takedowns to using white-hat (or legal uses of) ransomware to using cyber ‘dye-packs’ to collect network information from a hacker and possibly destroying his equipment, to other hacking back activities. The issue is where to draw the legal line for both the government and private actors.

Active defense is nothing new: honeypots were used back in 1986 by Clifford Stoll, who created fake files promising military secrets to lure a spy onto his network. He documented the effort in his book The Cuckoo’s Egg. Of course, since then people have gotten more sophisticated in their defense mechanisms, particularly as the number of attacks and their sophistication has grown.

The first report dissects two active defense case studies that are available in the public literature: Google’s reaction to Operation Aurora in 2009 that began in China and the Dridex banking Trojan botnet takedown in 2015. Google made use of questionably legal discovery technologies but was never prosecuted by any law enforcement agency. Dridex was neutralized through cooperation of several government agencies and private sector efforts, and resulted in the extradition and conviction of Andrey Ghinkul.

With both of these cases, the GWU report shows that attribution of the source of the malware was possible, but not without a lot of tremendous cooperation from a variety of private and government sources. That is the good news.

Speaking of cooperation, that is where the second report comes into play, where it compares the cyber efforts with the commercial shipping industry’s experience regarding piracy on the high seas. After it became clear that governments’ military efforts were insufficient responses to the piracy problem, the demand for private sector security services increased dramatically. While governments initially resisted their involvement, they begrudgingly accepted that the active defense measures deployed by shipowners, in consultation with insurance providers, were helping to deter attacks and that the tradeoffs in risk were unavoidable. The bottom line—the private sector filled a critical gap in protection by working together.

But here is the problem, as true now as last fall when the first GWU report was published. A private business has no explicit right of self-defense when it comes to a cyber attack, and in most cases, could be doing something that runs afoul of US laws. There are various legal remedies that the government can take, but not an ordinary business. As the GWU report states, “US law is commonly understood to prohibit active defense measures that occur outside the victim’s own network. This means that a business cannot legally retrieve its own data from the computer of the thief who took it, at least not without court-ordered authorization.” What makes matters worse is the number of cyber job openings in those government agencies, so even though they have the authority, they are woefully understaffed to take any action.

The GWU report puts forth a risk-based framework for how government and the private sector can work together to solve this problem, and you can read their various recommendations if you are interested. 

It is a tricky situation. One of the GWU report authors is Nuala O’Connor, the President and CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology. She says that “as more aggressive active defense measures might become lawful are based on considerations like whether they were conducted in conjunction with the government and the intent of the actor,” there could be problems. “I believe these types of measures should remain unlawful. Intent can be difficult to measure, particularly when on the receiving end of an effort to gain access.”

 The Carnegie authors admit that their shipping analogy has its limitations, but correctly point out that when the government is lacking in its efforts, the private sector will step in and fill the gap with their own solutions. They say, “Malicious cyber actors motivated by geopolitical objectives, however, may have a far different calculus than cybercriminals, which affects whether and how they can be deterred.” In the meantime, my point in bringing up this issue is to get you to think about your own active cyber defense strategies for your own business.  

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Stopping phishing

When IT professionals talk about phishing attacks, they are quick to blame uneducated users who aren’t really focused on processing their emails. But while this is certainly one of the causes – and one of the reasons why phishing remains so popular among attackers – you can’t fault even the most eagle-eyed users from several things that are making it harder to spot phony emails. A combination of more subtle attacks using non-Roman URL characters, more focus on mobile man-in-the-middle exploits, greater use of SSL certificates and more mobile email usage have created new opportunities for phishers.

Homograph attacks. Even if you are the sharpest-eyed observer, you will have a hard time detecting this latest phishing technique that goes by the name Punycode or an IDN homograph typosquatting attack. The idea is simple: back in the day, the Internet standards bodies expanded the ability to handle non-Roman alphabet characters for domains and URLs. The trouble is that many of these characters look very similar to the ordinary ones that you and I use in our Roman alphabet. Spammers purchased domains that looked just like the all-Roman letters, with one or two changes using some other character set. This post from Wordfence shows how subtle these homographs really are, making it almost impossible for anyone to detect. There is further discussion on this site about how phishers operate.

More mobile email usage. This is making it harder to see (and then vet) the URL bar when a browser session is opened on your phone. The mobile app designers want as much screen real estate as they can to show a web page and this means that the URL line is often hidden or quickly moves off the screen as you scroll down. Even if you wanted to pay attention, you probably don’t bother to scroll back up to see it. What is making things worse is that the criminals are making better copies of real web pages. The crooks are getting better at using the exact same HTML code that a bank or retailer uses for their web pages, which makes them harder to distinguish, even if they are viewed on a full-sized PC screen.

More SSL encryption usage. Ironically, an effort that began several years by Google and the non-profit foundation behind the Let’s Encrypt website have made problems worse. That website makes it dirt simple to obtain a free SSL certificate in a matter of seconds, so that warning signs in the URL bar of browsers when you aren’t connecting to a secure website are almost moot now. While it is great that more than half of all web traffic is now encrypted, we need better mechanisms that just a red/green indicator to help users understand what they are viewing.

More frequent MITM attacks on mobile apps. Security researcher Will Strafach gave a report earlier this year and demonstrated numerous IOS apps that were vulnerable to man-in-the-middle attacks. These allow attackers to intercept data as it is being passed from a device to a server. That grabbed a few headlines, but apparently wasn’t enough. In a more recent report, he has continued to track these apps and shows that many of them are still vulnerable.

So what is being done? The browser vendors are doing a better job at detecting the homograph URLs (if you are not running Chrome 59 or Firefox 53, please do upgrade now). Many network security vendors are fine-tuning their tools to better detect compromised emails, or track reputations of malware control sites, or use other techniques to try to neutralize the phishers. Some enterprises are deploying secure browsers, to limit the damage of a phished link.

Clearly, this will take a combination of approaches to fight this continued battle. Phishing is a war of attrition. All it takes is one less-attentive user and the game is on. And it requires constant vigilance — by all of us.

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Enterprise.nxt: What to look for in your next CISO

Hiring a chief information security officer (CISO) is a tricky process. The job title is in the limelight, especially these days, when breaches are happening to so many businesses. The job turnover rate is high, with many CISOs quitting or getting fired because of security incidents or management frustration. And the supply of qualified candidates is low. According to the ISACA report, State of Cyber Security 2017, 48 percent of enterprises get fewer than 10 applicants for cybersecurity positions, and 64 percent say that fewer than half of their cybersecurity applicants are qualified. And that’s just the rank and file IT security positions, not the top jobs. So here are some things to consider when you need to find a CISO and you don’t want to hire a “chief impending sacrifice officer.”

Read my article in HPE’s Enterprise.nxt.

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Building a software-defined network perimeter

At his Synergy conference keynote, Citrix CEO Kirill Tatarinov mentioned that IT “needs a software defined perimeter (SDP) that helps us manage our mission critical assets and enable people to work the way they want to.” The concept is not a new one, having been around for several years.

An SDP replaces the traditional network perimeter — usually thought of as a firewall. Those days are long gone, although you can still find a few IT managers that cling to this notion.

The SDP uses a variety of security software to define what resources are protected, and block entry points using protocols and methods. For example, if we look at the working group at the Cloud Security Alliance, they have decided on a control channel architecture using standard components such as SAML, PKI, and mutual TLS connections to define this perimeter.

Working groups such as these move slowly – it has been hard at work since 2013 – but I am glad to see Citrix adding their voice here and singing the SDP tune.


But perhaps a better way to explain the SDP is what is being called a “zero trust” network. In an article in Network World earlier this year, a post described the efforts at Google to move to this kind of model, whereby basically everyone on the network is guilty until proven innocent, or at least harmless. Every device is checked before being allowed access to resources. “Access is granted based on what Google knows about the end user and their device. And all access to services must be authenticated, authorized and encrypted,” according to the article.

This is really what a SDP is about, because all of these access evaluations are based on software that checks for identity, on other software that examines whether a device has the right credentials, and other software to make sure that traffic is encrypted across the network. Because Google is Google, they built their own solution and it took them years to implement across 20 different systems. What I liked about the Google implementation was that they installed their new systems across Google’s worldwide network and just had it inspect traffic for many months before they turned it on to ensure that nothing broke their existing applications.

You probably don’t have the same “money is no object” philosophy and want something more off-the-shelf. But you probably want to start sooner rather than later on building your own SDP.

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New security products of the week

As part of my duties to write and edit this email newsletter for, I am always on the lookout for new security products. When I was at the Citrix Synergy show last week, I wanted to see the latest products. One of the booths that were drawing crowds was Bitdefender’s. They have a Hypervisor Introspection product that sits on top of XenServer v7 hypervisors. It is completely agentless, and just runs memory inspections of the hosted VMs. Despite the crowds, I was less enamored of their solution than others that I have reviewed in the past for Network World such as TrendMicro’s and Hytrust. (Note, this review is more than three years old, so take my recommendations with several spoonfuls of your favorite condiment).

Nevertheless, having some protection riding on top of your VMs is essential these days, and you can be sure there were lots of booths scattered around the show floor that claimed to stop WannaCry in its tracks, given the publicity of this recent attack. Whether they actually would have done so is another matter entirely, I am just saying.

Over at the Kaspersky booth, it was nearly empty but they actually have a better mousetrap and have had their Virtualization Security products for several years. Kaspersky has a wider support of hypervisors (they run on top of VMware and Hyper-V as well as Xen). They offer an agentless solution for VMware that works with the vShield technology, and lightweight agents that run inside each VM for the other hypervisors. While you have to deploy agents, you get more visibility into how the VMs operate. One company not here in Orlando but that I am familiar with in this space is Observable Networks: they don’t need agents because they monitor the network traffic and system logs produced by the hypervisor. So just don’t make a decision based on the agents vs. agentless argument but look closer at what the security tool is monitoring and what kinds of threats can really be prevented. Pricing on Kaspersky starts at $110 per virtual server with a single VM and $39 per virtual desktop that includes 10-14 VMs. Volume discounts apply.

IGEL was another crowded booth. They have developed thin clients in the form of a small-factor USB drive. If you have an Intel-based client with at least 2 GB of RAM and 2 GB of disk storage (such as an old Windows XP desktop or Wyse thin client), you can run a Citrix Receiver client that will basically extend the life of your aging desktop. A major health IT provider just placed an order for $2M worth of more than 9,000 of these USB clients, saving themselves millions in upgrades to their old Wyse terminals. I got to see a demo of their management interface at the show. “It looks like Active Directory with a policy-based tool and it is super easy to manage and keep track of thousands of desktops,” according to what their CEO, Jed Ayres, told me during the demo. Their product starts at $169 per device.

img_25953Another booth held an interesting biometric solution called Veridium ID. They have recently been verified as Citrix Ready, but have been around for a couple of years developing their product. I have seen several biometric products, but this one looked very interesting. Basically, for phones that have a fingerprint sensor, they make use of that as the additional authentication factor. If your phone doesn’t have such as sensor, it uses the camera to take a picture of four of your fingers (as you can see here). It works with any SAML ID provider and at their booth they showed me a demo of it working with an ordinary website and with a Xen-powered solution. Their product starts at $25 per user, which is about half of what the traditional multi-factor vendors are selling their hardware or smart tokens for.

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An update on securing the web browser

When I was at the Citrix Synergy show in Orlando last week, I was interested in tracking down their announcement about their securing web browsing product. I have been interested in secure browsing technology for several years now, mainly because the web browser has been a major infection vector and allows malware to be transported to millions of computers through phishing, man-in-the-middle, SQL injection and countless other attacks. Securing the browsing channel could be a way to stop this madness.

A few years ago, I did a review of several products for Network World, looking at Authentic8 Silo, Spoon’s BrowerStudio, Invincea’s FreeSpace and Spikes AirGap. While the review is outdated, the process that I went through to try to test these products made me realize that securing everyone’s web browsers is a lot harder problem that it first appears.


Typically, these products offer one of two approaches: One way is they sandbox, virtualize or otherwise contain the browsing session via several different methods so that any Web pages or online content can’t reach the actual desktop that is being used to surf the Web. A second approach is to replace the usual Internet Explorer, Firefox or Chrome browser software with a specialized browser that is locked down and has limited functionality.

The secure browser might give up surfing speed or not view a more complex website properly. And you still have someone’s regular browser sitting on their PC that could cause trouble. Not to mention that some of these early products did a lousy job at protection.

image001Citrix has had a secure browser service as part of its Cloud offerings for about a year now. It uses a combination of sandboxing and locking down the browser environment in an interesting way.

While the motivation behind its old and new products is similar, the execution is different, as Brett Waldman in their product marketing department explained to me at the show. The older secure browser (shown here) allows you to secure a specific web app. You set up an instance that ties a specific browser version (such as Chrome or Edge) to a specific app (such as Facebook), and you can add a data center that the browser request will originate from. Once this is done, every time you launch that instance, you will bring up an HTML v5 copy of a browser and taken to Facebook’s website under just those circumstances. The actual browsing is happening inside Citrix Cloud, not on your local PC. It is a way to lock things down with a specific app. You can think of it as running a stripped-down version of Receiver just for this one app.

But that isn’t good enough and doesn’t handle a lot of situations. What happens if you want more control over your browsing experience that goes beyond specifying a browser type and originating location? Or if you want to run a machine that isolates the browser from the rest of the applications? Or just want to try out a secure browser without loading a lot of Citrix infrastructure? That is where the app layering technology that Unidesk provides comes in handy, and that was what announced this week with Secure Browsing Essentials which will be available on the Azure Marketplace. By having layers, you can select exactly which bits and pieces of the browser you want to enable, so if you don’t want Flash or want to block pop-ups or downloads of executable files, you don’t assemble those pieces of code.

Citrix has other “Essentials” products on the Azure Marketplace, which makes it easy for anyone to get started with this technology. PJ Hough, Citrix SVP of Product, said the new Citrix Secure Browser Essentials will be available before the end of the year, with pricing starting at $180 per year (with a three-year subscription for a minimum of 50 subscribed users). Waldman said that this product “gives us a different route to market and to be able to satisfy these other use cases. Because it is on the Marketplace, it can also be more self-service and reach a different kind buyer, even within an existing Citrix customer.”

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WannaCry ransomware analysis

The WannaCry ransomware worm that plagued many people last week is notable for two reasons: first, it is a worm, meaning it self-propagates. It also uses a special exploit that was first developed by the NSA and then stolen by hackers. It first began on Friday and quickly spread to parts of Europe and Asia, eventually infecting more than 200k computers across more than 100 different countries. It moved quickly, and the weekend saw many IT managers busy to try to protect their networks. One researcher called it a “Frankenstein’s monster of vulnerabilities.”

Most of the victims were using outdated Windows versions such as XP. This map shows real-time tracking of the infected systems, where the bulk of infections hit Russian sites, although Telefonia in Spain was also attacked.

The hardest-hit were numerous hospitals and clinics run by the British National Health Service. Apparently, they had an opportunity to update their systems two years ago but didn’t due to budgets. So far, the best analysis is on The Register.  

WannaCry attack summary and timeline

American sites weren’t infected due to an interesting series of events. A young British security researcher who goes by the Twitter handle MalwareTechBlog discovered by accident a kill switch that stopped its operation. His account of that fortunate happenstance can be foundhere. Basically, by reverse engineering its code, he found that the malware checks for the existence of a specific domain name (which didn’t exist at the time and which he quickly registered). Once that domain had an operating “sinkhole” website, the malware attacks ended, at least until new variations are created without the kill switch or that check for a different site location. Sadly, the researcher was outed by the British tabloids. No good deed goes unpunished.

The story on payouts

One curious story about WannaCry is the small ransom payouts to date. About 100 people have been recorded paying any ransom, according to the three Bitcoin accounts that were used by criminals. (Yes, Virginia, Bitcoin may be anonymous but you can still track the deposits.) Other Bitcoim addresses could be used, of course, but it is curious that for something so virulent, so little has been paid to date.

Microsoft reaction and mitigation

The malware leverages an exploit that had been previously patched in mid-March by Microsoft and assigned the designation MS17-010. The company and took the unusual step to provide patches for all currently supported Windows along with Windows XP, Windows 8 and Windows Server 2003 versions.

Microsoft also recommends disabling SMBv1 and firewalling SMB ports 139 and 445 from the outside Internet. If you haven’t been doing these things, you have a lot of other problems besides WannaCry.

Microsoft’s president posted an op/ed blog piece saying “this attack demonstrates the degree to which cybersecurity has become a shared responsibility between tech companies and customers. The fact that so many computers remained vulnerable two months after the release of a patch illustrates this aspect. Users are fighting the problems of the present with tools from the past.” Speaking of the past, they didn’t mention how many people are still running ancient versions of Windows such as XP, but at least should be commended for having patches for these older systems.

Numerous security vendors have posted updates to their endpoint and network protection tools that will catch WannaCry, or at least the last known variant of it. And that is the issue: the hackers are good at morphing malware into something new that can pass by the defensive blocks. One interesting tool is this Python script that will detect and remove DoublePulsarexploits. That was the original NSA hack that can creates a backdoor to your system. In the meantime, as I said last week, hope is not a strategy.

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Network World: Linksys Velop boosts home network throughput

I take a look at the Linksys Velop Wi-Fi access points. This is the third in my series of reviews for Network World on smart home devices. If you are going to invest in smart home tech, you want a solidly performing wireless network throughout your house. While I had some minor issues, the Velop delivered solid performance and I recommend its use, particularly if you have existing radio dead spots in your home or have to use multiple networks to cover your entire property. You can read the review here. 

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Hope is not a strategy

In my day job as editor of the Inside Security email newsletter, I read a lot of infosec stories from various sources: some technical, some legal, some for beginners. But I was struck by reading this piece in Dark Reading this week by this sense of failing purpose, and how IT is at best at parity with our attackers.

The piece is by a security consultant, Mark Hardy. Entitled, 7 Steps to Fighting Ransomware, it does what it says, providing some practical advice for corporate IT managers on how to prepare for the coming attack. Make no mistake: it is coming. All it takes is one person and one careless click and your network is compromised.

Some of Hardy’s suggestions are pretty predictable: make sure your systems are kept up to date on patches. Segment your network to limit the exposed systems that an attacker can easily access. Backup frequently and move them offline for further protection. Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard it before. Some corporations actually do these things too.

But one suggestion stopped me in my tracks: Buy some Bitcoin to prepare in advance, in case you have to fork over the ransom on short notice. That was a chilling point to make because it says no matter how carefully you prepare, there is still the off chance that you may have missed something and will need to pay out the ransom.

This is what I mean when I say we are at parity with the bad guys. We are fighting an asymmetric war against them: they have the ability to penetrate our networks and steal our data with a vast array of tools that are only getting better and more finely crafted. There is malware that can operate in memory and hide by using bits and pieces of software already part of your operating system that is very difficult to detect. There is malware that changes its attack signature every second. There is malware that uses flaws in the operating system (such as one that was patched this week by Microsoft, ironically in its malware protection engine program). And there are malware kits that run completely in the cloud, so all it takes is money and a few commands to launch an attack.  So it is inevitable that someday your company will be hit, it is just a matter of when.

Security strategies are forged in the heat of battle when you realize that no matter how many spare copies or protective procedures, something went wrong: your copies are bad, you have mission-critical data lurking on some executive’s laptop that wasn’t part of the backup, or some phisher dangled some bait and succeeded. Game over.

I speak from sad experience. Not over ransomware, but a simple backup error. Many years ago I lost my mailing list server due to a flooded basement. All the content on my server was duplicated elsewhere, offsite, save for one thing: the actual names on my list. A pretty critical piece of information, don’t you think? If that server didn’t come back online (it did), I would be out of business. I didn’t have a spare copy of my list. All it took was a simple command to have that list of names. But somehow I forgot to include that in my workflow. Oops.

Hardy says, “Ransomware is a clear and present danger. Companies can no longer afford to take a wait-and-see attitude. If you’re vulnerable to ransomware and take no precautions to mitigate those vulnerabilities, then the only thing you’re relying upon to prevent an infection is hope — and hope is not a strategy.”  So stop hoping, and start preparing.

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Thoughts on cybersecurity from Krishnan Chellakarai at Gilead Sciences

I spoke to Krishnan Chellakarai about his thoughts. He is currently the Director, IT Security & Privacy at Gilead Sciences and has been a security manager at several biotech firms in the past. One thing he is concerned about is the increasing threats from IoT. He gave me a theoretical example. “What happens if you are reading your emails on your Apple Watch and you click on a phished link. This could lead to a hacker gaining access to credentials and use this information to stealing information from your network.” As users bring in more Fitbits and other devices with Internet access to corporations, “every company needs to worry about this threat vector because it is a foot in the door.” This is part of a bigger trend, where “we have less data stored on individual devices, but there is more access” across the corporation. What this means is that there is “less visibility for IT security pros in case of an exploit.”

Certainly, some of the responsibility with keeping a firm’s infrastructure secure has to lie with each individual user. Chellakarai asks if “people ever look at their Gmail last account activity in the right bottom corner?” Or do we ever click on the security link that pops up when you are signed in to your account from multiple places? This is food for thought. “IT managers need to put some common sense controls in place so they can have better network visibility,” he says. Another example: when was the last time anyone checked their printer firmware or other legacy devices to ensure that they have brought up to their latest versions. “It is time to stop thinking of security after an app is built, and start thinking about security from the beginning, when you are planning your architecture and building your apps.”

Chellakarai says, “One of my first things when I start working for a new company is to do a data analysis and network baseline, so that I can understand what is going on across my infrastructure. It is so critical to do this, and especially when you join a company. I look at policies that aren’t being enforced and other loopholes too. Then I can prioritize and focus on the risks that I find.”

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