Finding (cyber) false flags

I am a big reader of spy novels and my latest fascination is the Red Sparrow trilogy, of which the first book has been made into an upcoming movie. In one of the novels the spies attempt to penetrate an Iranian nuclear project, with one of the characters, an American CIA operative, posing as a Russian nuclear engineer. This situation is called a false flag.

The idea behind a false flag is when a spy (or group of them) represent themselves as from some other country to confuse the enemy. Back in the days of naval warfare, ships changed their flag they were flying deliberately to sneak into an enemy’s midst. Hence the name.

While spy novels love to talk about false flags, they do have some basis in reality, at least some situations. One is the Lavon affair which refers to a failed Israeli covert operation that was conducted in Egypt in the summer of 1954 and run by Pinhas Lavon, shown here. There are numerous other ops that are on other lists that show the depths that intelligence agencies will go through to misrepresent themselves.

The same is true in the modern cybersecurity era. We have false flags all the time when malware attacks a target and mislead its origins. Then researchers try to pick it apart and figure out its attribution. Does the code resemble something they have already seen? Are the names of the variables or documentation written in a particular (non-coding) language, or using cultural or other references? Are there targets of a particular political or national significance? These and other factors make malware attribution more art than science.

I was reminded of this when I read this piece from the Talos blog about trying to figure out who was behind the Olympic Destroyer malware that we saw last month. Several security bloggers have come out with Russian attribution, but the Talos team says, not so fast. Yes, there are similarities to Russia state-sponsored sources, but it isn’t a slam dunk and there are also other suspects that could be the source of this malware.

Sadly, for cybersecurity it isn’t as easy as switching a flag to figure these things out. And reports about malware’s source need to be careful to ensure that we have the right attribution, otherwise we might be retaliating against the wrong people.

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