Lessons from US response to cyber attacks

Posted by Arindrajit Basu at Nov 01, 2018 05:53 AM |
Publicly attributing the attacks to a state or non-state actor is vital for building a credible cyber deterrence strategy.

The article was published in Hindu Businessline on October 30, 2018. The article was edited by Elonnai Hickok.


In September, amidst the brewing of a new found cross-continental romance between Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump, the US Department of Justice filed a criminal complaint indicting North Korean hacker Park Jin Hyok for playing a role in at least three massive cyber operations against the US. This included the Sony data breach of 2014; the Bangladesh bank heist of 2016 and the WannaCry ransomware attack in 2017. This indictment was followed by one on October 4, of seven officers in the GRU, Russia’s military agency, for “persistent and sophisticated computer intrusions.” Evidence adduced in support included forensic cyber evidence like similarities in lines of code or analysis of malware and other factual details regarding the relationship between the employers of the indicted individuals and the state in question.

While it is unlikely that prosecutions will ensue, indicting individuals responsible for cyber attacks offers an attractive option for states looking to develop a credible cyber deterrence strategy.

Attributing cyber attacks

Technical uncertainty in attributing attacks to a specific actor has long fettered states from adopting defensive or offensive measures in response to an attack and garnering support from multilateral fora. Cyber attacks are multi-stage, multi-step and multi-jurisdictional, which complicates the attribution process and removes the attacker from the infected networks.

Experts at the RAND Corporation have argued that technical challenges to attribution should not detract from international efforts to adopt a robust, integrated and multi-disciplinary approach to attribution, which should be seen as a political process operating in symbiosis with technical efforts. A victim state must communicate its findings and supporting evidence to the attacking state in a bid to apply political pressure.

Clear publication of the attribution process becomes crucial as it furthers public credibility in investigating authorities; enables information exchange among security researchers and fosters deterrence by the adversary and potential adversaries.

Although public attributions need not take the form of a formal indictment and are often conducted through statements by foreign ministries, a criminal indictment is more legitimate as it needs to comply with the rigorous legal and evidentiary standards required by the country’s legal system. Further, an indictment allows for the attack to be conceptualised as a violation of the rule of law in addition to being a geopolitical threat vector.

Lessons for India

India is yet to publicly attribute a cyber attack to any state or non-state actor. This is surprising given that an overwhelming percentage of attacks on Indian websites are perpetrated by foreign states or non-state actors, with 35 per cent of attacks emanating from China, as per a report by the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-IN), the national nodal agency under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) which deals with cyber threats.

Along with other bodies, such as the National Critical Information Protection Centre (NCIIPC) which is the nodal central agency for the protection of critical information infrastructure, CERT-IN forms part of an ecosystem of nodal agencies designed to guarantee national cyber security.

There are three key lessons that policy makers involved in this ecosystem can take away from the WannaCry attribution process and the Park indictment. First, there is a need for multi-stakeholder collaboration through sharing of research, joint investigations and combined vulnerability identification among the various actors employed by the government, law enforcement authorities and private cyber security firms.

The affidavit suggested that the FBI had used information from various law enforcement personnel, computer scientists at the FBI; Mandiant — a cyber security firm retained by the US Attorney’s Office and publicly available materials produced by cyber security companies. Second, the standards of attribution need to demonstrate compliance both with the evidentiary requirements of Indian criminal law and the requirements in the International Law on State Responsibility. The latter requires an attribution to demonstrate that a state had ‘effective control’ over the non-state actor.

Finally, the attribution must be communicated to the adversary in a manner that does not risk military escalation. Despite the delicate timing of the indictment, Park’s prosecution by the FBI did not dampen the temporary thaw in relations between US and North Korea.

While building capacity to improve resilience, detect attacks and improve attribution capabilities should be a priority, we need to remember that regardless of the breakthrough in both human and infrastructural capacities, attributing cyber attacks will never be an exercise in certainty.

India will need to marry its improved capacity with strategic geopolitical posturing. Lengthy indictments may not deter all potential adversaries but may be a tool in fostering a culture of accountability in cyberspace.

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