Hit­ting back at hack­ers: De­bate swirls on how far to go

Kuwait Times - - TECHNOLOGY -

Af­ter a seem­ingly end­less bar­rage of cy­ber­at­tacks, de­bate is heating up on hit­ting back at hack­ers where it hurts. Amid calls for ways to pu­n­ish and de­ter hack­ers with­out spark­ing a so-called “cy­ber war,” a panel of ex­perts as­sem­bled by the Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity Cen­ter for Cy­ber and Home­land Se­cu­rity said in a re­port Mon­day that US poli­cies should be eased to al­low “ac­tive de­fense” mea­sures by both the govern­ment and pri­vate sec­tor. How­ever, it stopped short of en­dors­ing the idea of “hack­ing back” to dis­able sys­tems used by at­tack­ers. The panel en­vi­sioned mea­sures such as tak­ing down “bot­nets” that dis­rupt cy­berspace, free­ing data from “ran­somware” hack­ers and “res­cue mis­sions” to re­cover stolen data.

The re­port fol­lows a wave of high-pro­file at­tacks against US com­pa­nies and govern­ment data­bases, and af­ter Wash­ing­ton ac­cused Rus­sia of us­ing cy­ber­at­tacks to at­tempt to dis­rupt next week’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. It comes af­ter Pres­i­dent Barack Obama called for a “pro­por­tional” re­sponse to Rus­sia, while leav­ing unan­swered whether this would mean a cy­ber­at­tack or mea­sures such as diplo­matic or eco­nomic sanc­tions.

‘Shoot­ing be­hind the rab­bit’

For­mer na­tional in­tel­li­gence di­rec­tor and GWU task force co-chair Den­nis Blair said the US has been mov­ing too slowly in its re­sponse to cy­ber­at­tacks. “We are shoot­ing so far be­hind the rab­bit that we will only hit it if the rab­bit makes an­other lap and comes back to where it was,” he told a con­fer­ence pre­sent­ing the re­port.

Some an­a­lysts ar­gue that hack­ers and states re­spon­si­ble for at­tacks should get a taste of their own medicine, and that US laws should be amended to al­low for hack­ing back at the cy­ber crim­i­nals. Some pro­pos­als call for pri­vate se­cu­rity firms to be “dep­u­tized” to carry out legally sanc­tioned hack-back op­er­a­tions when pri­vate firms are vic­tim­ized. “Depart­ment stores hire pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tors to catch shoplifters rather than re­ly­ing only on the po­lice. So too pri­vate com­pa­nies should be able to hire their own se­cu­rity ser­vices,” said a Hoover In­sti­tu­tion pa­per writ­ten by schol­ars Jeremy Rabkin and Ariel Rabkin. “There should be a list of ap­proved hack-back ven­dors from which vic­tims are free to choose.”

Juan Zarate, a for­mer White House na­tional se­cu­rity ad­vi­sor who now works with the Foun­da­tion for De­fense of Democ­ra­cies, said such a model for ac­tion could be based on the early days of the repub­lic when Congress is­sued “let­ters of mar­que and reprisal” for pri­vate mer­chant ships to bring in mar­itime pi­rates.

In an es­say last year, Zarate called for a “cy­ber-pri­va­teer­ing regime that re­wards, en­ables, and em­pow­ers the pri­vate sec­tor to help de­fend it­self in con­cert with govern­ment.” Oth­ers warn of the dan­gers of em­pow­er­ing pri­vate ac­tors to en­gage in reprisals. Nuala O’Con­nor, pres­i­dent of the Cen­ter for Democ­racy and Tech­nol­ogy and co-chair of the GWU panel, ar­gued of un­in­tended con­se­quences of au­tho­riz­ing com­pa­nies to break into out­side com­puter net­works. “I be­lieve these types of mea­sures should re­main un­law­ful,” she wrote, adding that it re­mains dif­fi­cult to be sure of cy­ber­at­tacks’ sources. “The risks of col­lat­eral dam­age to in­no­cent in­ter­net users, to data se­cu­rity, and to na­tional se­cu­rity that can re­sult from overly ag­gres­sive de­fen­sive ef­forts needs to be bet­ter ac­counted for.” — AFP

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