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Threats of Cyber Attacks Against Russia: Rationale on Discussing Operations and the Precedent Set

November 6, 2016

Reports that the U.S. government has military hackers ready to carry out attacks on Russian critical infrastructure has elicited a wide range of responses on social media. After I tweeted the NBC article a number of people responded with how stupid the U.S. was for releasing this information, or what poor OPSEC it was to discuss these operations, and even how this constitutes an act of war. I want to use this blog to put forth some thoughts of mine on those specific claims. However, I want to note in advance this is entirely my opinion. I wouldn’t consider this quality analysis or even insightful commentary but instead just my thoughts on the matter that I felt compelled to share since I work in critical infrastructure cyber security and was at one point a “military hacker.”

The Claim

The claim stems from an NBC article and notes that a senior U.S. intelligence official shared top-secret documents with NBC News. These top-secret documents apparently indicated that the U.S. has “penetrated Russia’s electric grid, telecommunications networks and the Kremlin’s command systems, making them vulnerable to attack by secret American cyber weapons should the U.S. deem it necessary.” I’m going to make the assumption that this was a controlled leak given the way that it was presented. Additionally, I make this assumption because of the senior officials that were interviewed for the wider story including former NATO commander (ret) ADM James G. Stavridis and former CYBERCOM Judge Advocate (ret) COL Gary Brown who likely would not have touched a true “leak” driven story without some sort of blessing to do so. I.e. before anyone adds that this is some sort of mistake this was very likely authorized by the President at the request of senior officials or advisers such as the Director of National Intelligence or the National Security Council. The President is the highest authority for deeming material classified or not and if he decided to release this information it’s an authorized leak. Going off of this assumption let’s consider three claims that I’ve seen recently.

The U.S. is Stupid for Releasing This Information

It is very difficult to know the rationale behind actions we observe. This is especially true in cyber intrusions and attacks. If an adversary happens to deny access to a server, did they intend to or was it accidentally brought down while performing other actions? Did the adversary intend to leave behind references to file paths and identifying information or was it a mistake? These debates around intent and observations is a challenge for many analysts that must be carefully overcome. In this case it is no different.

Given the assumption that this is a controlled leak it was obviously done with the intention of one or more outcomes. In other words, the U.S. government wanted the information out and their rationale is likely as varied as the members involved. While discussing a “government” it’s important to remember that the decision was ultimately in the hands of individuals, likely two dozen at the most. Their recommendations, biases, views on the world, insight, experience, etc. all contribute to what they expect the output of this leak to manifest as. This makes it even more difficult to assess why a government would do something since it’s more important to know the key members in the Administration, the military, and the Intelligence Community and their motivations rather than the historical understanding of government operations and similar decisions. Considering the decision was likely not ‘stupid’ and more for some intended purpose let’s explore what two of those purposes might be:

Deterrence

I’m usually not the biggest fan of deterrence in the digital domain as it has since not been very effective and the qualities to have a proper deterrent (credible threat and an understood threshold) are often lacking. Various governments lament about red lines and actions they might do if those red lines are crossed but what exactly those red lines are and what the response action will be if they are crossed is usually never explored. Here however, the U.S. government has stated a credible threat: the disruption of critical infrastructure in Russia (the U.S. has shown before that they are capable of doing this). They have combined this with a clear threshold of what they do not want their potential adversary to do: do not disrupt the elections. For these reasons my normal skepticism around deterrence is lessened. However, in my own personal opinion this is potentially a side effect and not the primary purpose especially given the form of communication that was chosen.

Voter Confidence

Relations between Russia and the U.S. this election have been tense. Posturing and messaging between the two states has taken a variety of forms both direct and indirect. This release to NBC though is interesting as it would be indirect messaging if positioned to the Russian government but it would be direct messaging if intended for the U.S. voters. My personal opinion (read: speculation) is that it is much more intended for the voters. At one point in the article NBC notes that Administration officials revealed to them that they delivered a “back channel warning to Russia against any attempt to influence next week’s vote”. There’s no reason to reiterate a back channel message in a public article unless the intended audience (in this case the voters) weren’t aware of the back channel warning. The article reads as an effort by the Administration to tell the voters: “don’t worry and go vote, we’ve warned them that any effort to disrupt the elections will be met with tangible attacks instead of strongly worded letters.”

It’s really interesting that this type of messaging to the American public is needed. Cyber security has never been such a mainstream topic before especially not during an election. This may seem odd to those in the information security community who live with these discussions on a day to day basis anyway. But coverage of cyber security has never before been mainstream media worthy for consistent periods of time. CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and the BBC have all been discussing cyber security throughout the recent election season ranging from the DNC hacks to Hillary’s emails. That coverage has gotten fairly dark though with CNN, NBC, Newsweek, and New York Times articles like this one and prime time segments telling voters that the election could be manipulated by Russian spies.

This CNN piece directly calls out the Kremlin for potentially manipulating the elections in a way that combines it with Trump’s claims that the election is rigged. This is a powerful combination. There is a significant portion of Trump’s supporters who will believe his claim of a rigged election and in conjunction with the belief that Russia is messing with the election it’s easy to see how a voter could become disillusioned with the election. Neither the Democrats or Republicans want less voters to turn out and (almost) all of those on both sides want the peaceful transition of power after the election as has always occurred before. Strong messaging from the Administration and others into mainstream news media is important to restore confidence to voters both in the election itself as well as the manner to which people vote.

Unfortunately, it seems that this desire is being accidentally countered by some in the security community. In very odd timing, Cylance decided to release a press release on vulnerabilities in voting machines on the same day, unbeknownst to them, as the NBC article. The press release stated that the intent of the release was to encourage mitigation of the vulnerabilities but with 4 days until the election, as of the article’s release, that simply will not be possible. The move is likely very well intended but unlikely to give voters much confidence in the manner to which they vote. I’ll avoid a tangent here but it’s worth mentioning the impact security companies can play on larger political discussions.

The Leak is Bad OPSEC

I will not spend as much time on this claim as I did the previous but it is worth noting the reaction that releasing this type of information is bad operational security. Operational security is often very important to ensure that government operations can be coordinated effectively without the adversary having the advance warning required to defend against the operation. However, in this case the intention of the leak is likely much more around deterrence or voter confidence and therefore the operation itself is not the point. Keeping the operation secret would not have helped either potential goal. More importantly, compromising information systems is not something that has ever been see as insurmountably difficult. For the U.S. government to reveal that it has compromised Russian systems does not magically make them more secure now. Russian defense personnel do not have anything more to go off of than before in terms of searching for the compromise, they likely already assumed they were compromised, and looking for a threat and cleaning it up across multiple critical infrastructure industries and networks would take more than 4 days even if they had robust technical indicators of compromise and insight (which the leak did not give them). The interesting part of the disclosure is not the OPSEC but in the precedence it sets which I’ll discuss in the next section.

The Compromises are an Act of War

Acts of war are governed under United Nations’ Article 2(4) where it discusses armed conflict. The unofficial rules regarding war in cyberspace are contained in the Tallinn Manual. In neither of these documents is the positioning of capabilities to do future damage considered an act of war. More importantly, in the NBC article it notes that the “cyber weapons” have not been deployed yet: “The cyber weapons would only be deployed in the unlikely event the U.S. was attacked in a significant way, officials say.” Therefore, what is being discussed is cyber operations that have gained access to Russian critical infrastructure networks but not positioned “weapons” to do damage yet. Intrusions into networks have never been seen as an act of war by any of the countries involved in such operations. So what’s interesting about this?  The claim by officials that the U.S. had compromised Russian critical infrastructure networks including the electric grid years ago.

For years U.S. intelligence officials have positioned that Russian, Chinese, Iranian, and at times North Korean government operators have been “probing” U.S. critical infrastructure such as the power grid. The pre-positioning of malware in the power grid has long been rumored and has been a key concern of senior officials. The acknowledgment in a possibly intended leak that the U.S. has been doing the same for years now is significant. It should come as no surprise to anyone in the information security community but as messaging from senior officials it does set a precedent internationally (albeit small given that this is a leak and not a direct statement from the government). Now, if capabilities or intrusions were found in the power grid by the U.S. government in a way that was made public the offending countries could claim they were only doing the same as the U.S. government. In my personal experience, there is credibility to claims that other countries have been compromising the power grid for years so I would argue against the “U.S. started it” claim that is sure to follow.  The assumption is that governments try to compromise the power grid ahead of time so that when needed they can damage it for military or political purposes. But the specific compromises that have occurred have not been communicated publicly by senior officials nor have they been done with attribution towards Russia or China. The only time a similar specific case was discussed with attribution was against Iran for compromising a small dam in New York and the action was heavily criticized by officials and met with a Department of Justice indictment.  Senior officials’ acknowledgment of U.S. cyber operations compromising foreign power grids for the purpose of carrying out attacks if needed is unique and a message likely heard loudly even if later denied. It would be difficult to state that the leak will embolden adversaries to do this type of activity if they weren’t already but it does in some ways make the operations more legitimate. Claiming responsibility for such compromises while indicting countries for doing the same definitely makes the U.S. look hypocritical regardless of how its rationalized.

Parting Thoughts

My overall thought is that this information was a controlled leak designed to help voters feel more confident in terms of both going to cast their ballots and in the overall outcome. Some level of deterrence was likely a side effect that the Administration sought. But no, this was not simply a stupid move nor was it bad OPSEC or an act of war. I also doubt it is simply a bluff. However, there is some precedent set and pre-positioning access to critical infrastructures around the world just became a little more legitimate.

One thing that struck me as new in the article though was the claim that the U.S. military used cyber attacks to turn out the lights temporarily in Baghdad during the 2003 Iraq invasion. When considering the officials interviewed for the story and the nature of the (again, possibly) controlled leak that is a new claim from senior government officials. There was an old rumor that Bush had that option on the table when invading Iraq but the rumor was the attack was cancelled for fear of the collateral damage of taking down a power grid. One can never be sure how long “temporary” might be when damaging such infrastructure. The claim in the article that the attack actually went forward would make that the first cyber attack on a power grid that led to outages – not the Ukrainian attack of 2015 (claims of a Brazilian outage years earlier were never proven and seem false from available information). However, the claim is counter to reports at the time that power outages did not occur during the initial hours of the invasion. Power outages were reported in Iraq but after the ending of active combat operations and looters were blamed. If a cyber attack in Iraq ever made sense militarily it would not have made as much sense after the initial invasion.

I’ve emailed the reporter of the story asking what the source of that claim was and I will update the blog if I get an answer. It is possible the officials stated this to the reporters but misspoke. In my time in the government it was not a rare event for senior officials to confuse details of operations or hear myths outside of the workplace and assume them to be true. Hopefully, I can find out more as that is a historically significant claim. Based on what is known currently I am skeptical that outages following the initial Iraq invasion in 2003 were due to a cyber attack.