Digital Conflict blog

Kevin Coleman

Digital Conflict

By Kevin Coleman

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US target of sustained cyber espionage campaign

In mid-February, we saw information contained in the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) hit the pages of the news media. The NIE is an authoritative assessment of threat against the United States by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and produced by National Intelligence Council. It is worth noting that the NIE was not published, yet a portion was reported leaked to reporters at The Washington Post.

The NIE is said to have concluded that the nation is the target of a sustained cyber espionage campaign, which is having a substantial negative economic effect on the country. This theft is threatening the nation’s competitiveness through the theft of our intellectual property (IP) and other sensitive business data. That is supported by reports that IP-intensive industries accounted for about 27 million jobs in the United States and more than 30 percent of gross domestic product in 2010. Many do not realize that the blueprints for the F-35 Joint Striker Fighters and the F-22 combat aircraft were both stolen. That is much more than an economic threat; it is a national security issue.

At a congressional hearing, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said, “When I look at the theft of intellectual property to the tune of $1 trillion, that’s a serious economic issue for the United States” and he is right. This administration is clearly concerned about these threatening actions. A number of federal organizations are investigating ways to address the continued growth in cyber theft of IP. In fact a recent General Accountability Office report has recommended the development of a new strategy for cybersecurity.

Creativity and innovation drive the U.S. economy and IP is the product of those efforts. IP is the currency of the modern global economy and we must protect it. Onat Ekinci, an IP documentation specialist said, “In an age of acceleration of markets, early pre-development activities of opportunity recognition, market exploration and idea generation gain increasing importance. Companies not only have to protect the end products for commercialization, but also the results of each product development stage on their path to commercialization.” Cyber espionage is now a serious concern for businesses and organizations of all sizes and constitutes such a risk that immediate action is required. This is yet one more battle the United States can’t afford to lose.

Posted on Feb 21, 2013 at 9:26 PM0 comments

Smart cities make high-value cyber targets

We now live in an era of unprecedented urbanization. Governments have come to realize that we can't keep building cities the way we have in the past due to economics and environmental impact, as well as the rapid technological evolution of society. There are real and pressing issues that are forcing global governments to adopt smart city methodologies. Overcrowding, environmental impact, economics and cost containment, as well as diminishing availability of natural resources, have all combined to push the movement to the smart city concept. This is a fascinating topic for sure, but like most things the devil is in the details. 

There are several estimates as to the size of this market, none of which are small. The estimates range from hundreds of billions to a trillion in the near term. A group of analysts at IDC Government took a look at 69 cities as examples of the progress of Smart Cities in Western Europe. They suggested that the serious economic turmoil in Europe would negatively affect smart city initiatives and that the funding provided for smart city projects would slow in 2012. But in December 2012 they publically admitted they were wrong.    

"Despite economic and political troubles in the EU and other key European countries, politicians, citizens and other stakeholders remain interested in pursuing smart city pilots, and the [European Union] and Western European countries have dedicated significant funds for city projects," their analysis concluded. As you can deduce from the name, these initiatives are technologically intensive, integrated and connected to the Web. There is little doubt that cyber criminals and cyber terrorists (and for that matter, cyber intelligence organizations) see smart cities as high-value targets that are right around the corner. Those planning these initiative, as well as all the vendors providing the equipment necessary for smart city operations, have the opportunity to take a proactive approach to protecting smart city systems from cyberattacks.  If they don’t, it is not hard to see what the future hold for those systems.


Posted on Feb 14, 2013 at 9:26 PM0 comments

The challenges of designing cyber simulations

In recent years a number of government organizations have funded projects to create cyber conflict simulations. In addition, private organizations, sometimes funded by venture capital, have created cyber games as a test bed for cyber warfare theories and as a cyber awareness training tool for users. Some of the simulators and games are now migrating to the mobile platforms with new applications for smart phone and tablets.

Game platforms provide a manageable environment in which cybersecurity researchers can safely experiment and gain significant insight into cause-effect relationships within the complex cyber security domain. The challenge is to create a realistic representation of a real world environment. For example, one study found that more than 90 percent of computers were missing one or more critical patches. The game and simulation environment would have to reflect that. Equally as challenging is the creative aspect of cyberattacks such as carefully crafting a spear-phishing e-mail for a targeted user that convinces them to disregard their security awareness training and click on the well disguised malicious link in the message.

These games and simulations are not without controversy. The recent outbreak of shootings that seem to be in the news headlines weekly, have some questioning if violent shooting games desensitize the players to these acts of violence. Now, some are asking the same questions about games for cybersecurity awareness training. Does the use of games for cybersecurity awareness training diminish the importance of the subject? That is a question that is sure to become a research initiative as the rate of computer security breaches continue and end users remain the primary component that enables these attacks.

Posted on Feb 07, 2013 at 9:26 PM0 comments

Red October cyberattack opens new chapter in cyber espionage

The latest and greatest cyber incident has caught fire in the press. Dubbed Operation Red October, the cyber spying program has been traced back to 2007. Yes, it has been in place and covertly collecting untold amounts of information for at least five years. Just how much information is the big unknown; but one thing is for sure, there are a lot of people working long hours to figure that out.

Multiple investigators examining this incident have all come away shocked after discovering some of the many unique aspects of the well-designed attack. At the top of the wow-factor list is its size from three different standpoints. First, it has been found to hit targets in 39 different countries. Second, the command and control network of intermediary servers were found to be located in 22 different countries. The third factor is the number of components that were discovered to have been used in the malicious software. At this point, more than 1,000 modules and program objects have been identified, many with unique capabilities.

Particularly troubling is the fact that the well-designed attack actually targeted encrypted files. Why would you do that unless you have the key to decrypt those files? There weren’t just files of individuals, those behind the attack also targeted diplomats. In the days following the media storm about this latest act of cyber espionage, the interest in diplomatic cybersecurity has increased substantially. It was even brought up in the House of Representatives' hearing on Benghazi questioning of State Secretary Hillary Clinton.

This is one cyber episode that will be well worth watching in the days and months to come, as more is learned about the attack and the motives of those behind it.

Posted on Jan 31, 2013 at 9:26 PM0 comments

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