How to irregular cyber warfare

Somebody (@thegrugq) pointed me to this article on “Lessons on Irregular Cyber Warfare“, citing the masters like Sun Tzu, von Clausewitz, Mao, Che, and the usual characters. It tries to answer:

…as an insurgent, which is in a weaker power position vis-a-vis a stronger nation state; how does cyber warfare plays an integral part in the irregular cyber conflicts in the twenty-first century between nation-states and violent non-state actors or insurgencies

I thought I’d write a rebuttal.

None of these people provide any value. If you want to figure out cyber insurgency, then you want to focus on the technical “cyber” aspects, not “insurgency”. I regularly read military articles about cyber written by those, like in the above article, which demonstrate little experience in cyber.

The chief technical lesson for the cyber insurgent is the Birthday Paradox. Let’s say, hypothetically, you go to a party with 23 people total. What’s the chance that any two people at the party have the same birthday? The answer is 50.7%. With a party of 75 people, the chance rises to 99.9% that two will have the same birthday.

The paradox is that your intuitive way of calculating the odds is wrong. You are thinking the odds are like those of somebody having the same birthday as yourself, which is in indeed roughly 23 out of 365. But we aren’t talking about you vs. the remainder of the party, we are talking about any possible combination of two people. This dramatically changes how we do the math.

In cryptography, this is known as the “Birthday Attack“. One crypto task is to uniquely fingerprint documents. Historically, the most popular way of doing his was with an algorithm known as “MD5” which produces 128-bit fingerprints. Given a document, with an MD5 fingerprint, it’s impossible to create a second document with the same fingerprint. However, with MD5, it’s possible to create two documents with the same fingerprint. In other words, we can’t modify only one document to get a match, but we can keep modifying two documents until their fingerprints match. Like a room, finding somebody with your birthday is hard, finding any two people with the same birthday is easier.

The same principle works with insurgencies. Accomplishing one specific goal is hard, but accomplishing any goal is easy. Trying to do a narrowly defined task to disrupt the enemy is hard, but it’s easy to support a group of motivated hackers and let them do any sort of disruption they can come up with.

The above article suggests a means of using cyber to disrupt a carrier attack group. This is an example of something hard, a narrowly defined attack that is unlikely to actually work in the real world.

Conversely, consider the attacks attributed to North Korea, like those against Sony or the Wannacry virus. These aren’t the careful planning of a small state actor trying to accomplish specific goals. These are the actions of an actor that supports hacker groups, and lets them loose without a lot of oversight and direction. Wannacry in particular is an example of an undirected cyber attack. We know from our experience with network worms that its effects were impossible to predict. Somebody just stuck the newly discovered NSA EternalBlue payload into an existing virus framework and let it run to see what happens. As we worm experts know, nobody could have predicted the results of doing so, not even its creators.

Another example is the DNC election hacks. The reason we can attribute them to Russia is because it wasn’t their narrow goal. Instead, by looking at things like their URL shortener, we can see that they flailed around broadly all over cyberspace. The DNC was just one of their few successes, among a large number of failures. We then watched their incompetent bungling of that opportunity, such as inadvertently leaving their identity behind in Word metadata.

In contrast to these broad, opportunistic hacking from Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran we have the narrow, focused hacking from the U.S. and its allies Britain and Israel. Stuxnet is really the only example we have of a narrow, focused attack being successful. The U.S. can succeed at such an improbable attack because of its enormous investment in the best cyber warriors in the world. But still, we struggle against our cyber adversaries because they are willing to do undirected, opportunistic hacking while we insist on doing narrow, well-defined hacking. Despite our skill, we can’t overcome the compelling odds of the Birthday Attack.

What’s interesting about the cyber guerillas we face is their comparative lack of skill. The DNC hackers were based primarily on things like phishing, we unsophisticated teenagers can do. They were nothing like the sophisticated code found in Stuxnet. Rather than a small number of talented cyberwarriors, they are more accurately using the infinite monkeys approach of banging away on keyboards until they come up with the works of Shakespear.

I don’t know about the real policy makers and what they decide in secret, but in public, our politicians struggle to comprehend this paradox. They insist on seeing things like the DNC hack or Wannacry as the careful plans of our adversaries. This hinders our response to cyber insurgencies.

I’m a hacker and not a student of history, but I suspect those famous real-world insurgencies relied upon much the same odds, that their success is the same illusion as hacker successes. Sure, Che Guevara participated in the successful Cuban revolution, but was a failure in other revolutions in Africa and South America. Mao Zedong wasn’t the leader of China’s communist revolution so much as one of many leaders. He’s just the one of many who ended up with all the marbles at the end.

It’s been fashionable lately to quote Sun Tzu or von Clausewitz on cyberwar, but it’s just pretentious nonsense. Cyber needs to be understand as something in its own terms, not as an extension of traditional warfare or revolution. We need to focus on the realities of asymmetric cyber attacks, like the nation states mentioned above, or the actions of Anonymous, or the successes of cybercriminals. The reason they are successful is because of the Birthday Paradox: they aren’t trying to achieve specific, narrowly defined goals, but are are opportunistically exploiting any achievement that comes their way. This informs our own offensive efforts, which should be less centrally directed. This informs our defenses, which should anticipate attacks based not on their desired effect, but what our vulnerabilities make possible.

*** This is a Security Bloggers Network syndicated blog from Errata Security authored by Robert Graham. Read the original post at: