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Patrick Lin, who is Assistant Professor and Director of Ethics and Emerging Science Group at California Polytechnic State University, penned a thought provoking piece titled ‘Stand Your Cybergound’ Law: A Novel Proposal for Digital Security in The Atlantic magazine in which he offers up a proposal allowing private industry to conduct cyber retaliation against foreign attackers. He rightly points out that a majority of cyber attacks against the United States or its interests are against private companies. It was reported just this week that the Department of Homeland Security has sent out several alerts warning of a “gas pipeline sector cyber intrusion campaign” against multiple companies, which began earlier this year and is still under way. The face that companies are expected to fend for themselves is huge vulnerability in our national cyber defense. The Department of Defense protects military networks. The Department of Homeland Security defends other federal government networks. And everyone else is basically left to stand or fall on its own. It is the case that there have been increased collaboration between the public and private sectors in recent years. And the policy makers are looking at additional means for increased information sharing and collaboration. The proposed Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) is one such effort. But if private company is under attack, there is no calvary coming. Couple this with the fact that approximately 85% of the US critical infrastructure is owned and operated by private industry. It would take more that information sharing to adequately implement an effective national cyber defense. Our current cyber defense is mostly dependent on private for-profit companies making business decisions about how much to spend on their security overhead. That is certainly a recipe for disaster. It is imperative that government, business and academia join forces and develop better options for addressing this issue.
In the article, Lin writes, “ we may not be ready yet for the government to lead cyberdefense against foreign adversaries. To do so would trigger serious and unresolved [International humanitarian law] issues, including Geneva and Hague Conventions [which] requires that we take care in distinguishing combatants from noncombatants.”
I would first draw a distinction between passive defense ( i.e. blocking attacker access, removing a vulnerability being exploited, etc ) and active defense ( i.e. launching a counter attack to disable the attackers capabilities).
All entities, government and private sector, are engaged in the former. Some more successfully than others. Some with greater effort than others. There are no legal or ethical questions there except a much broader sense . If gas pipelines are considered critical national infrastructure and these pipelines are owned and operated by private companies, should/can the government do more to defend them from attack? More than information sharing and increased collaboration, that is.
As to active defense, I have heard have seen proposals or discussions in security circles of the government launching counter cyber attacks against foreign adversaries on behalf of private companies. Lin’s proposal would create a legal framework that would allow the companies themselves to retaliate. He seems to find inspiration in the much talked about ” stand your ground” laws such as the one in Florida that came to national attention as a it is reportedly invoked in the defense of the fatal shooting an unarmed teenager by an armed neighborhood watch volunteer.
Notwithstanding his references to armed citizens taming the wild, wild west. I find this proposal problematic on three fronts. From the purely cyber security perpective ,from a business perspective, and as a matter of national security policy. I’ll reiterate, in fairness, that Lin is not necessarily endorsing this as a solution, but contributing to a much needed discussion on nation cyber defense policy.
- Security: In most cases, it is difficult to nearly impossible to ascertain the real identity of the attacker. Attackers use other compromised systems (victims) to launch attacks. Lin makes the point that “ There is a reasonable argument in claiming that a botnet is not fully innocent and therefore not immune to harm.Most, if not all, botnets are made possible by negligence in applying security patches to software, installing anti-malware, and using legally purchased and not pirated, vulberable copies of software“. In other words, you allowed your systems to by hacked, so you deserve it if caught in a counter attack. I certainly agree that most reported successful attacks or breaches are a result of some degree of negligence. Most security professionals would agree that no system is immune to attack. We are trained to practice due diligence in making reasonable attempts to identify vulnerabilities and risk. You can never eliminate all risks all the time nor can you afford to mitigate all identified ones.
- Business: Typical business security incidence response practice includes: Detecting the attack, containing the damage, remediating effects of attack and gathering evidence, returning systems to normal and some follow-up. Lin’s proposal would require additional steps to gather sufficient forensic evidence to identify an actual perpetrator. He proposes allowing companies to present this evidence to some governmental body to review and sanction retaliation. Companies will then have to plan and execute the counter attack. Few companies have in-house expertise to do this. Few business managers will be willing to fund such activities. Whats the return? You get hacked from a $500 laptop and you spend $50,000 to do what exactly?
- National Security: We know for a fact some of the attacks on our private owned critical infrastructure have been attributed to foreign government affiliated networks. Would it really be wise to license private companies to attack these networks? I would think not. Most of these folks can’t even patch their servers or encrypt their sensitive data. The last think we need is an international incident started by some system administrator at some SMB. I mean a government allowing private entities to conduct cyber attacks against a foreign nation with a wink and a nod is not exactly a novel concept. Google ‘Russia Georgia Cyberwar”.
I commend Dr. Lin for his contribution to this very important discussion. I don’t necessarily agree with the proposed approach but as a nation, we really need to come to terms with how best to improve our national cyber defense as we are in dire straits.