Monday, April 13, 2015

ISIS vs. Silicon Valley Cyber Wars

By James McFarlin

Terrorist groups such as ISIS are increasingly using social media tools as means of recruitment, training, fundraising and radicalization.  Some estimates place ISIS's volume of Twitter posts alone at 90,000 per day.

Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and other tools also form the basis for the radicals' command and control systems, providing ideal communication and planning tools with which to coordinate attacks.

ISIS and other groups' adept use of social media has attracted an estimated 3,000 Westerners to come to Syria and join the fight.  ISIS also produces a slick monthly English-language magazine named Dabiq.  This professionally-produced publication spreads messages of jihad and hate as well as instructions for terrorist actions such as bomb building and law enforcement avoidance.

Countering such messages is an increasingly difficult task for U.S. security agencies. Terrorist websites can and do pop up in alternative form if taken down, continuing their work.

Frustrated with its lack of social media reach against the terrorists, U.S. authorities have recently turned to America's tech titans to help counter the militants.  Foreign governments have also joined the fray.  French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve recently visited Silicon Valley, urging U.S. tech firms to do more to rid their services of extremist postings.

This awkward relationship has also been aggravated as foreign governments recently assailed American social media companies as being too complicit with the U.S. National Security Agency.

Being drawn into a global war is a foreign experience for tech firms, and leaves them increasingly struggling with uncomfortable requests obliging them to spy on their own users.  Not complying places the firms in the position of being accused of supporting the broadcasting of hateful images that incite terrorism and facilitate radicalization.

Companies such as Apple which have pushed encryption in their products have produced cries of protest from U.S. security agencies.  The FBI, for example, suddenly finds itself less able to tap into the firm's public communications streams.

Other unintended consequences await U.S. firms.  Twitter employees recently received death threats from ISIS groups when the company removed online terrorist content from its data streams.  ISIS has also called out for the assassination of two American imams who have spoken out against the terrorist group's ideology using social media.

Where will these conflicting interests and needs lead?  No one knows for certain.  But the battlefields of the "Twitter wars" as they are sometimes called are clearly in their infancy.  Such conflicts will most certainly be played out in vigorous, unexpected ways over the coming months and years.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Obama Cyber Sanctions: Reality or Illusion?

By James McFarlin

Affirming that cyber threats "pose one of the most serious economic and national security challenges to the United States," President Barack Obama on April 1 announced the intent to level sanctions against hackers, foreign state-owned corporations and nation-states that harmfully attack U.S. critical information networks.

Serious questions remain, however, as to whether such sanctions will have the intended deterrent effect.  Or even take place at all.  Let's look at three major questions on the viability of such actions:

Attribution.  Affirmatively placing blame for attacks is a tricky, many times inconclusive and in all cases elusive endeavor.  Many remember the wide discussion, even heated arguments, over who was actually responsible for the Sony Pictures hack.  The government claimed it was North Korea.  I have been in presentations where impressive evidence was presented that the real attackers were, in one case, Russian, and in a second case, Sony insiders.  This is not an unusual circumstance.

Without confirmation of attacker's identity, how can sanctions or retaliatory action of any type be launched?  They can't.

Type of Response.  What level of sanctions are warranted by specific cyber theft, espionage, or other attacks? What is the process of determination and which government body makes such decisions?  It is widely believed, for example, that the U.S. fumbled the handling of the Sony attacks.

Who is to say future government cyberattack responses under Obama's sanctions order will be any different?  This is unproven territory where it is best to tread carefully.

Foreign Retaliation.  We are living in a world where unintended consequences abound. What if foreign hackers sanctioned for cyber attacks decide to change identities (easily done, in many ways) and make additional, even more damaging attacks on the U.S., such as to our power grid or transportation systems?  What if a nation-state sanctioned for espionage against the U.S. retaliates by stopping all trade with specific American technology firms?

It is not too hard to see that Pandora's Box, once opened by tenuous and perhaps unproven sanctions actions, can rain even more harmful cyber dangers on the U.S.

The point is, the problems of attribution, lack of response definition and the level of potential  'what ifs' may very well checkmate the U.S.-levied sanctions in many, unintended ways, severely limiting the implementation of such actions.

If such sanctions occur at all.  In which case, we have an illusion and a few headlines, nothing more.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

CIA Plays Catch-up to Fight Cyberterrorism

By Jim McFarlin

Cyberterrorism is the number one threat facing the U.S.

The Director of National Intelligence ranked cyberterrorism as the top threat to our country – even more so than threats such as Islamic terrorist groups – in the just-released analysis, “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community.”

In a 2014 report, the General Accounting Office found that the FAA as having “ weaknesses which threaten the agency’s ability to ensure the safe and uninterrupted operation of the national airspace.”

The recent cyberattacks against Sony Pictures Entertainment have raised the stakes even higher, creating what cybersecurity professionals have deemed “the dawn of a new age” for cyberattacks. Now, cyberterrorism not only aims for destruction, but to influence behavior.

Where does the nation’s preeminent intelligence agency fit amidst such an array of new cyberthreats facing the United States?

Oddly, out of step.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

2015 Marks a Critical Juncture for America's Cyber Security

By Jim McFarlin

2014 was a challenging year for America’s cyber security. Like falling dominos, a wave of corporate, government and military organizations succumbed to damaging, expensive and–in many cases–embarrassing breaches of their information networks.

2015 promises to be even more challenging. The Department of Homeland Security estimated a 215% increase in reported cyberattacks over the past three years, with similar acceleration projected into the foreseeable future.

Last year’s attacks offered many lessons, most notably these:

      It was repeatedly demonstrated that when cyber assailants come to call, the U.S. is vulnerable, unaware, and open to attack. 

      It was also apparent that the safety of personal financial and investment accounts is effectively in the hands of those with malicious intent, not the institutions that hold our assets.

The only positive claim any of those attacked could make was that the damage was contained--and eventually stopped. However, it’s important to keep in mind that these are the institutions that were unaware of their network intrusions for weeks or even months.

Further, in a reported 71% of cases, those being breached only became aware of the attacks once informed by an outside party or government agency.

The list of compromised businesses includes retailer Target, which somehow managed to miss or ignore alerts they were under cyberattack despite 24/7 outside monitoring and the installation of a brand new $1.6 million cybersecurity system just three months before the attacks. The assault swept across the land throughout the year, ravaging the likes of Neiman-Marcus, Michael’s Stores, PF Changs, Home Depot, JPMorgan, and many others.   

JPMorgan, considered the “gold standard” for cyber security in the financial services industry, boasts a staff of 3,000 cybersecurity professionals backed by an annual cybersecurity budget of $250 million. Even this was not enough to stop cyberattackers from hacking account information. In fact, the banking giant realized that up to 83 million accounts had been compromised only after an incidental tip from a third party.

The Sony Pictures attacks in November went beyond data theft, involving not only misappropriation of intellectual property (films), but also destruction of computer systems, extortion, and threats of 9/11-style violence. 

The confused, conflicting, and oft-reversed response from Sony and involved U.S. agencies clearly illustrate yet another lesson from 2014: the U.S. is woefully unprepared to respond to serious cyberattacks in a coherent, effective manner.

With such examples of successful attacks against major institutions, can the organizations that produce and distribute our electrical power be far behind?

The answer is that no such safety, perceived or otherwise, can be taken for granted. In a serious cyberattack against U.S. power generation or distribution facilities, power outages impacting large swaths of the country could continue for weeks, months or longer, rendering traditional preparedness actions ineffective, and in the end, only delaying the inevitable chaos, loss of life and lack of social order.

When considered against the deadly combination of escalating global instability, the growing black market availability of cyber weaponry, and the startling propensity for Islamic extremists to take their war to the home turf of Western democracies in Europe and beyond, cyber insecurity appears to describe America’s future for the coming year.

("Global Networking" Image by bluebay/

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Sony, North Korea and the Future of Cyberwarfare

By Jim McFarlin

The recent hack against Sony Pictures Entertainment (widely believed to have been perpetrated by North Korea), its threats of physical violence against Americans, and its successful attempt to restrict our right of free speech can only be termed an attack on America.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Increasing Cyber Threats Fuel Growing Global Disorder

By Jim McFarlin

The world as we once knew it, one of post-Cold War order with the U.S. as a primary world power, is disappearing before our eyes. In its place, we are left with a world now defined by mounting global disorder – and cyber threats only add to the chaos.

An expansionist Russia and increasingly aggressive China seek to establish new spheres of influence; meanwhile, the cauldron of war and unrest engulf the Middle East and North Africa. At the same time, the U.S. sits on the brink of a nuclear-armed Iran, which surely has its own ambitions for global power.

As Senator John McCain puts it, “We’re in the most dangerous position we’ve ever been in as a nation.”

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Cyber Alert: The Russians Are Coming

By Jim McFarlin

When it comes to today’s digital world, it is the best of times – and it is the worst of times.

Although we enjoy an era of unparalleled worldwide commerce, sharing of cultures, and global communications thanks to the Internet, we also find the power of this marvelous creation turned on us in ways we would not have considered possible just a few years ago.

Goals such as improving quality of life, extending the benefits of health care for all and spreading economic benefits are still there but deemed perhaps unachievable, or at a minimum both diluted and distorted.

The good is here but the bad has come with it – and there is no going back. The genie is out of the bottle.

A rising torrent of cybercrime attacks on hundreds of millions of Americans has swept the nation. Roughly 280 million customers have been affected by cyberattacks on Home Depot, eBay, and JP Morgan.

The government has fallen victim, too. The Washington Post reported that hackers affiliated with the Russian government have breached computer networks at the White House; meanwhile, the Chinese government infiltrated the Department of Defense to steal plans for the F-35 advanced fighter jet.

There appears to be no end to such cyberattacks, nor means to stop them. Worse, there are ominous signs that these attacks are just the beginning.

A recently released study by the Pew Research Center study found that more than 60 percent of 1,642 computer and Internet experts polled believe a nationwide cyberattack against the United States is imminent.

The most vulnerable targets include essential critical infrastructures like power distribution. Many also expect attacks against the financial services sector at a larger scale than is now being experienced, possibly leading to economic disruptions worldwide.

Those surveyed did not have expectations of immediate attacks, but such views quickly became outdated in October, when the Wall Street Journal reported that Russian computer hackers have already begun laying the groundwork for such attacks against the U.S.

In researching recent cyberattacks, investigators for cybersecurity firm FireEye found “sophisticated cyber weapons able to evade detection and hop between computers.” The investigators also found code programmed on Russian-language machines that was sophisticated enough to indicate a government sponsor, specifically a government based in Moscow.

The cyber weapons discovered by FireEye, known as “trojan horses,” have been discovered in America’s critical infrastructures such as power and water facilities. Such weapons consist of malicious software that potentially threatens all aspects of our daily lives and is just waiting to be activated.

Such cyber weapons implanted in American industrial facilities can be located and disposed of, but the facts are there: more will come.

Cold War 2.0 has begun. And the Russians are not just coming with the genie in hand; they are already here.

("Grunge Flag Of Russia" by creativedoxfoto/