Thursday, December 20, 2018

VEP: Handling This Patch's Meta Changes

We may be about to enter the Healer meta in Cyber War for Season 3, what does that mean for you?

The Meta Change

Google caught an 0day this week, and Microsoft issued an out of band patch. Kaspersky has been catching and killing 0day as well recently, at a much higher pace than you would expect, something over one a month. If that doesn't surprise you, then it's probably because you're accustomed to seeing defensive companies catch only implants or lateral movement and then helplessly shrugging their shoulders when asked how the hackers got in.

But we're about to enter a healer-meta. In Overwatch, that is when the value of defensive abilities overwhelms the damage you can do over time. So your offense is forced into one of two options:

  • High Burst Damage Heroes (such as snipers, Pharah, ultimate-economy playstyles, etc.)
  • Diving healers
In Cyberwar what this means is that when effective defensive instrumentation gets widely deployed (and used) attackers are forced to do one of three things:
  • Use worms and other automated techniques that execute your mission faster than any possible response (burst damage)
  • Operate at layers that are not instrumented (aka, lower into firmware, higher into app-level attacks)
  • Modify the security layers themselves (aka, you dive the healer by injecting into the AV and filtering what it sends)


There were two arguments around what you should do in a VEP in a Healer Meta at the Carnegie conference. One, was that since you knew bugs were going to get caught, you should make sure you killed them as soon as possible after use (which reduces threat to yourself from your own bugs). The other was that you were going to need a huge stockpile of bugs and that you should stick to only killing bugs that you knew for sure HAD gotten caught, and only if your attribution was already broken by your adversary.

These are very different approaches and have vastly different strategic needs.

Of course, the third take is to avoid the problem of 0day getting caught by focusing on the basics of countering the meta as outlined above. But a nation state can (and will) also use other arms to restrict the spread of defensive technology or erode its effectiveness (i.e. by attacking defensive technology supply chains, using export control to create deliminations between HAVES and HAVE NOTS, etc.). 

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Brussels Winter VEP Conference

So recently I went to a conference on vulnerability equities which was under Chatham House Rule, which means I can't say WHO SAID anything or who was there, but they did publish an agenda, so your best guess is probably right, if you've been following the VEP discussion.

Anyways, here (in click-bait format like Jenny Nicholson) are my top three things that are literally and mathematically irrational about the VEP, as informed by the discussion at the conference:

1. A lot of the questions you are supposed to answer in order to make the VEP decision are 100% unknowable.

Questions typically include:
  • How many targets use a particular software?
  • How many friendly people use a software platform?
  • Will the Chinese find this bug easily or not?
  • etc.

Some panel members thought a partial solution might be for every technology company to give all their customer survey information to the government, which could help answer questions like "Do we need to protect or hack more people who are vulnerable to this bug?" This idea is a bad idea and you could sense the people in the room laughing internally at it, although it is partially already the goal of Export Control regulations.

Needless to say, if you are making your decisions based on a bunch of questions you have NO ANSWERS TO, you are making RANDOM decisions. And some of the questions are obviously unknowable because they involve the future. For example, the answer to "Do our opponents use the latest version of Weblogic?" is always "not at the moment but the future is an unknown quantum interplay between dark energy and dark matter that may decide if the universe continues to expand and also if the system administrator in Tehran upgrades to something vulnerable to this particular deserialize issue!". An even better example is the question of "How hard is this bug for the Chinese to find?" to which if you KNEW WHAT BUGS THE CHINESE COULD FIND IN THE FUTURE you would not be worrying about CyberWar problems so much as how to deal with the crippling level of depression that happens when you have a brain the size of a planet.

Although ironically the VEP will tell the Chinese how hard it is for US to find particular bugclasses, so we have THAT going for us at least.

2. Voting does not resolve equities issues. One of the panelists mentioned that if you want to take every bug, and rank its usefulness from 1 to 10, and then take its negative impact, and rank that one to ten, you can draw a nice diagram like the one below.

Then (they posit) you can just look at the equities decisions you've made, and draw a simple line with some sort of slope between the yay's and the nays and you've "made progress" (tm).

Except that in reality, every number on the graph is somewhere on the axis of "would stop World War III if we could use it for SIGINT" and "would end all commerce over the Internet as we know it resulting in the second Great Depression". I.E. every number is zero, infinity, or both zero AND infinity at the same time using a set of irrational numbers that can only graphed on the side of a twelve dimensional Klein bottle. Voting amongst stakeholders does not solve this fundamental unit comparison issue, to say the least.

What if a bug has no use, but the bugclass it belongs to is one you rely on for other ops? The complications are literally an endless Talmudic whirlpool into the abyss.

For example, I am continually mystified by certain high level officials misunderstanding of the basics of OPSEC when you give a bug out. They seem to think that you can USE a bug operationally before you go through the VEP, and then decide to kill it, and not suffer huge risks with OPSEC (including attribution). They often justify this with the idea that "sometimes bugs get caught in the wild or die by themselves" which is TRUE. In that sense, yes, every operational use of an exploit is an equities decision - one that you take for OPSEC reasons. Which is why GOOD OPERATORS use one whole toolchain per target if possible. And if you think that's overkill, then maybe you've underestimated the difficulty of your future target set.

Also note that no person in government policy wants to use this process to measure the impact of the VEP over time - although I'm not sure what units you would measure your operational loss in, other than human lives? Likewise, there's only one output to the VEP, "Give bug to Vendor" as opposed to a multi-output system including "Write and publish our own Patch" which seems like a better choice if you want to have options for when you disagree with a vendor's triage or timeline?

3. No Government in Europe is dumb enough in this geopolitical environment to do VEP for real. It may happen that every Western government signs or sets up some document that assigns a ton of unanswerable rote paperwork per-bug to their already small technical and cleared teams, if for no other reason, because Microsoft and Mozilla and the Software Alliance all have legitimate soft power that can influence public policy. I mention them in particular because they funded this conference and following the money is a thing I once heard about. As a positive bonus note: VEPs are, great cover for killing OTHER people's bugs once you catch them in the wild.

But the EU technical teams were also there at the conference, with the government policy people responsible for getting their cyber war game from D-level to A-level. You can imagine the post-Snowden meetings all across Europe in rooms with no electronic devices where elected officials looked at their teams and said "What exactly do they mean "SSL Added and Removed Here?!? We need to 'Get Gud', as the teens are saying. Pronto."

Does anyone realistically think that they're going to hamstring themselves? Because I talked to them there and I'm pretty sure they're not going to. (insert SHRUG emoji!)

And here's the actual strategy implication that they know, but don't want to say: Your best people will leave if you implement the VEP seriously. There are those Sardaukar for whom it is not about money, who are with you for life, as long as you have a mutual understanding that their work is on mission, all warheads in foreheads. And to them, the VEP is an anathema.

And then there are people out for fame and money, and those people are going to get stolen by a random company anyway, because why would they ever stay and be a glorified bug bounty hunter?

I mean, every country is different. It's possible I'm misjudging cultures and talent pools. Or not. But if you are running a country's VEP program, you have to be pretty confident that I'm wrong about that to move forward. This is the kind of thing you'd want to start asking about in your exit interviews.

Oh, and as a final note: One of the submitted talks to INFILTRATE required an equities decision. Cool 0day, very old, and you should come and see the talk even though we haven't officially announced it yet. :)

Thursday, November 29, 2018

The false path of ReIntermediation

Salsa Shark. . . 

I sent a recent paper on information operations over Twitter to some people for feedback and one of the comments was the following:
I also think there’s a meta question that needs to be answered. 
You say that censoring inauthentic accounts is not the way to go for various reasons...but you still have an info ops problem given that inauthentic accounts are still publishing garbage getting likes, retweets, shares, and driving online activity/conversations. How does your Jiu Jitsu solution remedy that?
And here's the larger picture: I never think re-intermediation is a valid policy solution, but it's the most common reflex in government and policy bodies. The internet was a tidal wave of disintermediation - in technology, in society, in geopolitics. It's hard to explain that yes the Russian Government gets to talk to all your people directly without you being able to do anything about it or that people can talk to each other in encrypted format now without you being able to listen or that money or music is going to transfer around without any real mediation by governments.

The instinct is always to try to force social media companies to just get REALLY good at banning Russian propaganda networks, or legally enforce impossible encryption regulations, or somehow enforce a global copyright regime. To re-intermediate, in other words. It's always the wrong direction. You can't roll back the tide.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

A Question of Trust

For those of you who have not read Eugene Kasperky's latest piece, it is here:

I have pasted the most relevant section below.

While obviously Kaspersky's transparency initiative is a good thing, and probably something that should be emulated by other companies in the field, I think it's worth taking a step back to see what metrics you can judge its design on for effectiveness. Many portions of the stated initiative don't seem to be relevant in security sense - they are for marketing purposes, as cover for people who want to use Kaspersky software and are looking for an excuse.

Some questions, a positive answer to any one of which is fatal to the goals of a Transparency initiative:

  • Can Kaspersky update the software of only one computer, or write a rule that would run only a subset of computers? 
  • Is the data from computers in France still searchable from Moscow? (And hence, subject to Russian law?)
  • Could Kaspersky install a NOBUS backdoor which would get through the review of the Transparency team in Switzerland and get installed on international customers?
I think the answer to these questions is probably "yes".

The hard problem here is that the goal of a "Trust" initiative of this nature is to be able to protect your customers while provably being being unable to see what they are doing, or target them in any way. The most obvious solution would be for Kaspersky to start up an entirely independent operation to handle the international market, at the cost of any economies of scale (and also at a reaction time trade-off). Even that might not even solve the third question, although at a certain point you have to admit that you are setting a bar high enough that software from extremely risky development locales is not going to clear it (which sucks for Kaspersky, but is an extremely realistic risk profile, depending on who you talk to!).

As a final note, this talk by a Kaspersky researcher is fantastic:

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The true meaning of the Paris Call for Trust in Cyberspace


I often find it hard to explain anything in the cyber policy realm without pointing out how weird an idea "copyright" is. The easiest way to read Cat's article in the Washington Post is that the PR minions of most big companies wants to make it seem like some sort of similar global controls over cyber vulnerabilities and their use are a natural thing, or at least as natural as copyright. In some sense, it's a coalition of the kinda-willing, but that's all the PR people need since this argument is getting played out largely in newspapers.

But just to take one bullet point from the Paris text:
  • Develop ways to prevent the proliferation of malicious ICT tools and practices intended to cause harm;

What ... would that mean? you have to ask yourself.

You can paraphrase what software (and other) companies want, which is to find a way to ameliorate what in the industry is called "technical debt" by changing the global environment. If governments could assume the burden of preventing hacking, this can allow for greater risk-taking in the cyber realm by companies. I liken it to the credit card companies making it law enforcement's problem that they built an entire industry on the idea of everyone having a secret number small enough to memorize that you would give to everyone you wanted to pay money to.

From the WP article:
This could make way for other players on the global stage. France and the United Kingdom, Jordan said, are now emerging as leaders in the push to develop international cybersecurity norms. But the absence of the United States also reflects the Trump administration’s aversion to signing on to global pacts, instead favoring a transactional approach to issues, Singer said.

It's not so much "transactional" as it is "practical and workable" because to have a real agreement in cyber you need more trust than is typical of most arraignments. This is driven by the much reduced visibility into capabilities that is part and parcel of the domain, which frankly I could probably find a supporting quote for in Singer's new book :).

Aside from really asking yourself what it would MEAN IN REAL PRACTICAL TERMS for humanitarian law to apply to the cyber domain, you also have to ask yourself if all the parties in any particular group would AGREE on those meanings.

And then, as a follow up, ask yourself what the norms are that the various countries really live by, as a completely non-aspirational practicality, and especially the UK and France.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Book Review: LikeWar (Peter W. Singer, Emerson T. Brooking)


Buy it here!


There are some great stories in this book. From Mike Flynn's real role pre-Trump Admin, to a hundred other people's stories as they manipulated social media or tried to prevent it in order to have real world effects. This book draws a compelling narrative. It's well written and it holds your interest.

That said, it feels whitewashed throughout. There's something almost ROMANTIC about the people interviewed through much of it. But the particular take the authors have on the problem illustrates an interesting schism between the technical community and the academic community. For example, in the technical community, the minute you say something like this, people give you horrible looks like you were doing a Physics lecture and somehow wanted to tie your science to a famous medieval  Alchemist :

Highlight (yellow) - Location 307

Carl von Clausewitz was born a couple of centuries before the internet,
but he would have implicitly understood almost everything it is doing to
conflict today.
What's next? OODA Loops?!? Sheesh.

In a way though, it's good that the book started this way, as it's almost a flare to say exactly what perspective the book is coming from.

Two other early pieces of the book also stuck out:
Highlight (yellow) - Location 918

For it has also become a colossal information battlefield, one
that has obliterated centuries’ worth of conventional wisdom
about what is secret and what is known.
Highlight (yellow) - Location 3627

And in this sort of war, Western democracies find themselves
at a distinct disadvantage. Shaped by the Enlightenment,
they seek to be logical and consistent. Built upon notions of transparency,
In other words: This book has a extreme and subjective view of government and industry and an American perspective. Its goal is often less to explain LikeWar than to decry its effects on US geopolitical dominance. We have a million Cleared individuals in the US. Are we really built on notions of transparency? This would have been worth examining, but does not fit with the tenor of the author's work here.

The book does bring humor to its subject though and many of the stories within are fleshed out beyond what even someone who lived through them would remember, such as a detailed view on AOLs early attempts to censor the Internet:

Highlight (yellow) - Location 4203

AOL recognized two truths that every web company would
eventually confront. The first was that the internet was a teeming
hive of scum and villainy.

Missing in Action

That said, anyone who lived through any of the pieces of this book will find lots missing. Unnoticed is the outsided role of actual hackers in the stories that fill this book. It's not a coincidence where w00w00 or Mendax ended up, although it goes unmentioned. And the role of porn and alternative websites is barely touched upon. How the credit card companies have controlled Fetlife would be right in line with what this book should cover, yet I doubt the authors have heard of FL (or for that matter could name the members of w00w00). Nor is Imgur mentioned. It's also not recognized that the same social network the intelligence community uses to publish their policies (Tumblr) is 90% used for browsing pornography.

Clay Shirky, the first real researcher into this topic, who gets one mention in the book (iirc), pointed out that whenever you create a social network of any kind, it becomes a dating site. This is one of those axioms that can produce predictive effects on the subject matter at hand. Sociology itself has been revolutionized by the advent of big data from Big Dating. The very shape of human society has changed, as the spread of STDs has pointed out. And the shape of society changes War, so this book could be illustrating it.

At its most basic example, examining social networks involves looking for network effect - the same thing that drives most dating sites to create fake profiles and bots so they can convince people to pay for their service. These are primal features of the big networks - how to get big and stay big. As Facebook loses relevance, Instagram gains it, and as Instagram loses it....we didn't see any of this sweep in the book. Some topics were too dirty, perhaps?


Like many books coming out, this book is a reflexive reaction to the 2016 election and nowhere is that more evident than in the conclusion.

Some statements are impossible to justify:
Highlight (yellow) - Location 4488

Like them or hate them, the majority of today’s most
prominent social media companies and voices will
continue to play a crucial role in public life for years to come.
Other statements are bizarre calls for a global or at least American censorship regime:

Highlight (yellow) - Location 4577

In a democracy, you have a right to your opinion, but no
right to be celebrated for an ugly, hateful opinion, especially
if you’ve spread lie after lie.
The following paragraph is not really true, but also telling:
Highlight (yellow) - Location 4621

Of the major social media companies, Reddit is the only one that preserved the known fake Russian accounts for public examination. By wiping clean this crucial evidence, the firms are doing the digital equivalent of bringing a vacuum cleaner to the scene of a crime. They are not just preventing

The authors, like many people, see the big social networks as criminal conspirators, responsible for a host of social ills. But for the past generations we have "Taught the Controversy" when it comes to evolution in our schools and it's hard to be confused as to why the population finds it hard to verify facts.

Instead of trying to adjust our government and society to technological change, we've tried to stymie it. Why romanticize the past, which was governed by Network News, the least trustworthy arbiters of Truth possible? We've moved beyond the TV age into the Internet age, and this book is a mournful paean to the old gods, rightfully toppled by disintermediation.

Still worth a read though.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

"Own your data"

In today's edition of "trying to figure out what things in the cyber policy world really mean" I want to highlight this extremely insightful thread on "Owning your data".

Obviously you're never going to get AccessNow and FS-ISAC or any other group to agree on what that means. But sometimes it's worth noting that a particular terms one of the policy groups is pushing doesn't really mean anything at all or (as in the case of "Surveillance software") encompasses a lot more than they want you to think it does.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Forecasting vs Policy Work

No castle in Games of Thrones is complete without an extremely accurate map room! Apparently satellite imagery was available to all at a good price point.

Like many people in the business I'm a fan of the work of "StratFor", which is an ex-spook shop that does what they call "Strategic Forecasting" of geopolitical change. If you read their work carefully, a large amount of their methodology is an attempt to avoid a bias towards assuming that national or political leaders matter. 

If you just assume that every country has a set of resources and goals, and that it will act in its best interests, regardless as to who gets voted President, then over a long enough term you have a much better chance of making accurate predictions, is their play. 

It's an attempt to discover and analyze the emergent behavior inherent in the system, as opposed to getting caught up doing game theory and monte carlo simulations until the end of time. Using this mindset produces vastly different results from most predictive methods, and the cyber tilt on the playing field is notable. Early StratFor predictions used fundamentals such as the aging population or shrinking workforces in various countries, and indicated they would need to vastly increase unskilled labor pools by importing workers, but of course, modern predictions look at this as a gap automation will fill. 

But you can still look at the fundamentals - what resources do countries have, what are their geopolitical strengths and weaknesses and how will they be able to maintain their position using their resources. Geopolitical positioning has been altered by the Internet, of course, as everything has. And a large internet company is its own kind of resource. 

This is why when a paper comes out saying that Germany will have a strong VEP leaning towards disclosure any decent forecaster is going to look at that as an oddity. We are now, and have been for a long time, in a great-powers competition meta. Germany needs to ramp up as soon as possible on both its defensive and offensive capabilities. The real question is how close it gets to the 5EYES in order to do so. You can make these predictions without looking at all at who's in charge, or what the politics are.

The one hole, of course, that seems obvious in retrospect, is that non-state actors are vastly more important than any Westeros map can capture. Everyone asks about the Cyber-9/11 and then goes on to talk about Russia and China as if it was a Taliban plot to hit the WTC. In other words, we may be looking in the wrong direction entirely.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Equities issues are collectives

One of the great differences between people who've dealt with exploits their whole lives and people who are in the national security policy space just starting with exploits is the concept of an exploit being a singular thing. If you've tried to hack into a lot of networks, you generally view your capabilities as a probabilistic function. The concept of making a one-by-one decision on how releasing any particular vulnerability to the vendor would affect your future SIGINT is an insane one since the equities issues are a "collective" noun.

LINK (This equities issue argument made here about the Trump admin declassifying FBI texts is  familiar to those of us to follow the VEP)

As you can see above the "presumption of public disclosure" line feels almost stolen directly out of one of Stanford or Belfer's VEP papers.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Why Overwatch?

So we've done a number of Overwatch-related posts on this blog. And I wanted to talk about the method behind the madness. First of all, I wanted to talk about what you see when you read cyber policy papers: simple game theory inspired by the arguments around nuclear deterrence.

The problem with this kind of work is that no matter how many variables people add to these models, they don't capture the nature of either cyber offense or cyber defense in a way that can start to predict real world behavior.

Practitioners have other frameworks and models (c.f. Matt Monte's book), and the one I've chosen is Overwatch for the following reasons:

  • Overwatch is extremely popular in the hacking community and almost universally well understood, even at the highest levels (more so than other sports, such as Football or Basketball). It's possible this is because Overwatch's themes and story resonate strongly in this day and age, for reasons beyond this blog.
  • As an E-sport, tactical development in Overwatch is directly measured and both teams are on identical ground (no amount of steroids can overcome a bad strategy)
  • The diverse character set and abilities explore nicely the entire space of possibilities and translates well to the cyber war domain
  • Overwatch analysis has a rich, coherent and well understood terminology set (Shotcallers, "Sustain", win-condition, Deathballs, meta changes, team-comp, wombo-combos, etc.). 

This keynote explains our model for adversarial action in the cyber domain using Overwatch analogies.

Immunity is not the only team to use this kind of language to develop an analysis framework for extremely complex systems. An extremely popular series of biology videos on YouTube right now is the Tier Zoo videos, where he discusses various animals as if they were playable Overwatch character classes. The key thing here being: This is a much more illuminating way to classify survival strategies than you might have imagined. And of course, it demonstrates this model works at the most complex levels available (aka, the real world).

Treating cyber security offense and defense as discrete automata may still provide some value for policy decision making, but it is more likely that an Overwatch-based model will be able to provide predictive value - much as simple expert systems have now been replaced for complex decision making by deep learning algorithms.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Paper Review: The Security Risks of Government Hacking by Riana Pfefferkorn

Ok, so after I did a review of the German VEP paper, Riana pointed me at her paper. Academics have thick skins as a rule, so I went through and live tweeted a response, but she is owed a deeper review, on reflection.

First of all, I am often chided for lumping all policy people together, or being overly derogatory towards the efforts of policy people in this area who are not also subject matter experts. But it has not gone unnoticed that there are fundamental problems with study in the area, most recently this article on CFR and this Twitter thread.

When you talk to major funders in this area they complain that "Every paper I read is both the same, and entirely irrelevant". And the reasons why get dissected pretty well by that CFR post as quoted below:
There are three categories of factors that make scholarly cyber conflict research a significantly more challenging task than its nuclear era counterparts: (1) the characteristics of the threat space, (2) data availability constraints, and (3) the state of political science as a discipline.
Historically, and luckily, when non-subject matter experts attempt to draw conclusions in this field they make glaring and weird mistakes about the history of the subject. This is most often to attempt to back up the trope that cyber tools are extremely likely to get caught, and then when caught are used against everyone else.  (You can see another example of someone without any technical experience doing the same kind of thing here.)

Below (from page 9 of the paper) Riana makes some very odd claims:
In another example, after nation-state actors widely believed to be the United States and Israel unleashed the so-called Stuxnet malware to undermine Iran’s nuclear program, new malware which was in part identical to the Stuxnet code appeared on the internet.25 Researchers also discovered additional types of malware that used Stuxnet’s USB port infection technique to spread to computers.26
The reality is of course more complex, but it worries me that when reading the released reports on Stuxnet, Duqu, and Gauss, she did not appear to understand the sweep of how things fit together. The technical concepts of how code works cannot be avoided when making policy claims of this nature, and it has the problem of invalidating other arguments in the paper when this sort of thing is broken from the very beginning.

Likewise, when talking about bug rediscovery, it's impossible to discuss these things by giving equal weight to two papers with completely different results. It's like CNN trying to give equal weight to a climate change denier and an atmospheric scientist.

But that's what we see in Riana's paper.
Trey Herr, found rediscovery rates of 14% to 17% for vulnerabilities in browser software and 22% for bugs in the Android mobile operating system.5 After their conclusions were criticized as inaccurate, Schneier and Herr updated their paper, revising their rediscovery rates slightly upward and concluding that “rediscovery takes place more often than previously thought.”6 On the other hand, the RAND Corporation issued a report analyzing a different set of data and put the rediscovery rate at only about 5% per year.7 
I'm fairly sure they revised their rates downwards, and not upwards? It doesn't matter though. It's impossible to draw the kinds of conclusions you would want from any of these numbers, as she goes on to state a few paragraphs later:
Ultimately, experts do not precisely know the rediscovery rate for any specific vulnerability or class of vulnerabilities, and aren’t going to know anytime soon. 
Then there are paragraphs which try to push a political agenda, but don't have a grasp on the history of how vulnerabilities have been handled. None of the claims here can be substantiated, and many of them are pure fantasy.
Today we have companies that are in the business of developing and selling 0-days, with no intention of revealing the flaw to the vendor so that it may be fixed. 0-days are generally used by state actors, may not be very common, and are not the biggest security problem out there. The existence of a market for 0-days may incentivize the discovery of more vulnerabilities. Some think that could lead to better security overall, so long as the government buying the 0-day ultimately discloses it to the vendor to be fixed. But that assumes 0-days are relatively rare; if they are plentiful, then an active 0-day market could be harmful.
The market for bugs has always been a smaller part of the larger community of people who find, use, and trade bugs, which existed long before there were governments in the game. The commercial consulting market dwarfs the government market, and is largely in the same exact business.

And governments are not a free bug-bounty program - they don't buy bugs to then disclose them to a vendor. That would be an exceedingly poor use of tax money.

Some parts of the paper, of course, highlight common-sense areas where there are wide policy gaps.
Judges issue hacking warrants ex parte based on the assurances of the government, but those representations may not capture the hacking campaign’s impact on people for whom there is no probable cause to believe they have committed any crime. As its use of hacking techniques continues and expands, it will be important for the government to narrowly tailor hacking campaigns to minimize impact on innocent users and to explain the expected impact accurately to the authorizing judge. 
Most substantially, I thought the paper represented a cautionary note against using Government Hacking as a policy bulwark against government mandated backdoors, which are on their face, a simpler, less chaotic, policy.

The problem however, is without deeply understanding the technical details this kind of paper can only misrepresent and over-abstract the risks on both sides. In that sense, it does more to muddy the issue than clarify it, even as it claims in the conclusion to want to further the discussion.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The German VEP

Most policy-work is still done in the reverse of logic, with gestaltian leaps of faith covered in heaping gobs of wishful thinking as to cause and effect. Vulnerability Equities Process papers are especially susceptible to this, because the Mozilla and Microsoft lobbyist team is punching well above their weight and has turned it into a "moral human rights" issue in the EU, to try to get codified in law what they could not do in the United States, because what's good for Mozilla is not necessarily good national policy.

This is especially true for Germany though! Germany is a huge industrial state at great risk for information operations and more direct cyber attack, that manufactures factories, but is notably behind on its own offensive capabilities. Sven Herpig's proposed VEP policy (for Germany, and the EU in general) would be like trying to catch up in the America's Cup Yacht race, but without pulling up your anchor.

However, that is gestaltian thinking at work! And I have been trying to propose a more rigorous process for looking at policy papers. And it is this:

  • Convert proposed language into flowchart
  • Use boolean alegebra to simplify flowchart (see below for the 4d4 Wassenaar flowchart, rearranged to demonstrate the real structure)
    • Look at whether any parts of the flowchart imply other parts (for example, all places that STORE data in a database also obviously INDEX it, etc.) Sometimes what looks like a large technical differentiation chart can be reduced by inference.
  • Make a spreadsheet of scenarios for regression testing all proposed changes to the text
  • Use GIT or other version tracking to attach rationals and other notes to proposed changes in language
  • Look at the total return on investment of the proposal, given the regression testing results
  • When people adjust the language, don't let them assume an effect, but go through the entire regression test again with the new language. THIS FINDS WEIRD THINGS.

This diagram is much more useful for running sample scenarios through than the language in WA itself, imho.

So when looking at VEP proposals in general, it's possible to say uncontroversially that this is a new area for governments, and that law in particular has been "not great" at dealing with rapidly changing environments in the cyber domain, and that therefor it is always fascinating when, without doing this kind of work or without testing their VEP for a decade or so, people want to en-scribe a particular VEP into their law (Sven's proposal sunsets the law after five years - but most laws in this space get automatically renewed, so that is of little comfort in terms of malleability). If your update process is crazy expensive and difficult, it makes more sense that you would test everything for many years, before shipping it, right?

Regardless, let's look at the details of Sven's proposal in detail, as promised.

The first thing is he pre-frames the argument with his title:
Weighing Temporary Retention versus Immediate Disclosure of 0-Day Vulnerabilities

But those are not the only options. Obviously indefinite retention is an option, as are many other things that happen in practice but make poor policy papers, for example, having the Government distribute patches themselves, or special purpose workarounds, or any number of other creative things which enable NOBUS, for example.

So one sample scenario spreadsheet to help make decisions about the proposed German VEP is here. It is not comprehensive, but it's similar to the ones I've made for export control language proposals.

There's a lot of negative results in the spreadsheet, but if someone who is pro-VEP wants to take a crack at it, I'm happy to send over the editing rights to the document, although obviously my opinion is that this is because on the whole, this policy proposal is a bad idea for Germany and the EU.

That said, I think "not addressing the negative repercussions" is the strategy of choice for the lobbyist teams who want to push this sort of thing forwards, but there's a reason particular gaps and flexibilities were built in the US VEP and it's not that they didn't think of all the various issues or just really like keeping 0day in a giant horde like a dragon sitting on a gold pile in a cave somewhere underneath Ft. Meade.

Additional CinemaSIN:
Why do policy people just do "Absent data, we can assume X" as a thing?

This is an especially terrible paragraph in the German VEP paper.

And for bonus negative points:

I think it's worth pointing out that making decisions on bad data is in no way better than than making decisions on no data. In fact, it's probably worse, since you have a higher confidence level in your decisions when you make them on data.

And, for the record, I engage in Cyber Policy work because we've been wandering in the desert for what seems like 40 years, and it's time to head in a direction of some sort.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Joe Nye's latest Norms Piece

The US cyber world appears in disarray. Between the Chinese and the Russians getting super aggressive, our constant bleating about cyber norms sounds like the distress signal a lone sheep sends out when the rest of the flock has been lost to wolves.  The latest example of this is Joe Nye's paper this week on the Normative Restraints on Cyber Conflict.

The waffling starts in the Abstract with a Trumpian "Many observers have called for laws and norms to manage the growing cyber threat". Norms are deeply about established practice and the one thing you can count on any norms paper (and there are a LOT of them) to do is carefully avoid any deep discussion as to what the established practices really are.

I'm not going to pull punches: This Joseph Nye paper is a boatload of wishful thinking. It's an exemplary example of extraneous exposition and I read it carefully so you don't have to. But where I know the outside world hears weakness and withdrawal, I have different ears and hear distant Wakandan drums.

You wouldn't know it from our policy papers, but this is a period of reconstitution. While change and re-balance is no doubt a part and parcel of the cyber landscape, I think the world will be surprised at what uncloaks when this interlude is over.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Classification/Clearance and the traditional CIA triad

I will start with my conclusion: It is far past time to completely throw out our classification/clearance system for something more modern, of which many potential examples exist. We have never had the resources and political will to do so, and suffer copiously as a result.

Even if we had the memory eraser from MIB the clearance system doesn't fit our modern needs.

In addition to failing to scale to the millions of people we now have cleared - each a specialized individual case! - the clearance system directly conflicts with the basics of the information security axioms we use to govern other complex systems. In particular, to refer to the CIA triad - we know (c.f. SNOWDEN, etc.) that the system almost encourages large scale compromise of confidential information, and not in a way that more "insider threat" programs can really prevent.

We also know that our availability to do national-security-sensitive work is strangled by an inability to get new people into the system - that the best people tend to leave because the requirements are onerous and once you've left your clearance behind to venture briefly into the commercial world, it's unlikely you'll ever get it back. What good is a system in the modern that takes two years to make a decision on someone's trustworthiness?

And the integrity of the classification system only works when we realize it is a relationship and a community, and not a gateway of privilege. If it's possible to lose your clearance for political reasons, or simply because you lost a job, or because you had any minor personal issue, then it's impossible to get reliable assessments for your intelligence community as a whole. Information does not naturally come with a meta-data label of sensitivity or scope - in fact, nearly the opposite is true, as we know from our long-used exploitation of unclassified traffic for national security purposes.

The clearance system is the hulking shadow in the back of any conference meeting on how to meet our strategic needs in the cyber domain. Even discussing norms is impossible without a better and more nuanced system for understanding and managing information-based national security risk.

Many people would say there is no better system, but even some version of the traffic-light-protocol might be a more workable option, or may be more realistically what we use now anyways, if we care to admit it.


Friday, July 13, 2018

When is a "Search" minus the Quantum Theory, for Law Professors

One issue with reactions to Carpenter is that they tend to assume that we can get clarity around how technological change affects what a search is by making up various artificial models for how telephony systems  and search processes work. The principal example of this sort of model being Orin Kerr's description in his Lawfare piece.

Example random model Orin made up. :)
If you want a better example of how complicated this sort of thing is, I recommend this Infiltrate talk on the subject of how Regin (allegedly the Brits) searched a particular cellular network, covertly.

If you want to find out when a particular search started or ended, you almost always have to develop a lot of expertise in Quantum Mechanics, starting with Heisenburg, but quickly moving into the theory of computation, etc. This is a good hobby in and of itself, but probably more than a legal professor wants to do.

So I recommend a shortcut. A search is anything that can tell a reasonable person whether or not someone is gay. It's simple and future-proof and applies to most domains.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Senate Meltdown/Spectre Hearing

You can browse directly to the debacle here. Everything from beginning to end of this was a nightmarish pile of people grandstanding about the wrong things.

Let's start with the point that if you're going to get upset about a bug, Meltdown and Spectre are SUPER COOL but that does not make them SUPER IMPORTANT. In the time it took Immunity to write up a really good version of and exploit for this, maybe fifty other local privilege escalation bugs have come out for basically any platform they affected. And they are hardly the first new bugclass to come along. I guarantee you every major consulting company out there has a half dozen private bugclasses. People always say "You need to be able to handle an 0day on any resilient system" and the same thing is true for bugclasses.

I'm going to quote the National Journal here.
Chairman John Thune said he “hesitates” to craft legislation that would require U.S. companies to promptly hand over information on new cyber-vulnerabilities to the government, or to deny that same information to Chinese firms.
“You’d like to see that happen sort of organically, which is what we tried to suggest today and which many of the panelists indicated is happening in a better way, a more structured way,” Thune told reporters after the hearing.
Nearly every part of this not-veiled threat is a bad idea. Assuming they could come up with a definition of "cyber-vulnerability", the companies involved do most of this work overseas. They would no doubt make sure to give this information to every government at the same time. Now we are in a race to see who can take advantage of it first?

There's a reason Intel didn't even bother to show up to this hearing. One of them is they can't afford to be seen taking sides with the USG in public. Which is precisely why this conversation happens over beers in bar somewhere instead of us counter-productively trying to browbeat them on live TV for no good reason. And we have to deal with the fact that sometimes we don't get what we want.

Here's a list of things we could have learned:

  • Bugs that private companies discover are not classified information protected and owned by the USG
  • There are consequences to our adversarial relationship with the community and with industry
  • No matter how much we blather on about coordinated disclosure systems and public private partnerships, companies have other competing interests they are not going to sacrifice just because it would be nice for the USG

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Sanger's "The Perfect Weapons" [CITATION NEEDED]

Book Link.

Everyone is very excited about the "revelation" than in order to do their APT1 paper, Mandiant (according to Sanger) hacked back. But that's not the only stunner in the book. He also points to a WMD-level cyber capability leveraged against both Iran and Russia by the United States. There are a ton of unsubstantiated claims in the book, and the conclusion is a call for "Cyber Arms Control" which feels unsupported and unspecified. But Sanger has clearly drunk deeply of the Microsoft Kool-Aid.

But to the point of the (alleged) hack-back: We should have long ago developed a public policy for this, since everyone agrees it is happening, but we seem unable to do so even in the broadest strokes. I think part of the problem is that we are always asking ourselves what we want the cyber norms to be, instead of what they actually are. I'm not sure why. It seems like an obvious place to start.

WMD theory has a pretty heavy emphasis on countervalue attacks....
This is the only mention of Kaspersky in the book - a noted absence...

This is...a threat of a WMD via Cyber.

Is this new?

This is a chilling projection.

This is not good reporting right here.


Hahahahah. DO THEY?

Cypherpunks: The Vast Conflict

I've been carefully reading Richard Danzig's latest post, Technology Roulette: Managing Loss of Control as Many Militaries Pursue Technological Superiority. I want to put this piece in context - first of all, Richard Danzig is one of the best policy writers, and one of the deepest American policy thinkers currently active. Secondarily, this paper is a product of a deeply conservative government reaction to the ascendant Cypherpunk movement and is in that sense, leading the wrong direction.

Ok, that sounds melodramatic. Let me sum up the paper thusly:
  • New branches of science introduce upheaval and each comes, as a party gift, with a new weapon of mass destruction and general revolution in how war works. 
  • We used to get one a century or so, which was possible to adapt to, like a volcano that erupted every so often
    • We built treaties and political theory and tried not to kill everyone on the planet using the magic of advanced diplomacy
  • Now we are getting many new apocalyptic threats at a time
    • AI
    • 3d-Printing
    • Drones
    • Cyber War
    • Gene editing techniques
    • Nanotechnology
  • Rate of new world-changing tech is INCREASING OVER TIME.
    • Our ability to create new international political structures to adapt to new threats appears moribund

Most legal policy experts look askance on the "libertarian" views of the computer science community they have been thrust into contact with as if a Japanese commuter on the rush hour train. But the computer science world is less big L Libertarian than philosophically Cypherpunkian, tied to the simple belief that the advance of Technology is at its sum, always net positive for human liberty. Where society conflicts with the new technologies available to humanity, society should change instead of trying to restrict the march of technology.

Hence, where government experts are scared of disintermediation, as evidenced by a paranoia over Facebook's electoral reach, the computer world sees instead that newspapers were themselves centralized control over the human mind, and worthy of being discarded to the dustbin of history.

Where the FBI sees a coming crisis in the "Going Dark" saga, they find exactly no fertile ground in the technology sector, as if the field they would plant their ideas in was first salted, and then sent into space on one of Elon's rockets.

The US Government and various NGOs were both surprised and shocked at the unanimity and lack of deference of the technological community with regards to the Wassenaar cyber controls or the additional cryptographic controls the FBI wants. This resistance is not from a "Libertarian" political stance, but a from the deep current of cypherpunkism in the community.

These days, not only do Cypherpunks "write code", to quote Tim May's old maxim, but they also "have data". The pushback around Project Maven can be described on a traditional political platter, but also on a tribal "US vs THEM" map projection.

Examine the conversation around autonomous weapons. Of course, an autonomous and armed flying drone swarm can be set to kill anyone in a particular building. This is at least as geographically discriminatory as a bomb. Talks to restrict this technology even at the highest principal level so far restrict only an empty set of current and future solutions.

Part of this is the smaller market power of governments in general for advanced technology. A selfie drone is essentially 99.999% the same as a militarized drone, and this trend is now true for everything from the silicon on up, and some parts of the US Govt have started to realize their sudden weakness.

As Danzig's paper points out, the platitude that having a "human in the loop" to control automated systems is going to work is clearly false. Likewise, he argues that our addiction to classification hamstrings us when it comes to understanding systemic risk.

 The natural tendency within the national security establishment is to minimize the visibility of these issues and to avoid engagement with potentially disruptive outside actors. But this leaves technology initiatives with such a narrow a base of support that they are vulnerable to overreaction when accidents or revelations occur. The intelligence agencies should have learned this lesson when they had only weak public support in the face of backlash when their cyber documents and tools were hacked.
But his solution is anything but. We're in a race, and there's no way to get out of it based around the idea of slowing down technological development.