February 23, 2018

Archives for January 2010

Cyber Détente Part II: Russian Diplomatic and Strategic Self-Interest

The first post in this series rebutted the purported Russian motive for negotiations, avoiding a security dilemma. This second post posits two alternative self-interested Russian inducements for rapprochement: legitimizing use of force and strategic advantage.


An alternative rationale for talks advanced by the Russians is fear of “cyberterror” – not the capacity for offensive cyberwarfare, but its use against civilians. A weapons use treaty of this sort could have value in establishing a norm against civilian cyberattack… but there are already strong international treaties and norms against attacks aimed at civilians. And at any rate the untraceability of most cyberattacks will take the teeth out of any use-banning treaty of this sort.

The U.S. delegation is rightly skeptical of this motive; the Russians may well be raising cyberterror in the interest of legitimating use of conventional force. The Russians have repeatedly likened political dissidence to cyberterror, and a substantive cyberterrorism treaty may be submitted by Russia as license to pursue political vendettas with conventional force. To probe how such a treaty might function, consider first a hypothetical full-blown infrastructure-crippling act of cyberterror where the perpetrator is known – Russia already need not restrain itself in retaliating. On the other hand, consider the inevitable website defacements by Chechen separatists or Georgian sympathizers in the midst of increasing hostilities – acts of cyberterrorism in violation of a treaty will assuredly be added to the list of provocations should Russia elect to engage in armed conflict.

This simple thought experiment reveals the deep faultlines that will emerge in negotiating any cyberterrorism treaty. Where is the boundary between vandalism (and other petty cybercrime) and cyberterror? What if acts are committed, as is often the case, by nationals of a state but not its government? What proof is required to sustain an allegation of cyberterror? Doubtlessly the Russian delegation would advance a broad definition of cyberterror, while the Americans would propose a narrowly circumscribed definition. Even if, improbably, the U.S. and Russia negotiated to a shared definition of cyberterror, I fail to see how it could be articulated in a manner not prone to later manipulation. It is not difficult to imagine, for example, how trivial defacement of a bank’s website might be shoehorned into a narrow definition: “destructive acts targeting critical civilian infrastructure.”

Another compelling motive for the Russians is realist self-interest: the Russians may believe they will gain a strategic advantage with a capacity-limiting cyberwarfare treaty. At first blush this seems an implausible reading – the U.S., with its technologically advanced and integrated armed forces, appears a far richer target for cyberattack than Russia given its reliance on decrepit Soviet equipment. Moreover, anecdotally the U.S. military has proven highly vulnerable: multiple unattributed attacks have penetrated defense-related systems (most prominently in 2007), and late last year the Wall Street Journal reported Iraqi militants trivially intercepted live video from Predator drones. But looking ahead a Russian self-interest motive is more plausible. Russia has made no secret of its attempts to rapidly stand up modern, professional armed forces, and in 2009 alone increased military spending by over 25% (projects include a revamped navy and a satellite positioning system, among many others). To accomplish this end the Russians may rely to a large degree on information technology, and particularly on commercial off-the-shelf hardware and software. Lacking time and finances the Russians may be unable to secure their new military systems against cyberattack. Thus while at present the U.S. is more vulnerable, in future Russia may have greater weaknesses. Locking in a cyberwarfare arms control agreement now, while the U.S. is more likely to sign on, could therefore be in Russia’s long-term strategic self-interest.

The specific offensive capabilities Russia has reportedly sought to ban are strongly corroborative of this self-interest rationale. In prior negotiations the Russian delegation has signaled particular concern of deliberately planted software and hardware that would allow disabling or co-opting military equipment. The U.S. will likely have far greater success in developing assets of this sort given the at times close relationship between intelligence agencies and commercial IT firms (e.g. the NSA warrantless wiretapping scandal) and the prevalence of American IT worldwide in military applications (think Windows). Russia, on the other hand, would likely have to rely on human intelligence to place assets of this sort.

Russia’s renewed interest in bilateral cybersecurity negotiations also belies its purported security dilemma rationale. Russian interest in talks lapsed between 1996 and 2009, suggesting a novel stimulus is at work, not some long-standing fear of a security dilemma. The recent rise of alleged “cyberterror” and attempts to modernize Russian armed forces – especially in the wake of the 2008 South Ossetia War with Georgia – far better correlate with Russia’s eagerness to come to the table.

To put a point on these two posts, I submit legitimization of use of force and strategic self-interest are far more plausible Russian motives for cybersecurity negotiations than the purported rationale of avoiding a security dilemma and consequent arms race or destabilization. In the following post I will explore the U.S. delegation’s position and argue the American response to Russia’s proposals is well-calibrated.

Google Attacks Highlight the Importance of Surveillance Transparency

Ed posted yesterday about Google’s bombshell announcement that it is considering pulling out of China in the wake of a sophisticated attack on its infrastructure. People more knowledgeable than me about China have weighed in on the announcement’s implications for the future of US-Sino relations and the evolution of the Chinese Internet. Rebecca MacKinnon, a China expert who will be a CITP visiting scholar beginning next month, says that “Google has taken a bold step onto the right side of history.” She has a roundup of Chinese reactions here.

One aspect of Google’s post that hasn’t received a lot of attention is Google’s statement that “only two Gmail accounts appear to have been accessed, and that activity was limited to account information (such as the date the account was created) and subject line, rather than the content of emails themselves.” A plausible explanation for this is provided by this article (via James Grimmelmann) at PC World:

Drummond said that the hackers never got into Gmail accounts via the Google hack, but they did manage to get some “account information (such as the date the account was created) and subject line.”

That’s because they apparently were able to access a system used to help Google comply with search warrants by providing data on Google users, said a source familiar with the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the press.

Obviously, this report should be taken with a grain of salt since it’s based on a single anonymous source. But it fits a pattern identified by our own Jen Rexford and her co-authors in an excellent 2007 paper: when communications systems are changed to make it easier for US authorities to conduct surveillance, it necessarily increases the vulnerability of those systems to attacks by other parties, including foreign governments.

Rexford and her co-authors point to a 2006 incident in which unknown parties exploited vulnerabilities in Vodafone’s network to tap the phones of dozens of senior Greek government officials. According to news reports, these attacks were made possible because Greek telecommunications carriers had deployed equipment with built-in surveillance capabilities, but had not paid the equipment vendor, Ericsson, to activate this “feature.” This left the equipment in a vulnerable state. The attackers surreptitiously switched on the surveillance capabilities and used it to intercept the communications of senior government officials.

It shouldn’t surprise us that systems built to give law enforcement access to private communications could become vectors for malicious attacks. First, these interfaces are often backwaters in the system design. The success of any consumer product is going to depend on its popularity with customers. Therefore, a vendor or network provider is going to deploy its talented engineers to work on the public-facing parts of the product. It is likely to assign a smaller team of less-talented engineers to work on the law-enforcement interface, which is likely to be both less technically interesting and less crucial to the company’s bottom line.

Second, the security model of a law enforcement interface is likely to be more complex and less well-specified than the user-facing parts of the service. For the mainstream product, the security goal is simple: the customer should be able to access his or her own data and no one else’s. In contrast, determining which law enforcement officials are entitled to which information, and how those officials are to be authenticated, can become quite complex. Greater complexity means a higher likelihood of mistakes.

Finally, the public-facing portions of a consumer product benefit from free security audits from “white hat” security experts like our own Bill Zeller. If a publicly-facing website, cell phone network or other consumer product has a security vulnerability, the company is likely to hear about the problem first from a non-malicious source. This means that at least the most obvious security problems will be noticed and fixed quickly, before the bad guys have a chance to exploit them. In contrast, if an interface is shrouded in secrecy, and only accessible to law enforcement officials, then even obvious security vulnerabilities are likely to go unnoticed and unfixed. Such an interface will be a target-rich environment if a malicious hacker ever does get the opportunity to attack it.

This is an added reason to insist on rigorous public and judicial oversight of our domestic surveillance capabilities in the United States. There has been a recent trend, cemented by the 2008 FISA Amendments toward law enforcement and intelligence agencies conducting eavesdropping without meaningful judicial (to say nothing of public) scrutiny. Last month, Chris Soghoian uncovered new evidence suggesting that government agencies are collecting much more private information than has been publicly disclosed. Many people, myself included, oppose this expansion of domestic surveillance grounds on civil liberties grounds. But even if you’re unmoved by those arguments, you should still be concerned about these developments on national security grounds.

As long as these eavesdropping systems are shrouded in secrecy, there’s no way for “white hat” security experts to even begin evaluating them for potential security risks. And that, in turn, means that voters and policymakers will be operating in the dark. Programs that risk exposing our communications systems to the bad guys won’t be identified and shut down. Which means the culture of secrecy that increasingly surrounds our government’s domestic spying programs not only undermines the rule of law, it’s a danger to national security as well.

Update: Props to my colleague Julian Sanchez, who made the same observation 24 hours ahead of me.

Google Threatens to Leave China

The big news today is Google’s carefully worded statement changing its policy toward China. Up to now, Google has run a China-specific site, google.cn, which censors results consistent with the demands of the Chinese government. Google now says it plans to offer only unfiltered service to Chinese customers. Presumably the Chinese government will not allow this and will respond by setting the Great Firewall to block Google. Google says it is willing to close its China offices (three offices, with several hundred employees, according to a Google spokesman) if necessary.

This looks like a significant turning point in relations between U.S. companies and the Chinese government.

Before announcing the policy change, the statement discusses a series of cyberattacks against Google which sought access to Google-hosted accounts of Chinese dissidents. Indeed, most of the statement is about the attacks, with the policy change tacked on the end.

Though the statement adopts a measured tone, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Google is angry, presumably because it knows or strongly suspects that the Chinese government is responsible for the attacks. Perhaps there are other details, which aren’t public at this time, that further explain Google’s reaction.

Or maybe the attacks are just the straw that broke the camel’s back — that Google had already concluded that the costs of engagement in China were higher than expected, and the revenue lower.

Either way, the Chinese are unlikely to back down from this kind of challenge. Expect the Chinese government, backed by domestic public opinion, to react with defiance. Already the Chinese search engine Baidu has issued a statement fanning the flames.

We’ll see over the coming days and weeks how the other U.S. Internet companies react. It will be interesting, too, to see how the U.S. government reacts — it can’t be happy with the attacks, but how far will the White House be willing to go?

Please, chime in with your own opinions.

[UPDATE (Jan. 13): I struck the sentence about Baidu’s statement, because I now have reason to believe the translated statement I saw may not be genuine.]