Threat Advantages

My post Fight to Your Strengths listed some of the advantages a prepared enterprise might possess when facing an intruder. I thought it helpful to list a few advantages I see for intruders.

  • Initiative: By virtue of being on the offensive, intruders have the initiative. Unless threats are being apprehended, prosecuted, and incarcerated, intruders are free to pick the victim, the time and nature of the attack, the means of command and control (if desired), and many other variables. Defenders can limit the enemy's freedom of maneuver, but the intruder retains the initiative.

  • Flexibility: Intruders have extreme flexibility. Especially on targets where stealth is not a big deal, intruders can experiment with a variety of exploitation and control tools and tactics. Defenders, on the other hand, have to take special care when applying patches, performing memory- or host-based forensics, and other administrative duties. Defenders have to conform to organizational policies and user demands. Intruders (to the degree they don't want to be noticed) are much freer.

  • Asymmetry of Interest: This may be controversial, but in my experience intruders are much more interested in gaining and retaining control (or accomplishing their mission, whatever it is) than defenders may be in stopping the attack. A dedicated attacker can inflict damage, withdraw for two weeks while defenders scramble to assess and repair, and then return when "incident fatigue" has degraded the incident response team and system administrators. Defenders usually have a lot on their plate besides incident handling, whereas intruders can be obsessively focused on attacking and controlling a target.

  • Asymmetry of Knowledge: This may also be controversial, but skilled intruders (not script kiddies) may know more about target software and applications than some of the developers who write them, never mind the administrators who deploy them. This is especially true of incident handlers, who are supposed to be "experts in everything," but are lucky to at least be "conversant" in victimized applications and systems. Often the first time security staff learn of a new service is when that service is compromised.

Notice these last two intruder strengths come from having the flexibility to decide what to attack. This is particularly true of targets of opportunity. When an incident involves a specific target, the playing field may be more level. The intruder has to exploit whatever is available, not that in which he or she may have specialized experience.

Again, comments with other ideas are appreciated.

Update: From Hackers get free reign to develop techniques says Microsoft security chief:

"Part of the picture is bleak. In the online world, cyber criminals can do their research for as long as they want in absolute security and secrecy then when they're done they can take their exploit, find a way to automate it and post it on a Web site where thousands or millions of other criminals can download it," said Scott Charney, vice president of Trustworthy Computing at Microsoft, in Redmond, Wash...

Charney, speaking at the Authentication and Online Trust Alliance Summit, said that technology and procedures for defeating online attacks and finding hackers has advanced by leaps and bounds since his days at the Department of Justice in the 1990s. But, he added that in some respects the fight against online criminals is not a fair one. The attackers have all the time in the world, the cooperation of other hackers and a virtually limitless number of potential targets. Law enforcement agents, meanwhile, are governed by strict guidelines and in many cases are hampered by a lack of available data once a crime has been committed.

Another challenge for security specialists and law enforcement is the patchwork of state and federal laws in the United States, and the lack of any cybercrime laws in a number of foreign countries. Given the global nature of cybercrime and the fact that hackers often attack systems in a number of different countries at once, these hurdles can often stop promising investigations before they really get started.


Anonymous said…
"But, he added that in some respects the fight against online criminals is not a fair one"

What makes this different from brick and mortar LE?
Dovydas Sankauskas said…
Matt, the difference is that brick and mortar both the victim and the criminal fall under the same legislation. That's not the case with online criminals.

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