Black Hat Budgeting

Earlier this month I wondered How much to spend on digital security. I'd like to put that question in a different light by imagining what a black hat could do with a $1 million budget.

The ideas in this post are rough approximations. They certainly aren't a black hat business plan. I don't recommend anyone follow through on this, although I am sure there are shops our there who do this work already.

Let's start by defining the mission of this organization, called Project Intrusion (PI). PI is in "business" to steal intellectual property from organizations and sell it to the highest bidders. In the course of accomplishing that mission, PI may develop tools and techniques that it could sell down the food chain, once PI determines their utility to PI has sufficiently decreased.

With $1 million in funding, let's allocate some resources.

  • Staff. Without people, this business goes nowhere. We allocate $750,000 of our budget to salaries and benefits to hire the following people.

    • The team leader should have experience as a vulnerability researcher, exploit developer, penetration tester, enterprise defender, and preferably an intelligence operative. The leader can be very skilled in at least one speciality (say Web apps or Windows services) but should be familiar with all of the team's roles. The team leader needs a vision for the team while delivering value to clients. $120,000.

    • The team needs at least one attack tool and technique developer for each target platform or technology that PI intends to exploit. PI hires three. One focuses on Windows OS and client apps, one on Web apps, and one on Unix and network infrastructure. $330,000.

    • The team hires two penetration operators who execute the team leader's mission directives by using the attack tools and techniques supplied by the developers. The operators penetrate the target and establish the persistence required to acquire the desired intellectual property. $180,000.

    • The team hires one intelligence operative to direct the penetration operators attention toward information of value, and then assess the value of exfiltrated data. The intel operative interfaces with clients to make deals. $120,000.

  • Technology. The team will need the following, for a total of $200,000.

    • Lab computers running the software likely to be attacked during operations.

    • Operations computers from which the penetration operators run attacks.

    • Network connectivity and hosting for the lab computers and operations computers, dispersed around the world.

    • Software required by the team, since many good attack tools are commercial. MSDN licenses are needed too. There's no need to steal these; we have the budget!

  • Miscellaneous. The last $50,000 could be spent on incidentals, bribes, team awards, travel, or whatever else the group might require in start-up mode.

If the attack developers manage to make enough extra money by selling original exploits, I would direct the funds to additional penetration operators. It would take about six of them to support a sustainable 24x7 operation. With only two they would need to be careful and operate within certain time windows.

So what is the point of this exercise? I submit that for $1 million per year an adversary could fund a Western-salaried black hat team that could penetrate and persist in roughly any target it chose to attack. This team has the structure and expertise to develop its own attack methods, execute them, and sell the results of its efforts to the highest bidders.

This should be a fairly scary concept to my readers. Why? Think about what $1 million buys in your security organization. If your company is small, $1 million could go a long way. However, when you factor in all of the defensive technology you buy, and the salaries of your staff, and the scope of your responsibilities, and so on, quickly you realize you are probably out-gunned by Project Intrusion. PI has the in-house expertise to develop its own exploits, keep intruders on station, and assess and sell the information it steals.

Worse, PI can reap economies of scale by attacking multiple targets for that same $1 million. Why? Everyone runs Windows. Everyone uses the same client software. Everyone's enterprise tends to have the same misconfigurations, missing patches, overworked staff, and other problems. The tools and techniques that penetrate company A are likely to work against company B.

This is why I've always considered it folly to praise the Air Force for standardizing its Windows deployment with supposedly secure configurations. If PI looks at its targets and sees Windows, Windows, some other OS that might be Linux or BSD or who knows what, Windows, Windows, who do you think PI will avoid?

It's all about cost, on the part of the attacker or defender. Unfortunately for defenders, it's only intruders who can achieve "return on investment" when it comes to exploiting digital security.

Richard Bejtlich is teaching new classes in Las Vegas in 2009. Regular Las Vegas registration ends 1 July.


higB said…
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higB said…
check this URL:
Great post. During a red team assessment/threat model of a government system we developed similar numbers. Generally speaking though, we thought as a criminal you'd see ROI within 6 months. If that's the case, you only need the $500k to get started.

If you're a state actor, the real question is whether you can find the expertise to fill those positions. There are certainly lots of places where you can do that, but in other places I think it's less well known.

Also, our opinion was less on the dollar for dollar battle of defender vs attacker. Rather, we assumed that a team like you describe with 6-12 months of time would leverage sufficient tools and exploits to severely compromise almost any organization.

IMO, the only way to protect against that sort of attack is to hire a red team to perform a 6 month assessment. Spend the next six months remediating the recommendations. Repeat until the expected loss from the attacker is less than the expense of the assessments or until a successful attack takes longer (more money) than your perceived adversaries have.
Anton Chuvakin said…
Am I reading it right? I think if you are a good BH and you have $1m, you can 0wn ANYTHING. Game over.

Speak about ROI :-)
Anonymous said…
Anton, "ANYTHING" is going a bit far. For $1m, I think you could leverage 2-3 0day attacks against targeted systems, develop custom software to maintain access, stay under the radar, and stay anonymous. That might not get you everywhere but there's not far it won't get you.

I think the harder part at that point is actualizing your ROI. How do you profitably offload valuables from something so restricted and highly targeted?
Jared said…
Moving the goods would be the toughest part I think. Seems more likely that someone who wanted the info in first place (say evil eastern corporation targeting say western router company) would be the one to assemble the team -- thus moving the goods wouldn't be a problem. ;)
Anonymous said…
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Anonymous said…
you sure can do a lot of damage with 1m budget.

nice post as usual

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