Dave Aitel is CEO of Immunity Inc., an offensive security firm that consults for Fortune 500s and government agencies. He is a former “security scientist” for the NSA and a past contractor for DARPA’s Cyber Fast Track program. His firm specializes in vulnerability research, penetration testing and network testing tools.
The DNC hack and dump is what cyberwar looks like
What occurred with the recently disclosed breach of the Democratic National Committee servers, and the dumping of stolen data on a WordPress site, is more than an act of cyber espionage or harmless mischief. It meets the definition of an act of cyberwar, and the US government should respond as such.
The claims by “Guccifer 2.0”—that a lone hacker carried out this attack—are not believable. Of course, anything is possible, but the attack looks to be an operation conducted by Russian intelligence services. Had this been a “normal” operation—that is, covert intel gathering by Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service or any other foreign intelligence service (as the Chinese have done in past election seasons)—it would be business as usual. To be honest, the US government would not really be justified in denouncing it, as it does the same thing. But what makes this attack very different—and crosses the line—is the Russian team’s decision to dump the Clinton campaign’s opposition strategy on the public Web, presumably for the dual purpose of both spreading misinformation about the party responsible for the breach and interfering with the Clinton campaign.
Drawing a red line
The US government has a decision to make here. If it does not come out strongly against this action by the Russian intelligence services now, then when will it? How is our election system not to be considered “critical infrastructure” that foreign governments are forbidden to interfere with, unless they wish to trigger a serious confrontation with the US? If hacking a presidential campaign and dumping its strategy on the Web is not interference and disruption of a critical institution, then what is? Should we wait until foreign operatives interfere with the primary process? Is the red line only to be drawn around hacking actual voting machines and changing the results?
Bottom line: the US must have an escalatory policy in place for this type of foreign interference. If we do not respond strongly to Russia’s actions in this election cycle, then we risk weakening our country’s deterrence and opening the door to future attacks, which may be even more disruptive to this country’s most fundamental democratic process—that of electing new leaders. Likewise, we should reach an agreement with other nations that we will not interfere with the nuts and bolts of their electoral processes, either. It’s either that, or we need to invest in robust cyber-protections for all presidential candidates at the federal level, stretching our already understaffed Secret Service.
People in the policy area often consider “cyberwar” actions limited to things that causes physical harm or casualties, or things that can replace a 500 pound bomb. But if you cannot manage your people, or protect the American economy, or elect a new President, you have lost a war.
In an era where prank hacking (cupcakes, anyone?) and mailspool dumping have become nation-state sponsored acts of aggression, there comes a point where the US has to seriously evaluate its willingness to draw clear lines in the silica that make up this now officially defined domain. This is information warfare in its purest form, and pending the kind of information currently being sorted through by the WikiLeaks team, it has the potential to significantly impact the immediate future and stability of the United States.