Last week vulnerability developers, security researchers, and even a couple of friendly govies descended upon my native Miami for two daily servings of novel implants, exploits, and the latest in offensive research. To contrast the relaxed bikini-clad environment, an adversarial tone was set by conference badges in the form of survival paracord bracelets with Infiltrate dogtags. In good spirits, white-, grey-, and black-hats sparred for tech supremacy and today I’d like to share some thoughts on insightful talks that forecast the intricacies and stumbling blocks that await us as defenders.
This industry has seen its fair share of military analogies for cyberconflict (including Chris Hoff’s brilliant 2015 SAS keynote) and this conference did not disappoint in that area. Kicking off Infiltrate, Nate Fick (CEO of Endgame) brought to bear his wealth of experience in the Marines to the current situation in infosec to great effect. Perhaps doing a disservice to an insightful talk, I’d like to recall some key concepts of Nate’s keynote that build up to a cohesive argument for understanding the role of escalation dominance in our space:
- ‘A dollar of offense almost always beats a dollar of defense’. Let that sink in.
- ‘One of the tenets of civilized societies is that governments have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force’, a just-war theory concept worth remembering when the preposterous suggestion of ‘hacking back’ is thrown around as a legitimate option for companies.
- ‘What level of hacking warrants a bullet, rendition, or a drone?’. This is not a trivial question in our space. As Nate discussed, if we are going respect the cyber-equivalent of a monopoly on the legitimate use of force so that only the government is allowed to conduct offensive cyber-operations in retaliation for an attack on private industry, and we expect this to function as some form precedent-based deterrence, then we should have a clear idea of what offenses merit certain types of retribution.
This is all by way of preparing the ground for the concept of ‘escalation dominance’. As Nate stated, “Escalation dominance, if you don’t have it then don’t fight someone who does”. And that is to say, “You can only deter an adversary if you have the escalatory capability to beat them all the way up the ladder”. I hope these serve as timely takeaways as companies weigh the possibility of ‘hacking back’, an option that is sure to yield meager gains when compared to the next play that awaits on the escalatory ladder.
Further highlights, include Joe Fitzpatrick’s talk on hardware implants titled ‘The TAO of Hardware, the Te of Implants’. Joe is one of those rare unicorns that focuses on hardware security and showcased his skills by trying to convince us of the ease and accessibility of hardware implants. A common misconception is that hardware implants are so difficult to design and expensive to manufacture that they’re only available to the most well-resourced and technologically-capable tier of attackers but Joe shows that this is clearly no longer the case. A valuable takeaway was his starting premise, that the role of a good hardware implant is simply to provide software access and then back off entirely.
As ‘Cyber-Pathogens’ are all the rage with kids these days, I want to discuss Travis Morrow and Josh Pitt’s talk on ‘Genetic Malware’. The title is a reference to their analogies to different types of attack targeting, in this case that of bioweapons and chemical weapons. In reality, the intention is to provide a framework (now public) with which to execute Gauss-style attacks: malware binaries whose final payload is encrypted in such a way as to only decrypt and execute on a specific victim system thereby stumping third-party research efforts to reverse engineer and understand the ultimate objective of the attackers.
Travis and Josh’s E.B.O.W.L.A. (Ethnic BiO Weapon Limited Access) framework drastically lowers the entry threshold for attackers to perform Gauss-style attacks by encrypting their payloads based on specific environment variables on the victim system, environmental factors like IP range or time ranges to trigger, or even a one-time pad based off of a specific system binary. This strategy for buying time was ultimately effective in the case of Gauss whose encrypted payload remains a mystery to this day and, if popularized, will surely prove an interesting challenge for the anti-malware industry going forward.
Finally, as a result of the historic work done by Katie Missouris to help launch the federal government’s first public bug bountry program, Lisa Wiswell of the newly formed Department of Defense Digital Defense Service joined us with an articulate plea to enlist the best and brightest to ‘Hack the Pentagon’ (within scope) and help better defend the country. The crowd was accommodating and we can only hope this program proves a success if only to set precedent for further friendly outreach efforts between the US government and the larger infosec community (in all of its monochromed haberdashery).