How to protect against nation state attackers

Original Entry by : Mark Evans

“One of my worst nightmares [as an attacker] is that out-of-band network tap that really is capturing all the data, understanding anomalous behaviour going on. And someone’s paying attention to it.”
Rob Joyce, NSA: “Disrupting Nation State Attackers, Jan 2016” (22:10)

It’s great to see the efficacy of packet capture and network recording acknowledged by such an eminent cybersecurity Tsar as Rob Joyce.

If you haven’t already seen his video presentation on Disrupting Nation State Attackers, it’s well worth a watch. Before being shoulder-tapped to take up his new role as a cybersecurity advisor to Trump’s National Security Council, Joyce headed up the Tailored Access Operations division of the NSA.

The NSA’s TAO division is responsible for “providing tools and expertise in computer network exploitation to deliver foreign intelligence.” In other words, it is responsible for finding, and taking advantage of, the very network vulnerabilities that we’re all trying to protect against.

In his presentation at the Usenix Enigma conference last year, Joyce outlined key steps organizations can take to protect themselves against the sort of sophisticated techniques employed by Nation State attackers and criminal elements looking to attack your network.

Much of his advice is practical common sense. Know everything on your network, understand it, and update and patch everything. We all know this is critical, but all too often it doesn’t happen. Take patching for example. Joyce says that, in his experience, many organizations undertake security audits to identify known vulnerabilities, but frequently have still not fixed those vulnerabilities by the time the next audit rolls around months later.

Joyce also explodes a common myth – that sophisticated intruders rely on zero day threats. In fact, he says, zero day threats are far from being biggest danger to corporate networks. For any large network, he says:

Persistence and focus will get you in and achieve that exploitation without the zero days. There’s so many vectors that are easier, less risky and quite often more productive.

The cause of most intrusions, says Joyce, come down to one of things (the “Big Three”):

  • Email:  “a user clicked on something they shouldn’t have”
  • Malicious websites“they’ve gotten to a malicious website … and it’s either executed or they’ve run content from that website.”
  • Removable media – “where a user inserted contaminated media“. [As an aside, someone once told me the easiest way to get malware into an organization is to load it on a USB stick labelled “Payroll”, drop it in the carpark and leave the rest to curiosity!].

Joyce outlines the importance of making sure that sources of information about activity on the network – such as log files or network packet captures – are actually being monitored. “You’d be amazed at incident response teams that go in and there’s been some tremendous breach .. Yep, there it is right there in the logs.”

But perhaps the best piece of strategic advice he offers is this:

“Consider that you’re already penetrated. Do you have the means and methods to understand if somebody’s inside your network?”

That change in focus is important. Statistics show intrusions are becoming increasingly commonplace. Once organizations move from “we need to make sure we’re not penetrated” to “maybe we already are penetrated” they start to understand what tools, skills and processes they need to put in place to identify intrusions and stop an initial penetration from going on to become a more serious data breach. Or, if they have already been breached, what do they need to make sure they can identify how it happened and what was compromised?

Joyce’s presentation is a salient reminder that ensuring the basics of network security hygiene is critical. And that the battle to defend against attackers is an ongoing one. As fast as you tighten up your security, new vulnerabilities emerge that put you at risk.

Take a look at the video. You’ll find it’s 30 minutes of your time very well spent!

Cybersecurity Resources

Some of the useful resources that Joyce discusses and recommends are listed below

NOTE: The two links to the IAD site above require installing the DoD Root CA Certificates to avoid getting an “untrusted website” notification. More information here.