04 January 2021

Schneier on Security: “Russia’s SolarWinds Attack”

While this is a security failure of enormous proportions, it is not, as Senator Richard Durban said, virtually a declaration of war by Russia on the United States. While President-elect Biden said he will make this a top priority, it’s unlikely that he will do much to retaliate.

The reason is that, by international norms, Russia did nothing wrong. This is the normal state of affairs. Countries spy on each other all the time. There are no rules or even norms, and it’s basically “buyer beware”. The US regularly fails to retaliate against espionage operations — such as China’s hack of the Office of Personal Management (OPM) and previous Russian hacks — because we do it, too. Speaking of the OPM hack, the then director of national intelligence, James Clapper, said: You have to kind of salute the Chinese for what they did. If we had the opportunity to do that, I don’t think we’d hesitate for a minute.

We need to adopt a defense-dominant strategy. As computers and the internet become increasingly essential to society, cyberattacks are likely to be the precursor to actual war. We are simply too vulnerable when we prioritize offense, even if we have to give up the advantage of using those insecurities to spy on others.

Our vulnerability is magnified as eavesdropping may bleed into a direct attack. The SVR’s access allows them not only to eavesdrop, but also to modify data, degrade network performance, or erase entire networks. The first might be normal spying, but the second certainly could be considered an act of war. Russia is almost certainly laying the groundwork for future attack.

Bruce Schneier

Interesting perspective on this recent hack; I have heard something similar on the Deep State Radio podcast, specifically that this is akin to an espionage operation and as such hard to retaliate against, as the US itself regularly spies on adversaries. What is more remarkable is the scale of the operation, which is still being uncovered, and this it was first detected by a private security company, FireEye. This reflects very poorly on the US government’s own security protections.

Our Escalating Cyberwar with Russia. We discuss with cyber experts David Sanger of the New York Times and Dmitri Alperovitch, former CTO of CrowdStrike

As interactions turn increasingly digital – another trend accelerated in 2020 by the pandemic – and the costs of overt conflicts grow because of globalization, these kinds of operations will become more frequent, more sophisticated, more impactful. They fit right in with Russia’s capabilities and their tactics of asymmetric conflict, striking where the target is least expecting it, where it is least prepared.

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