Bruce Schneier: 'We're in early years of a cyber arms race'

We're up against Norks, China ... but who else?


LinuxCon 2015 Security guru Bruce Schneier says there's a kind of cold war now being waged in cyberspace, only the trouble is we don't always know who we're waging it against.

Schneier appeared onscreen via Google Hangouts at the LinuxCon/CloudOpen/ContainerCon conference in Seattle on Tuesday to warn attendees that the modern security landscape is becoming increasingly complex and dangerous.

"We know, on the internet today, that attackers have the advantage," Schneier said. "A sufficiently funded, skilled, motivated adversary will get in. And we have to figure out how to deal with that."

Using the example of last November's crippling online attack against Sony Pictures, Schneier said it was clear that many of these new attacks were the work of well-funded nation-states.

"Many of us, including myself, were skeptical for several months. By now it does seem obvious that it was North Korea, as amazing as that sounds," he said.

But what's troubling about many of these new attacks, he added, is that they can be hard to spot when they don't come in the form that security experts typically expect.

"The target [in the Sony hack] was not critical infrastructure," Schneier said. "I think if you made a list of what we thought were foreign targets, a movie company wouldn't be in our top 100. Yet it seems that the first destructive attack by a nation-state against the United States was against a movie company."

What makes that problematic, he said, is that while we're getting pretty good at making financially motivated cyberattacks less profitable for the attackers, we're less well equipped to deal with politically or ideologically motivated attacks. And that goes double when the targets of the attacks are not government resources or critical infrastructure but "soft targets" like large businesses.

What's more, Schneier said, even though the evidence in the Sony case appears to point to North Korea, in other cases it can be difficult to pinpoint the attacker. In the case of the Stuxnet worm that crippled Iranian nuclear enrichment facilities, for example, Iran didn't even seem to be aware that the damage was the result of an attack until the media started reporting that story.

'A lot of attacks from the Western countries go through China'

"It's easy to false-flag. It's easy to pretend your attack comes from somewhere else," Schneier said. "My belief is a lot of attacks from the Western countries go through China, simply because everyone knows a lot of attacks go through China, and that's a perfect way to hide where you're from."

Equally troubling, he said, is that what looks like an attack by a nation-state might not actually be one, because on the internet, so many potential actors have access to the same tools, tactics, and techniques.

"Last December, with respect to Sony, we were actually having legitimate discussions about whether the attack was the result of a nation with a $20m annual military budget or a couple of guys in a basement somewhere," Schneier said. "That is extraordinary, that we actually don't know who the attacker is."

In turn, that uncertainty makes it difficult to know who should be responsible for defending against such attacks, he said. Certainly, Sony must shoulder much of the blame for the failure of its security systems. But at what point should the government get involved?

If the attacker is two guys in a basement, as Schneier says, then most likely it's a matter for the police. If, on the other hand, the attacker is North Korea, then the military should probably get involved. Little wonder, then, that hackers' efforts to conceal themselves and prevent attribution of attacks are accelerating.

"Unfortunately, we're in the early years of a cyber arms race. We're seeing a lot of stockpiling cyber weapons, both by the United States and Western countries ... by China, Russia, other countries. A lot of rhetoric about cyberwar," Schneier said. "What concerns me is that we're all going to be in the blast radius." ®


Other stories you might like

  • Graviton 3: AWS attempts to gain silicon advantage with latest custom hardware

    Key to faster, more predictable cloud

    RE:INVENT AWS had a conviction that "modern processors were not well optimized for modern workloads," the cloud corp's senior veep of Infrastructure, Peter DeSantis, claimed at its latest annual Re:invent gathering in Las Vegas.

    DeSantis was speaking last week about AWS's Graviton 3 Arm-based processor, providing a bit more meat around the bones, so to speak – and in his comment the word "modern" is doing a lot of work.

    The computing landscape looks different from the perspective of a hyperscale cloud provider; what counts is not flexibility but intensive optimization and predictable performance.

    Continue reading
  • The Omicron dilemma: Google goes first on delaying office work

    Hurrah, employees can continue to work from home and take calls in pyjamas

    Googlers can continue working from home and will no longer be required to return to campuses on 10 January 2022 as previously expected.

    The decision marks another delay in getting more employees back to their desks. For Big Tech companies, setting a firm return date during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a nightmare. All attempts were pushed back so far due to rising numbers of cases or new variants of the respiratory disease spreading around the world, such as the new Omicron strain.

    Google's VP of global security, Chris Rackow, broke the news to staff in a company-wide email, first reported by CNBC. He said Google would wait until the New Year to figure out when campuses in the US can safely reopen for a mandatory return.

    Continue reading
  • This House believes: A unified, agnostic software environment can be achieved

    How long will we keep reinventing software wheels?

    Register Debate Welcome to the latest Register Debate in which writers discuss technology topics, and you the reader choose the winning argument. The format is simple: we propose a motion, the arguments for the motion will run this Monday and Wednesday, and the arguments against on Tuesday and Thursday. During the week you can cast your vote on which side you support using the poll embedded below, choosing whether you're in favour or against the motion. The final score will be announced on Friday, revealing whether the for or against argument was most popular.

    This week's motion is: A unified, agnostic software environment can be achieved. We debate the question: can the industry ever have a truly open, unified, agnostic software environment in HPC and AI that can span multiple kinds of compute engines?

    Our first contributor arguing FOR the motion is Nicole Hemsoth, co-editor of The Next Platform.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2021