If anything should disturb you about the Sony hacking incidents and subsequent denial-of-service attack against North Korea, it’s that we still don’t know who’s behind any of it. The FBI said in December that North Korea attacked Sony. I and others have serious doubts. There’s countervailing evidence to suggest that the culprit may have been a Sony insider or perhaps Russian nationals.
No one has admitted taking down North Korea’s Internet. It could have been an act of retaliation by the U.S. government, but it could just as well have been an ordinary DDoS attack. The follow-on attack against Sony PlayStation definitely seems to be the work of hackers unaffiliated with a government.
Not knowing who did what isn’t new. It’s called the “attribution problem,” and it plagues Internet security. But as governments increasingly get involved in cyberspace attacks, it has policy implications as well. Last year, I wrote:
Ordinarily, you could determine who the attacker was by the weaponry. When you saw a tank driving down your street, you knew the military was involved because only the military could afford tanks. Cyberspace is different. In cyberspace, technology is broadly spreading its capability, and everyone is using the same weaponry: hackers, criminals, politically motivated hacktivists, national spies, militaries, even the potential cyberterrorist. They are all exploiting the same vulnerabilities, using the same sort of hacking tools, engaging in the same attack tactics, and leaving the same traces behind. They all eavesdrop or steal data. They all engage in denial-of-service attacks. They all probe cyberdefences and do their best to cover their tracks.
Despite this, knowing the attacker is vitally important. As members of society, we have several different types of organizations that can defend us from an attack. We can call the police or the military. We can call on our national anti-terrorist agency and our corporate lawyers. Or we can defend ourselves with a variety of commercial products and services. Depending on the situation, all of these are reasonable choices.
The legal regime in which any defense operates depends on two things: who is attacking you and why. Unfortunately, when you are being attacked in cyberspace, the two things you often do not know are who is attacking you and why. It is not that everything can be defined as cyberwar; it is that we are increasingly seeing warlike tactics used in broader cyberconflicts. This makes defence and national cyberdefence policy difficult.
In 2007, the Israeli Air Force bombed and destroyed the al-Kibar nuclear facility in Syria. The Syrian government immediately knew who did it, because airplanes are hard to disguise. In 2010, the U.S. and Israel jointly damaged Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility. But this time they used a cyberweapon, Stuxnet, and no one knew who did it until details were leaked years later. China routinely denies its cyberespionage activities. And a 2009 cyberattack against the United States and South Korea was blamed on North Korea even though it may have originated from either London or Miami.