Self-Help on the Internet: Is the Best Defense Really a Good Offense?

What are you willing to do to defend your network against hackers, zombies and Fourth Generation information warriors? What are you willing to do to defend the Internet from them? Are you going to hunker down and harden your defenses, or are you willing to defend yourself by “hacking back” and shutting the attackers down?
You may not have considered these questions; they are not usually brought up as part of information security strategy or tactical development, or in IT planning in general. But they are fundamental questions, and the answers we give may determine how well we are able to manage and maintain the information systems we have built and become increasingly dependent upon.
The Fundamental Problem of Network Insecurity.
The Internet was not designed for security, and neither were most computers. This was a feature, not a bug; security slows down communications and interferes with convenience. There was no real demand for security until the vulnerabilities of these systems became painfully obvious, which is a recent development for most people; and many still don’t seem to get it. As a result the Internet, including all the networks which connect to and constitute it, are exposed to attacks from vast swaths of unsecured systems.
The Internet is also not something you can effectively police. Most law enforcement agencies don’t have the time, resources or expertise to investigate or prosecute Internet-based crimes. And many attacks cross jurisdictional boundaries, making legal action difficult and often impossible. Even when legal action is possible, it is usually too late: the harm has been done. For the bad guys this too is a feature rather than a bug.
This means that networks connected to the Internet – ultimately the Internet itself – are subject to degradation by hostile or malicious activities. The Internet is a common good – an amazing asset shared by a community whose membership is limited only by access to and ability to use a networked computer – and as such is subject to partisan or minority abuses which undermine or conceivably could even ruin it for everyone.
So how do we defend this amazing resource? If we can’t call in law enforcement, what about self-help? Should we form some kind of Internet militia? Maybe some vigilante action? Before you decide, consider the following cautionary tale.
Shooting from the Hip.
Warbucks Financial is a boutique financial services firm whose founder, “Sonny” Warbucks, is a well-known entrepreneur with controversial views and a choleric personality. Warbucks uses the latest information technologies for trading and employs Francis X. Hackerman as its Chief Information Officer. Hackerman made his reputation as a notorious hacker, and while officially reformed he considers himself a highly skilled “hired gun.”
The University of Hard Knocks has a large, complex network serving thousands of users. Security is hard to maintain, since security measures are resisted and/or ignored by many users. One of the groups of resisters is the Script Kiddiez for Justice, which has taken a very public dislike to Warbucks.
Shortly before closing on a Friday afternoon Warbucks begins experiencing a distributed denial of service (DDOS) attack which threatens to shut down its ability to execute trades. This is a crucial time of the week and Warbucks’ clients may face serious losses if their trades are delayed.
Hackerman tries to deal with the attack by hardening the Warbucks network, but this slows trading even further. He identifies the Hard Knocks network as a source of the attack and assumes the Script Kiddiez are behind it. Hackerman tries to contact Hard Knocks Information Services to get them to intervene, but all he gets is voice mail.
A red-faced, bellowing Sonny appears in Hackerman’s doorway, demanding that he “fix it and quick.” Hackerman decides to try to eliminate the attack – and Sonny’s disturbing presence – by shutting down some or all of the Hard Knocks network.
Hackerman is a former student at Hard Knocks and knows a number of vulnerabilities in its network. He quickly modifies a publicly available worm and releases it into the Hard Knocks network, and soon hosts on the network begin shutting down.
Meanwhile, Eunice Victim has just been admitted to the Hapless Hospital emergency room to have a boil lanced. Hapless is a teaching hospital which is part of Hard Knocks and runs its information systems on the Hard Knocks network. These systems include a computerized physician order entry (CPOE) application linked to its electronic medical records system (EMR).
Victim’s EMR indicates she has an allergy to amoxicillin. However, as her treating physician, Dr. Ohno, was ordering antibiotics Hackerman’s worm crashed the CPOE. Ohno then asked Victim her about possible antibiotic allergies, but unfortunately Victim misunderstood and indicated she had none. When Victim received the amoxicillin Ohno ordered she went into anaphalytic shock and died.
The attack on Warbucks continued, and subsequent investigations indicated it most likely originated somewhere in the Middle East as part of a broad series of attacks on financial institution networks probably intended to harm U.S. financial markets.
The Hard Knocks incident response team traced the worm back to Warbucks Financial. Victim’s estate sued Ohno and Hapless for negligence in her death, and they in turn cross-claimed against Warbucks Financial, Sonny and Hackerman. Hapless, Hard Knocks and Victim’s family all demanded that criminal charges be brought against Hackerman, Sonny and Warbucks Financial.
Categories of Network Self-Help.
The above scenario would make a great bar exam question, and I challenge readers to identify all the legal issues it presents. The immediate point, however, is that the risks posed by network self-defense actions increase dramatically in proportion to the degree that they affect systems outside the network’s legal and operational perimeter.
This is because within a network perimeter the network operator has (1) sufficient information, at least in principle, to identify and avoid unintended harmful consequences of security measures, and (2) the legal authority to implement any security measures it wants, subject to its own policy limitations. Conversely, in others’ networks a party generally has limited information, and the legal right to act only to the extent they give permission.
Given these constraints Internet self-help can be categorized roughly as follows:

• Baseline: At the most basic level, within its network perimeter a party can implement whatever security measures it considers appropriate. It may also have a legal duty to do so, if the failure to implement security measures exposes others to avoidable risks (e.g., unsecured hosts used to launch DDOS attacks on third parties).

• Investigative: Moving out from its own network perimeter, a party has the legal right to conduct limited investigative activities to identify potential attack sources, to the extent these activities are not harmful and are consistent with ordinary Internet functions (e.g., pinging a host). This may be useful for identification of a party who has the authority and ability to shut down attack activity, at least sometimes.

• Cooperative: Two or more parties may take joint defensive actions within their networks on an ad hoc basis in response to an attack, or agree to a “mutual defense pact” which defines the terms of joint responses within their networks. This may be particularly useful where two or more parties are regular business partners.

• Adversarial: One or more parties may take action affecting resources in a network owned by another, without that party’s permission. This action could violate laws such as the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and state computer trespass laws – not to mention issues if the network turns out to be a national security system or located in another country. There are self-defense theories which might work in a legal action, but they have not been tested in court.
The Internet isn’t quite the Wild West, but it’s no well-regulated commonwealth, either. In this environment it’s up to the individual organization to defend its own network. This, of course, not only helps the organization, but helps preserve the Internet by preventing network misuse. There is also a valuable role for cooperative efforts, such as information sharing and even joint incident and attack responses. Something like a “well-regulated militia,” then, might be worth exploring, at least in the context of a mutual defense pact.
Vigilante action, on the other hand, is strictly at your own risk. There may be circumstances when adversarial self-help is really needed – certainly there may be circumstances where that seems to be the case. But before undertaking such action you had better be very sure of yourself – you may very well wind up having to explain it in court.

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