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Monday, 29 June 2020 07:43

Attributing cyber attacks much tougher than made out, says senior researcher Featured

Brett Callow: ""If an attack appears to have originated in Shanghai, the attacker probably isn't in Shanghai." Brett Callow: ""If an attack appears to have originated in Shanghai, the attacker probably isn't in Shanghai." Supplied

A well-known security researcher has pointed out a major flaw in an article about hacking published by the Australian Financial Review on 26 June: its over-eagerness in attributing attacks, when that is the toughest part of a threat analyst's job.

Brett Callow, who works for the New Zealand-headquartered Emsisoft and is a regular commentator in these columns, told iTWire in response to queries, that the piece, titled The cyber honey trap that caught out Beijing and detailing the working of a security centre at the Edith Cowan University in Western Australia, made a big mistake in assuming an attack originated in the country in which it appeared to have originated.

"For example, part of the Maze group’s infrastructure is hosted by a Chinese company, but that doesn’t mean the group is Chinese," he said. "It means they’ve added another layer of obfuscation by using a company that’s based in a country they believe is unlikely to co-operate with LEAs [law enforcement agencies] in other countries. This may also be why you never see Chinese companies on their leak site!"

The sub-heading on the AFR article was, "The inside story of the new front line in China's escalating cyber offensive and its most notorious hacking group, Stone Panda."

It began by detailing an alleged cyber attack which was being staged from the regional Chinese city of Xinpu; according to the article, this made the early warning system at ECU read: "New attack from Xinpu, China to Australia."

And it went on: "The hacker sitting outside Shanghai has actually landed on a so-called 'honey pot', set up by ECU's Security Research Institute to study the techniques and tactics of cyber criminals and state actors. Its sensors deliberately sit on the frontline of this escalating war."

The article ran to 1480 words, but there was no mention about the difficulties of attribution. It quoted Craig Valli, director of the research institute at ECU, as saying: "Some days we get up to 1 million attacks. Around 30% of these come from China."


Callow was highly sceptical about the claims of attribution. "If an attack appears to have originated in Shanghai, the attacker probably isn't in Shanghai," he said.

"They're more likely to be in Beijing. Or Moscow. Or Booger Hole, West Virginia. Or Humpty Doo, Australia. For very obvious reasons, hackers go to great lengths to conceal their real locations.

"For example, a group based in Belarus may launch its attacks via a cloud service in another country — Alibaba Cloud's Shanghai data centre, say — having first connected to that cloud service via a series of Tor relays, proxies and VPNs.

"But, of course, the attacks launched via that cloud service would appear to have originated in Shanghai. It's all about adding layer upon layer of obfuscation."

"Seeing through the smoke and mirrors to work out where an attack originated and who was responsible is extraordinarily challenging and involves analysing evidence from multiple sources, both technical and non-technical.

"Even then, the answer is rarely considered definitive; it's usually a matter of low, medium or high probability. Or somewhere in-between."


Callow said the bottom line was, "if attribution was as easy as looking at IP addresses, there'd be a lot more cyber criminals behind bars."

The New York Times recently claimed in a report that a Russian ransomware group, named Evil Corp, was retaliating against the US Government, writing: "A Russian ransomware group whose leaders were indicted by the Justice Department in December is retaliating against the US Government, many of America's largest companies and a major news organisation... They are going after the biggest American firms, and only American firms."

Callow poured cold water on this story as well. "While most WastedLocker [the ransomware referred to] attacks have targeted US-based entities, we've also had submissions from a number of other countries including the UK, France, and Israel," he pointed out.

"The fact that most attacks have been aimed at the US is not at all unusual. It's by far the most heavily targeted country by ransomware groups, probably because it has plenty of large, well-insured corporations which have demonstrated they're willing to pay ransoms."

Callow said Evil Corp's current campaign was relatively small-scale. "[Windows ransomware] REvil, for example, claims far more victims than Evil Corp does, and most of those victims are also US-based entities," he said..

"The most interesting thing about Evil Corp's campaign is the selective delivery method based on VPN use, but this development is not at all surprising.

"Counterintuitively, WFH [working from home] has created some challenges for ransomware groups. The first-stage malware used in attacks is coded to automatically check whether it has landed on a potentially valuable corporate system.

"If it's landed on a home user's system, the attack does not proceed - and, of course, people who are working from home may well appear to be ordinary home users.

"Launching attacks based on the use of corporate VPNs overcomes that problem and, consequently, such a pivot was almost inevitable."

He provided two activity graphs (embedded above) for both WastedLocker and REvil to prove his points.

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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