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Interview: State-sponsored cyber attacks - it's not about the 'who', but the 'how'

11 Jun 18

With every major cyber attack comes the question of who exactly was behind it, what they were trying to accomplish – and in many cases, if that attack was condoned or even sponsored by nation-states.

Those nation-states, typically Russia, China, and North Korea, are often blamed for many attacks but is the entire notion of state-sponsored attacks a little too overblown?

I talked with Juniper Networks systems engineering general manager James Sillence.

Juniper is a switching, routing, and security firm that believes security shouldn’t be bolted on to the network, but built into the network – right down to the switch ports and wireless access points. The company has been building security products since 2004.

“From Juniper’s point of view, it’s about how you fill that in-house expertise and how you give people the tools to manage threats within their own environment.”

Sillence discussed state-sponsored attacks in general, how they affect Australia and NZ, and what Juniper brings to the global Cybersecurity Tech Accord.

“A/NZ is very digitally connected. We rely heavily on that interconnectedness and we live in affluent countries. That makes us ripe as prey for cyber predators. Conversely, because of the scale of most organisations that operate here, they don’t have the resources to invest in specialist security firms on the ground.”

Over the last several months there has been much speculation about the involvement of Russians in state-sponsored attacks, particularly in A/NZ. Has Juniper seen strong evidence that this is the case?

“Russia is forefront in everybody’s mind right now with events in the US and UK. One thing that’s obvious from what we’ve observed in the US is that attribution for any cyber attack is very difficult, costly and time-consuming.

“If you look at the commentary around interference in the US election, I don’t think there’s evidence that you can say ‘categorically, that was country or state X'.”

Sillence says attribution is not actually what’s most important.

“What’s more important is understanding how an attack takes place and using the information to feed machine-based learning and making your security posture stronger.”

However, there are organisations that are very interested in attribution. National Cybersecurity Centres in New Zealand and Australia are just two of those.

The Australian Cyber Security Centre’s 2016 and 2017 reports both mention specific attacks identified as state-based.

“They are confident that attacks against nationally significant organisations have been funded by nation-sponsored or funded groups.”

The New Zealand Government is keeping an eye on all possibly threats that could affect the country through its Cyber Security Strategy and Action Plan, which will involve collaboration between several agencies to protect the nation from state-sponsored and state-condoned attacks. 

Those agencies include the National Cyber Policy Office, the Government Communications Security Bureau through the National Cyber Security Centre, the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service, the New Zealand Police, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, CERT NZ, The Department of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Ministry of Defence, and the New Zealand Defence Force.

Sillence says that any government or private organisation should be continuously reviewing its security posture – he also says it’s good to see that New Zealand is undertaking the right approach to this review.

With so many agencies on board, I asked Sillence how important collaboration is to initiatives such as the Cyber Security Strategy and Action Plan.

“It’s a trite statement, but cybersecurity is a team sport. Thankfully the security industry is waking up to that. The Government is also using input from private organisations within New Zealand. That’s critical to the success of any strategy.

“The review is also using like-minded countries as a source of information as well. A lot of best practices are being conducted around the globe. Countries like Australia, Canada, and Singapore are great exemplars of what best practices look like.”

Juniper Networks is also one of 34 members of the recently-formed Cybersecurity Tech Accord, an alliance that brings together major global tech firms including HPE, Microsoft, and Oracle.

The Cybersecurity Tech Accord pledges four key principles: Stronger cybersecurity defence, no offence, capacity building, and collective action. 

“It’s a simple Accord. The principle of building better defence into our products and services is about prioritising security, privacy, integrity, and reliability.”

“The second principle is pledging not to assist governments in the launch of cyber attacks against innocent citizens.

“The third principle of the Cybersecurity Tech Accord is around assisting developers and tech users to better understand current and future threats.

“The fourth principle is around improving collaboration, coordinating vulnerability disclosures, and sharing threat intelligence across the group. It’s also about establishing more formal and informal partnerships so we get better at sharing threat intelligence.”

Noting that principle two involves the pledge not to help governments conduct cyber attacks against innocent citizens and enterprises, I asked if topics such as these will soon become major standards on which security firms are judged.

“Absolutely. People are becoming aware of their digital footprint, they understand privacy and the obligations that businesses that act as custodians of that information.”

Hopefully that will drive discussion around what security companies are doing and what governments have access to.”

Sillence also highlights another major security initiative: The Cyber Threat Alliance. Juniper Networks, Cisco and Palo Alto Networks are just some of the organisations pledging to share threat intelligence.

“All of us have a responsibility and commitment to share compromises on a daily basis because the only way to build stronger products is to collaborate.”

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