Undergraduate, graduate, and professional students of cybersecurity from around the world gathered earlier this year to participate in a cybersecurity competition that simulated the international policy challenges associated with a global cyberattack. While the goal was to practice sound policy decisions, the majority of competing teams unintentionally led the U.S. into starting an international war. Given a variety of diplomatic and other means of responding to cyberattacks, participants largely took the aggressive approach of hacking back in response to cyberattacks from China, and to disastrous consequences.
While the competition’s participants are all students today, they may well go on to be corporate directors and government leaders of tomorrow. Based on current debate about how organizations in the private sector should respond to cyberattacks, it seems the actions taken by these students may well be representative of a broader trend. In fact, there is enough of a push for organizations to be legally authorized to “hack back” that earlier this year a member of Congress proposed a bill to empower people “to defend themselves online, just as they have the legal authority to do during a physical assault.”
As a business leader, I believe this measure would do more harm than good.
What Is Hack Back?
Hack back, which is sometimes called counterstrike, is a term used to refer to an organization taking offensive action to pursue, and potentially subdue, cyberattackers that have targeted them. For the purposes of this article, I am specifically talking about action taken by private sector organizations that affects computers external to their own network. We are not discussing government actions, which tend to occur within existing legal frameworks and are subject to government oversight.
Hack back activities go beyond defensive measures that organizations may put in place to protect their environments. It is generally understood that hack back activities extend beyond the victim’s own network, systems, and assets, and may involve accessing, modifying, or damaging computers or networks that do not belong to the victim. Directors should note that today it is illegal under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for private parties to access or damage computer systems without authorization from the technology owners or an appropriate government entity, even if these systems are being used to attack you. That is what proponents of hack back want to change, and the proposed bill goes some way towards doing this.
The Case for “Self Defense”
In response to the legal restriction, proponents of a law to legalize hacking back at cyberattackers often argue that the same principle should apply as that which allows US citizens to defend themselves against intruders in their homes—even with violent force. While it may sound reasonable to implement equal force to defend a network, the Internet is a space of systems designed specifically for the purpose interacting and communicating. Technology and users are increasingly interconnected. As a result, it’s almost impossible to ensure that defensive action targeted at a specific actor or group of actors will only affect the intended targets.
The reality of the argument for hacking back in self-defense is unfortunately more akin to standing by your fence and lobbing grenades into the street, hoping to get lucky and stop an attacker as they flee. With such an approach, even if you do manage to reach your attacker, you’ll almost certainly cause terrible collateral damage. Can your organization afford to clean up such a mess? What would be the repercussions for your reputation and position in the marketplace?
Another significant challenge for private sector organizations looking to hack back is that, unlike governments, they typically do not have the large-scale, sophisticated intelligence gathering programs needed to accurately attribute cyberattacks to the correct actor. Attackers constantly change their techniques to stay one step ahead of defenders and law enforcement, including leveraging deception techniques. This means that even when there are indications that point to a specific attacker, it is difficult to verify that they have not been planted to throw off suspicion, or to incriminate another party.
Similarly, it is difficult to judge motivations accurately and to determine an appropriate response. There is a fear that once people have hack back in their arsenal, it will become the de facto response rather than using the broad range of options that exist otherwise. This is even more problematic when you consider that devices operating unwillingly as part of a botnet may be used to carry out an attack. These infected devices and their owners are as much victims of the attacker as the primary target. Any attempt to hack back could cause them more harm.
The Security Poverty Line
Should hack back be made a lawful response to a cyberattack, effective participation is likely to be costly, as the technique requires specialized skills. Not every organization will be able to afford to participate. If the authorization framework is not stringent, many organizations may try to participate with insufficient expertise, which is likely to be either ineffective or damaging, or potentially both. However, there are other organizations that will not have the maturity or budget to participate even in this way.
These are the same organizations that today cannot afford a great deal of in-house security expertise and technologies to protect themselves, and currently are also the most vulnerable. As organizations that do have sufficient resources begin to hack back, the cost of attacking these organizations will increase. Profit-motivated attackers will eventually shift towards targeting the less-resourced organizations that reside below the security poverty line, increasing their vulnerability.
A Lawless Land
Creating a policy framework that provides sufficient oversight of hack-back efforts would be impractical and costly. Who would run it? How would it be funded? And why would this be significantly more desirable than the status quo? When the U.S. government takes action against attackers, they must meet a stringent burden of proof for attribution, and even when that has been done, there are strict parameters determining the types of targets that can be pursued, and the kind of action that can be taken.
Even if such a framework could be devised and policed, there would still be significant legal risks posed to a variety of stakeholders at a company. While the Internet is a borderless space accessed from every country in the world, each of those countries has their own legal system. Even if an American company was authorized to hack back, how could you ensure your organization would avoid falling afoul of the laws of another country, not to mention international law?
What Directors Can Do
The discussion around hacking back so far has largely been driven by hyperbole, fear, and indignation. Feelings of fear and indignation are certainly easy to relate to, and as corporate directors, powerlessness does not sit well with us. It is our instinct and duty to defend our organizations from avoidable harm.
The potential costs of a misstep or unintended consequences from hack back should deter business leaders from undertaking such an effort. If another company or a group of individuals is affected, the company that hacked back could see themselves incurring expensive legal proceedings, reputational damage, and loss of trust by many of their stakeholders. Attempts to make organizations exempt from this kind of legal action are problematic as it raises the question of how we can spot and stop accidental or intentional abuses of the system.
It’s one thing for students to unintentionally trigger war in the safe confines of a competitive mock scenario, and another thing entirely to be the business leader that does so in the real world. Directors of companies must instead work together to find better solutions to our complex cybersecurity problems. We should not legitimize vigilantism, particularly given the significant potential risks with dubious benefits.
Corey Thomas is CEO of Rapid7. All opinions expressed here are his own.