Digital detox: Learning from Luke Skywalker

For any working professional in 2013, multiple screens, devices and apps are integral instruments for success. The multitasking can be overwhelming and dependence on gadgets and Internet connectivity can become a full-blown addiction.

There are digital detox facilities for those whose careers and relationships have been ruined by extreme gadget use. Shambhalah Ranch in Northern California has a three-day retreat for people who feel addicted to their gadgets. For 72 hours, the participants eat vegan food, practice yoga, swim in a nearby creek, take long walks in the woods, and keep a journal about being offline. Participants have one thing in common: they’re driven to distraction by the Internet.

Is this you? Checking e-mail in the bathroom and sleeping with your cell phone by your bed are now considered normal. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2007 only 58 percent of people used their phones to text; last year it was 80 percent. More than half of all cell phone users have smartphones, giving them Internet access all the time. As a result, the number of hours Americans spend collectively online has almost doubled since 2010, according to ComScore, a digital analytics company.

Teens and twentysomethings are the most wired. In 2011, Diana Rehling and Wendy Bjorklund, communications professors at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, surveyed their undergraduates and found that the average college student checks Facebook 20 times an hour.

So what can Luke Skywalker teach you? Shane O’Neill says it well:

“The climactic Death Star battle scene is the centerpiece of the movie’s nature vs. technology motif, a reminder to today’s viewers about the perils of relying too much on gadgets and not enough on human intuition. You’ll recall that Luke and his team of X-Wing fighters are attacking Darth Vader’s planet-size command center. Pilots are relying on a navigation and targeting system displayed through a small screen (using gloriously outdated computer graphics) to try to drop torpedoes into the belly of the Death Star. No pilot has succeeded, and a few have been blown to bits.

“Luke, an apprentice still learning the ways of The Force from the wise — but now dead — Obi-Wan Kenobi, decides to put The Force to work in the heat of battle. He pushes the navigation screen away from his face, shuts off his “targeting computer” and lets The Force guide his mind and his jet’s torpedo to the precise target.

“Luke put down his gadget, blocked out the noise and found a quiet place of Zen-like focus. George Lucas was making an anti-technology statement 36 years ago that resonates today. The overarching message of Star Wars is to use technology for good. Use it to conquer evil, but don’t let it override your own human Force. Don’t let technology replace you.

Take a lesson from a great Jedi warrior. Push the screen away from time to time and give your mind and personality a chance to shine. When it’s time to use the screen again, use it for good.”

Looking back: Operation Buckshot Yankee & agent.btz

It was the fall of 2008. A variant of a three year old relatively benign worm began infecting U.S. military networks via thumb drives.

Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn wrote nearly two years later that the patient zero was traced to an infected flash drive that was inserted into a U.S. military laptop at a base in the Middle East. The flash drive’s malicious computer code uploaded itself onto a network run by the U.S. Central Command. That code spread undetected on both classified and unclassified systems, establishing what amounted to a digital beachhead, from which data could be transferred to servers under foreign control. It was a network administrator’s worst fear: a rogue program operating silently, poised to deliver operational plans into the hands of an unknown adversary.

The worm, dubbed agent.btz, caused the military’s network administrators major headaches. It took the Pentagon nearly 14 months of stop and go effort to clean out the worm — a process the military called Operation Buckshot Yankee. It was so hard to do that it led to a major reorganization of the information defenses of the armed forces, ultimately causing the new Cyber Command to come into being.

So what was agent.btz? It was a variant of the SillyFDC worm that copies itself from removable drive to computer and back to drive again. Depending on how the worm is configured, it has the ability to scan computers for data, open backdoors, and send through those backdoors to a remote command and control server.

To keep it from spreading across a network, the Pentagon banned thumb drives and the like from November 2008 to February 2010. You could also disable Windows’ “autorun” feature, which instantly starts any program loaded on a drive.

As Noah Shachtman noted, the havoc caused by agent.btz has little to do with the worm’s complexity or maliciousness — and everything to do with the military’s inability to cope with even a minor threat. “Exactly how much information was grabbed, whether it got out, and who got it — that was all unclear,” says an officer who participated in the operation. “The scary part was how fast it spread, and how hard it was to respond.”

Gen. Kevin Chilton of U.S. Strategic Command said, “I asked simple questions like how many computers do we have on the network in various flavor, what’s their configuration, and I couldn’t get an answer in over a month.” As a result, network defense has become a top-tier issue in the armed forces. “A year ago, cyberspace was not commanders’ business. Cyberspace was the sys-admin guy’s business or someone in your outer office when there’s a problem with machines business,” Chilton noted. “Today, we’ve seen the results of this command level focus, senior level focus.”

What can you learn from Operation Buckshot Yankee?
a) That denial is not a river in Egypt
b) There are well known ways to minimize (but not eliminate) threats
c) It requires command level, senior level focus; this is not a sys-admin business

Defense in Depth – The New York Times Case

In January 2013, the New York Times accused hackers from China with connections to its military of successful penetrating its network and gained access to the logins of 53 employees, including Shanghai bureau chief David Barboza who last October published an embarrassing article on the vast secret wealth of China’s prime minister, Wen Jiabao.

This came to light when AT&T noticed unusual activity which it was unable to trace or deflect. A security firm was brought into conduct a forensic investigation that uncovered the true extent of what had been going on.

Over four months starting in September 2012, the attackers had managed to install 45 pieces of targeted malware designed to probe for data such as emails after stealing credentials, only one of which was detected by the installed antivirus software from Symantec. Although the staff logins were hashed, that doesn’t appear to have stopped the hackers in this instance. Perhaps, the newspaper suggests, because they were able to deploy rainbow tables to beat the relatively short passwords.

Symantec offered this statement: “Turning on only the signature-based anti-virus components of endpoint solutions alone are not enough in a world that is changing daily from attacks and threats.”

Still think that basic AntiVirus and firewall is enough? Take it directly from Symantec – you need to monitor and analyze data from inside the enterprise for evidence of compromise. This is Security Information and Event Management (SIEM).

Cyber Pearl Harbor a myth?

Eric Gartzke writing in International Security argues that attackers don’t have much motive to stage a Pearl Harbor-type attack in cyberspace if they aren’t involved in an actual shooting war.

Here is his argument:

It isn’t going to accomplish any very useful goal. Attackers cannot easily use the threat of a cyber attack to blackmail the U.S. (or other states) into doing something they don’t want to do. If they provide enough information to make the threat credible, they instantly make the threat far more difficult to carry out. For example, if an attacker threatens to take down the New York Stock Exchange through a cyber attack, and provides enough information to show that she can indeed carry out this attack, she is also providing enough information for the NYSE and the U.S. Government to stop the attack.

Cyber attacks usually involve hidden vulnerabilities — if you reveal the vulnerability you are attacking, you probably make it possible for your target to patch the vulnerability. Nor does it make sense to carry out a cyber attack on its own, since the damage done by nearly any plausible cyber attack is likely to be temporary.

Points to ponder:

  • Most attacks are occurring against well known vulnerabilities; systems that are unpatched
  • Most attacks are undetected and systems are “pwned” for weeks/months
  • The disruption caused when attacks are discovered are significant both in human and cost terms
  • There was little logic in the 9/11 attacks other than to cause havoc and fear (i.e., terrorists are not famous for logical well thought out reasoning)

Coming to commercial systems, attacks are usually for monetary gain. Attacks are often performed because “they can” [Remember George Mallory famously quoted as having replied to the question “Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?” with the retort “Because it’s there”].