Blurred Lines: Dispelling the False Dichotomy between Public and Private Security


Several US government agencies have experienced targeted cyber attacks over the last few months. Many believe China is responsible for cyber attacks on the Office of Personnel Management, the US Postal Service and National Weather Service. Russia has been linked to many recent breaches including those on the White House and State Department unclassified networks. Given the national security implications of such breaches, these attacks should have monopolized the news cycle. However, they have barely registered a small blip. Conversely, the data breaches at large companies such as Sony, Home Depot, Target and Neiman Marcus have dominated the news and have led many Americans to rank concern over hacking higher than any other criminal activity. But characterizing these events as solely private sector or public sector breaches oversimplifies the state of cyber security today. Many of the private sector intrusions are linked to Russia, China, Iran, and now even North Korea. While the Sony breach remains contested, a North Korean spokesman claimed it was part of the larger struggle against US imperialism. In fact, many of these private sector breaches have been directly linked to or are considered retaliation for various aspects of US foreign policy. Formulating a rigid line between public and private sector categorization is not only erroneous, but it also masks the reality of the complex cyber challenges the US faces.


From Unity Against a Common Threat to Disunity Against a Hydra

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Japan was perceived as a greater threat to US security than the Soviet Union. The private sector was quite vocal during this time, providing evidence of dumping and unfair trade practices, while supporting voluntary export restraints and a series of other protectionist measures for the US domestic sector. While one can question the success of the policies (and assessment of the threat!), it is clear that a unified understanding of a common threat among private and public sectors greatly enhanced the efficiency with which the US was able to respond. It is this common understanding between the two groups that is still missing today.

Russia, China, Iran and many, many other groups have been elevating cyber-attacks on the federal government and private sector for well over a decade. China has been wielding cyber attacks against federal agencies since at least 1999, when it targeted the National Park Service and the Departments of Energy and Interior. However, this is no longer a government-to-government problem, with the increase of non-state actors as both perpetrators (e.g. Syrian Electronic Army) and victims (e.g. multi-national corporations). Each kind of attack – regardless of state or non-state actor involvement – has both national security and economic implications. For instance, Target’s profits and reputation have taken a big hit following last year’s credit card breach. Home Depot faces similar economic risk over the loss of customers following its data breach. It’s too soon to tell exactly how much financial and reputational damage the breach at Sony will incur. These private sector breaches also have natural security implications, especially when targeted at the financial sector and critical infrastructure, which is increasingly a target of cyber-attacks by foreign governments (e.g. Operation Cleaver). Despite these similarities in adversaries, there remains a stark disconnect in the portrayal and general contextualization of breaches in the private and public sectors.


Technical Similarities

These private and public sector breaches exhibit not only similar threat profiles, but also technical similarities. These attacks are indicative of the larger tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) of adversaries as they conduct reconnaissance and trust-building intrusions that lead to major attacks such as the Sony breach. In many cases, the initial access to the target systems was through third party contractors, both government and commercial, as well as through targeted spear phishing and watering hole attacks. In each case, the commonality is leveraging trust. From an attacker’s standpoint, every breach of trust enables more opportunity. Successful spearphishing campaigns gather enough information about their targets to properly craft the most effective message to entice a click. In the case of recent federal agency breaches, it is important to remember that adversaries conduct reconnaissance of networks prior to escalating to major attacks, and they often begin with lower value targets before escalating to higher value targets. Every seemingly harmless intrusion must be viewed as a first step toward a larger attack, and not an end in and of itself. If an attacker compromises a government office, what information does that office have that could be used to further compromise both government and commercial companies? Something seemingly innocuous, like email addresses of contractors, could be used to launch a new targeted operation. At some point, people make mistakes, and attackers thrive on mistakes. They have the benefit of time and information to make the best decision about how to increase their trust until critical systems and information have been infiltrated. In short, the TTPs – especially the exploitation of trust to conduct ever-greater intrusions – are very similar in private and public sector breaches.


Could More Convergence Lead to a Unified Response?

Last week, the Senate Banking Committee discussed cybersecurity in the financial sector, including the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act. Clearly, this is an important step. However, absent from this discussion were some of the major stakeholders in the financial industry, further perpetuating the divide between the public and private sectors. Only when there is a common understanding of the threats and challenges of cyberspace can the two sides come together and provide more holistic and effective responses. The cyber attacks on federal agencies and the private sector must finally be elevated within popular discourse and be understood for what they are – reconnaissance and trust-building intrusions, increasingly by the same foreign adversaries. As news of another cyber attack on a federal agency or private sector occurs, it would be much more helpful if it was placed in the larger context as a targeted, national security breach. A unified response by the US first requires a unified understanding of the threat. Absent a coherent and integrated understanding of the threat, attacks against banks, corporations and federal agencies will only continue to grow.