Robots reshaping social networks

In May I was fascinated by a story in the Atlantic  on The Ecology Project - a group “interested in a question of particular concern to social-media experts and marketers: Is it possible not only to infiltrate social networks, but also to influence them on a large scale?” 

The Ecology Project was turning the Turing Test on its side, and setting up experiments to see how potentially massive networks of “SocialBots” (social robots) might be able to impact human social networks by interacting with their members.  

In the first such experiment it invited teams from around the world to manufacture SocialBots  and picked 500 real Twitter users, the core of whom shared “a fondness for cats”.  At the end of their two-week experiment, network graphs showed that the teams’ bots had insinuated themselves strikingly into the center of the target network.

The Web Ecology Blog summarized the results this way:

With the stroke of midnight on Sunday, the first Socialbots competition has officially ended. It’s been a crazy last 48 hours. At the last count, the final scores (and how they broke down) were:

  • Team C: 701 Points (107 Mutuals, 198 Responses)
  • Team B: 183 Points (99 Mutuals, 28 Responses)
  • Team A: 170 Points (119 Mutuals, 17 Responses)

This leaves the winner of the first-ever Socialbots Cup as Team C. Congratulations!

You also read those stats right. In under a week, Team C’s bot was able to generate close to 200 responses from the target network, with conversations ranging from a few back and forth tweets to an actual set of lengthy interchanges between the bot and the targets. Interestingly, mutual followbacks, which played so strong as a source for points in Round One, showed less strongly in Round Two, as teams optimized to drive interactions.

In any case, much further from anything having to do with mutual follows or responses, the proof is really in the pudding. The network graph shows the enormous change in the configuration of the target network from when we first got started many moons ago. The bots have increasingly been able to carve out their own independent community — as seen in the clustering of targets away from the established tightly-knit networks and towards the bots themselves.

The Atlantic story summarized the implications this way:

Can one person controlling an identity, or a group of identities, really shape social architecture? Actually, yes. The Web Ecology Project’s analysis of 2009’s post-election protests in Iran revealed that only a handful of people accounted for most of the Twitter activity there. The attempt to steer large social groups toward a particular behavior or cause has long been the province of lobbyists, whose “astroturfing” seeks to camouflage their campaigns as genuine grassroots efforts, and company employees who pose on Internet message boards as unbiased consumers to tout their products. But social bots introduce new scale: they run off a server at practically no cost, and can reach thousands of people. The details that people reveal about their lives, in freely searchable tweets and blogs, offer bots a trove of personal information to work with. “The data coming off social networks allows for more-targeted social ‘hacks’ than ever before,” says Tim Hwang, the director emeritus of the Web Ecology Project. And these hacks use “not just your interests, but your behavior.”

A week after Hwang’s experiment ended, Anonymous, a notorious hacker group, penetrated the e-mail accounts of the cyber-security firm HBGary Federal and revealed a solicitation of bids by the United States Air Force in June 2010 for “Persona Management Software”—a program that would enable the government to create multiple fake identities that trawl social-networking sites to collect data on real people and then use that data to gain credibility and to circulate propaganda.

“We hadn’t heard of anyone else doing this, but we assumed that it’s got to be happening in a big way,” says Hwang. His group has published the code for its experimental bots online, “to allow people to be aware of the problem and design countermeasures.”

The Ecology Project source code is available here.  Fascinating.  We&#39re talking very basic stuff that none-the-less takes social engineering in an important and disturbingly different new direction. 

As is the case with the use of robots for social profiling, the use of robots to reshape social networks raises important questions about attribution and identity (the Atlantic story actually described SocialBots as “fake identities”).  

Given that SocialBots will inevitably and quickly evolve, we can see that the ability to demonstrate that you are a natural flesh-and-blood person rather than a robot will increasingly become an essential ingredient of digital reality.  It will be crucial that such a proof can be given without requiring you to identify yourself,  relinquish your anonymity, or spend your whole life completing grueling captcha challenges. 

I am again struck by our deep historical need for minimal disclosure technology like U-Prove, with its amazing ability to enable unlinkable anonymous assertions (like liveness) and yet still reveal the identities of those (like the manufacturers of armies of SocialBots) who abuse them through over-use.

 

Remembering Andreas Pfitzmann

Andreas Pfitzmann, head of the Privacy and Data Security Research group at Technische Universität Dresden, has died.  For more than 25 years he worked on privacy and multilateral security issues.  As Caspar Bowden puts it, “Andreas was the eminence grise of serious PET research in Europe, an extraordinarily decent person, and massively influential in the public policy of privacy technology in Germany and Europe.”

Those not familiar with his work should definitely read and use A terminology for talking about privacy by data minimization – a great contribution that gives us clearly defined concepts through which scientific understanding of privacy and multilateral security can move forward.

The obituary posted by Germany&#39s Chaos Computer Club  reveals his impact on a community that extended far beyond the walls of the university:

The sudden and unexpected death of Professor Andreas Pfitzmann on 23rd September 2010 leaves a huge gap in the lives of all who knew him. Through both his work and approach, Prof. Pfitzmann set measurably high standards. He was one of a small group of computer scientists who always clearly put forward his soundly based and independent opinion. In his endeavours to foster cross-discipline interaction, he proved instrumental in shaping both technical and political discourses on anonymity and privacy issues in Germany – thus ensuring him a well-deserved international reputation. He always managed to cross the boundaries of his discipline and make the impact of technology comprehensible. His contributions to research in this regard remain eloquent and courageous, and his insistence on even voicing inconvenient truths means he will remain a role model for us all.

In his passing we recognise and mourn the loss of an outstanding scientist, unique in his stance as a defender of people’s basic rights of anonymity and the administration of information pertaining to themselves – both of which are basic prerequisites for a thriving democracy. None of us will ever forget his rousing lectures and speeches, or the ways he found to nurture experimental, enquiring thought amongst an audience.

In Andreas Pfitzmann, too many of our members have lost a dear friend and long-term inspirer. Our thoughts are firmly with his family, to whom we extend our deepest and most profound condolences.

 I too will miss both Andreas Pfitzmann and the great clarity he brought to any conversation he participated in.

Stephan Engberg on Touch2ID

Stephan Engberg is member of the Strategic Advisory Board of the EU ICT Security & Dependability Taskforce and an innovator in terms of reconciling the security requirements in both ambient and integrated digital networks. I thought readers would benefit from comments he circulated in response to my posting on Touch2Id.

Kim Cameron&#39s comments on Touch2Id – and especially the way PI is used – make me want to see more discussion about the definition of privacy and the approaches that can be taken in creating such a definition.

To me Touch2Id is a disaster – teaching kids to offer their fingerprints to strangers is not compatible  with my understanding of democracy or of what constitutes the basis of free society. The claim that data is “not collected” is absurd and represents outdated legal thinking.  Biometric data gets collected even though it shouldn&#39t and such collection is entirely unnecessary given the PET solutions to this problem that exist, e. g chip-on-card.

In my book, Touch2Id did not do the work to deserve a positive privacy appraisal.

Touch2Id, in using blinded signature, is a much better solution than, for example, a PKI-based solution would be.  But this does not change the fact that biometrics are getting collected where they shouldn&#39t.
To me Touch2Id therefore remains a strong invasion of Privacy – because it teaches kids to accept biometric interactions that are outside their control. Trusting a reader is not an option.

My concern is not so much in discussing the specific solution as reaching some agreement on the use of words and what is acceptable in terms of use of words and definitions.

We all understand that there are different approaches possible given different levels of pragmatism and focus. In reality we have our different approaches because of a number of variables:  the country we live in, our experiences and especially our core competencies and fields of expertise.

Many do good work from different angles – improving regulation, inventing technologies, debating, pointing out major threats etc. etc.

No criticism – only appraisal

Some try to avoid compromises – often at great cost as it is hard to overcome many legacy and interest barriers.  At the same time the stakes are rising rapidly:  reports of spyware are increasingly universal. Further, some try to avoid compromises out of fear or on the principle that governments are “dangerous”.

Some people think I am rather uncompromising and driven by idealist principles (or whatever words people use to do character assaination of those who speak inconvenient truths).  But those who know me are also surprised – and to some extent find it hard to believe – that this is due largely to considerations of economics and security rather than privacy and principle.

Consider the example of Touch2Id.  The fact that it is NON-INTEROPERABLE is even worse than the fact that biometrics are being collected, since because of this, you simply cannot create a PET solution using the technology interfaces!  It is not open, but closed to innovations and security upgrades. There is only external verification of biometrics or nothing – and as such no PET model can be applied.  My criticism of Touch2Id is fully in line with the work on security research roadmapping prior to the EU&#39s large FP7 research programme (see pg. 14 on private biometrics and biometric encryption – both chip-on-card).

Some might remember the discussion at the 2003 EU PET Workshop in Brussels where there were strong objections to the “inflation of terms”.  In particular, there was much agreement that the term Privacy Enhancing Technology should only be applied to non-compromising solutions.  Even within the category of “non-compromising” there are differences.  For example, do we require absolute anonymity or can PETs be created through specific built-in countermeasures such as anti-counterfeiting through self-incrimination in Digital Cash or some sort of tightly controlled Escrow (Conditional Identification) in cases such as that of non-payment in an otherwise pseudonymous contract (see here).

I tried to raise the same issue last year in Brussels.

The main point here is that we need a vocabulary that does not allow for inflation – a vocabulary that is not infected by someone&#39s interest in claiming “trust” or overselling an issue. 

And we first and foremost need to stop – or at least address – the tendency of the bad guys to steal the terms for marketing or propaganda purposes.  Around National Id and Identity Cards this theft has been a constant – for example, the term “User-centric Identity” has been turned upside down and today, in many contexts, means “servers focusing on profiling and managing your identity.”

The latest examples of this are the exclusive and centralist european eID model and the IdP-centric identity models recently proposed by US which are neither technological interoperable, adding to security or privacy-enhancing. These models represent the latest in democratic and free markets failure.

My point is not so much to define policy, but rather to respect the fact that different policies at different levels cannot happen unless we have a clear vocabulary that avoid inflation of terms.

Strong PETs must be applied to ensure principles such as net neutrality, demand-side controls and semantic interoperability.  If they aren&#39t, I am personally convinced that within 20 or 30 years we will no longer have anything resembling democracy – and economic crises will worsen due to Command & Control inefficiencies and anti-innovation initiatives

In my view, democracy as construct is failing due to the rapid deterioration of fundamental rights and requirements of citizen-centric structures.  I see no alternative than trying to get it back on track through strong empowerment of citizens – however non-informed one might think the “masses” are – which depends on propagating the notion that you CAN be in control or “Empowered” in the many possible meanings of the term.

When I began to think about Touch2Id it did of course occur to me that it would be possible for operators of the system to secretly retain a copy of the fingerprints and the information gleaned from the proof-of-age identity documents – in other words, to use the system in a deceptive way.  I saw this as being something that could be mitigated by introducing the requirement for auditing of the system by independent parties who act in the privacy interests of citizens.

It also occured to me that it would be better, other things being equal, to use an on-card fingerprint sensor.  But is this a practical requirement given that it would still be possible to use the system in a deceptive way?  Let me explain.

Each card could, unbeknownst to anyone, be imprinted with an identifier and the identity documents could be surreptitiously captured and recorded.  Further, a card with the capability of doing fingerprint recognition could easily contain a wireless transmitter.  How would anyone be certain a card wasn&#39t capable of surreptitiously transmitting the fingerprint it senses or the identifier imprinted on it through a passive wireless connection? 

Only through audit of every technical component and all the human processes associated with them.

So we need to ask, what are the respective roles of auditability and technology in providing privacy enhancing solutions?

Does it make sense to kill schemes like Touch2ID even though they are, as Stephan says, better than other alternatives?   Or is it better to put the proper auditing processes in place, show that the technology benefits its users, and continue to evolve the technology based on these successes?

None of this is to dismiss the importance of Stephan&#39s arguments – the discussion he calls for is absolutely required and I certainly welcome it. 

I&#39m sure he and I agree we need systematic threat analysis combined with analysis of the possible mitigations, and we need to evolve a process for evaluating these things which is rigorous and can withstand deep scrutiny. 

I am also struck by Stephan&#39s explanation of the relationship between interoperability and the ability to upgrade and uplevel privacy through PETs, as well as the interesting references he provides. 

Enterprise lockdown versus consumer applications

My friend Cameron Westland, who has worked on some cool applications for the iPhone, wrote me to complain that I linked to iPhone Privacy:

I understand the implications of what you are trying to say, but how is this any different from Mac OS X applications accessing the address book or Windows applications accessing contacts? (I&#39m not sure about Windows, but I know it&#39s possible on a Mac).

Also, the article touches on storing patient information on an iPhone. I believe Seriot is guilty of a major oversight in simply correlating the fact that spy phone has access to contacts with it also being able to do so in a secured enterprise.

If the iPhone is deployed in the enterprise, the corporate administrators can control exactly which applications get installed. In the situations where patient information is stored on the phone, they should be using their own security review process to verify that all applications installed meet the HIPPA  certification requirements. Apple makes no claim that applications meet the stringent needs of certain industries – that&#39s why they give control to administrators to encrypt phones, restrict specific application installs, and do remote wipes.

Also, Seriot did no research behavior of a phone connected to a company&#39s active directory, versus just plain old address book… This is cargo cult science at best, and I&#39m really surprised you linked to it!

I buy Cameron&#39s point that the controls available to enterprises mitigate a number of the attacks presented by Seriot – and agree this is  important.  How do these controls work?  Corporate administrators can set policies specifying the digital signatures of applications that can be installed.  They can use their own processes to decide what applications these will be. 

None of this depends on App Store verification, sandboxing, or Apple&#39s control of platform content.  In fact it is no different from the universally available ability to use a combination of enterprise policy and digital signature to protect enterprise desktop and server systems.  Other features, like the ability for an operator to wipe information, are also pretty much universal.

If the iPhone can be locked down in enterprises, why is Seriot&#39s paper still worth reading?  Because many companies and even governments are interested in developing customer applications that run on phones.  They can&#39t dictate to customers what applications to install, and so lock-down solutions are of little interest.  They turn to Apple&#39s own claims about security, and find statements like this one, taken from the otherwise quite interesting iPhone security overview.

Runtime Protection

Applications on the device are “sandboxed” so they cannot access data stored by other applications. In addition, system files, resources, and the kernel are shielded from the user’s application space. If an application needs to access data from another application, it can only do so using the APIs and services provided by iPhone OS. Code generation is also prevented.

Seriot shows that taking this claim at face value would be risky.  As he says in an eWeek interview:

“In late 2009, I was involved in discussions with the Swiss private banking industry regarding the confidentiality of iPhone personal data,” Seriot told eWEEK. “Bankers wanted to know how safe their information [stores] were, which ones are exactly at risk and which ones are not. In brief, I showed that an application downloaded from the App Store to a standard iPhone could technically harvest a significant quantity of personal data … [including] the full name, the e-mail addresses, the phone number, the keyboard cache entries, the Wi-Fi connection logs and the most recent GPS location.” 

It is worth noting that Seriot&#39s demonstration is very easy to replicate, and doesn&#39t depend on silly assumptions like convincing the user to disable their security settings and ignore all warnings.

The points made about banking applications apply even more to medical applications.  Doctors are effectively customers from the point of view of the information management services they use.  Those services won&#39t be able to dictate the applications their customers deploy.  I know for sure that my doctor, bless his soul,  doesn&#39t have an IT department that sets policies limiting his ability to play games or buy stocks.  If he starts using his phone for patient-related activities, he should be aware of the potential issues, and that&#39s what MedPage was talking about.

Neither MedPage, nor CNET, nor eWeek nor Seriot nor I are trying to trash the iPhone – it&#39s just that application isolation is one of the hardest problems of computer science.  We are pointing out that the iPhone is a computing device like all the others and subject to the same laws of digital physics, despite dangerous mythology to the contrary.  On this point I don&#39t think Cameron Westland and I disagree.

 

Sorry Tomek, but I “win”

As I discussed here, the EFF is running an experimental site demonstrating that browsers ooze an unnecessary “browser fingerprint” allowing users to be identified across sites without their knowledge.  One can easily imagine this scenario:

  1. Site “A” offers some service you are interested in and you release your name and address to it.  At the same time, the site captures your browser fingerprint.
  2. Site “B” establishes a relationship with site “A” whereby when it sends “A” a browser fingerprint and “A” responds with the matching identifying information.
  3. You are therefore unknowingly identified at site “B”.

I can see browser fingerprints being used for a number of purposes.  Some sites might use a fingerprint to keep track of you even after you have cleared your cookies – and rationalize this as providing added security.  Others will inevitably employ it for commercial purposes – targeted identifying customer information is high value.  And the technology can even be used for corporate espionage and cyber investigations.

It is important to point out that like any fingerprint, the identification is only probabilistic.  EFF is studying what these probabilities are.  In my original test, my browser was unique in 120,000 other browsers – a number I found very disturbing.

But friends soon wrote back to report that their browser was even “more unique” than mine!  And going through my feeds today I saw a post at Tomek&#39s DS World where he reported a staggering fingerprint uniqueness of 1 in 433,751:

 

It&#39s not that I really think of myself as super competitive, but these results were so extreme I decided to take the test again.  My new score is off the scale:

Tomek ends his post this way:

“So a browser can be used to identify a user in the Internet or to harvest some information without his consent. Will it really become a problem and will it be addressed in some way in browsers in the future? This question has to be answered by people responsible for browser development.”

I have to disagree.  It is already a problem.  A big problem.  These outcomes weren&#39t at all obvious in the early days of the browser.  But today the writing is on the wall and needs to be addressed.  It&#39s a matter right at the core of delivering on a trustworthy computing infrastructure.    We need to evolve the world&#39s browsers to employ minimal disclosure, releasing only what is necessary, and never providing a fingerprint without the user&#39s consent.

 

More unintended consequences of browser leakage

Joerg Resch at Kuppinger Cole points us to new research showing  how social networks can be used in conjunction with browser leakage to provide accurate identification of users who think they are browsing anonymously.

Joerg writes:

Thorsten Holz, Gilbert Wondracek, Engin Kirda and Christopher Kruegel from Isec Laboratory for IT Security found a simple and very effective way to identify a person behind a website visitor without asking for any kind of authentication. Identify in this case means: full name, adress, phone numbers and so on. What they do, is just exploiting the browser history to find out, which social networks the user is a member of and to which groups he or she has subscribed within that social network.

The Practical Attack to De-Anonymize Social Network Users begins with what is known as “history stealing”.  

Browsers don’t allow web sites to access the user’s “history” of visited sites.  But we all know that browsers render sites we have visited in a different color than sites we have not.  This is available programmatically through javascript by examining the a:visited style.  So malicious sites can play a list of URLs and examine the a:visited style to determine if they have been visited, and can do this without the user being aware of it.

This attack has been known for some time, but what is novel is its use.  The authors claim the groups in all major social networks are represented through URLs, so history stealing can be translated into “group membership stealing”.  This brings us to the core of this new work.  The authors have developed a model for the identification characteristics of group memberships – a model that will outlast this particular attack, as dramatic as it is.

The researchers have created a demonstration site that works with the European social network Xing.  Joerg tried it out and, as you can see from the table at left, it identified him uniquely – although he had done nothing to authenticate himself.  He says,

“Here is a screenshot from the self-test I did with the de-anonymizer described in my last post. I´m a member in 5 groups at Xing, but only active in just 2 of them. This is already enough to successfully de-anonymize me, at least if I use the Google Chrome Browser. Using Microsoft Internet Explorer did not lead to a result, as the default security settings (I use them in both browsers) seem to be stronger. That´s weird!”

Since I’m not a user of Xing I can’t explore this first hand.

Joerg goes on to ask if history-stealing is a crime?  If it’s not, how mainstream is this kind of analysis going to become?  What is the right legal framework for considering these issues?  One thing for sure:  this kind of demonstration, as it becomes widely understood, risks profoundly changing the way people look at the Internet.

To return to the idea of minimal disclosure for the browser, why do sites we visit need to be able to read the a:visited attribute?  This should again be thought of as “fingerprinting”, and before a site is able to retrieve the fingerprint, the user must be made aware that it opens the possibility of being uniquely identified without authentication.

New EFF Research on Web Browser Tracking

Slashdot&#39s CmdrTaco points us to a research project announced by EFF‘s Peter Eckersley that I expect will provoke both discussion and action:

What fingerprints does your browser leave behind as you surf the web?

Traditionally, people assume they can prevent a website from identifying them by disabling cookies on their web browser. Unfortunately, this is not the whole story.

When you visit a website, you are allowing that site to access a lot of information about your computer&#39s configuration. Combined, this information can create a kind of fingerprint – a signature that could be used to identify you and your computer. But how effective would this kind of online tracking be?

EFF is running an experiment to find out. Our new website Panopticlick will anonymously log the configuration and version information from your operating system, your browser, and your plug-ins, and compare it to our database of five million other configurations. Then, it will give you a uniqueness score – letting you see how easily identifiable you might be as you surf the web.

Adding your information to our database will help EFF evaluate the capabilities of Internet tracking and advertising companies, who are already using techniques of this sort to record people&#39s online activities. They develop these methods in secret, and don&#39t always tell the world what they&#39ve found. But this experiment will give us more insight into the privacy risk posed by browser fingerprinting, and help web users to protect themselves.

To join the experiment:
http://panopticlick.eff.org/

To learn more about the theory behind it:
http://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2010/01/primer-information-theory-and-priva…

Interesting that my own browser was especially recognizable:

 

I know my video configuration is pretty bizarre – but don&#39t understand why I should be broadcasting that when I casually surf the web.  I would also like to understand what is so special about my user agent info. 

Pixel resolution like 1435 x 810 x 32 seems unnecessarily specific.  Applying the concept of minimal disclosure, it would be better to reveal simply that my machine is in some useful “class” of resolution that would not overidentify me.

I would think the provisioning of highly identifying information should be limited to sites with which I have an identity relationship.  If we can agree on a shared mechanism for storing information about our trust for various sites (information cards offer this capability) our browsers could automatically adjust to the relationship they were in, releasing information as necessary.  This is a good example of how a better identity system is needed to protect privacy while providing increased functionality.

 

Proposal for a Common Identity Framework

Today I am posting a new paper called, Proposal for a Common Identity Framework: A User-Centric Identity Metasystem.

Good news: it doesn’t propose a new protocol!

Instead, it attempts to crisply articulate the requirements in creating a privacy-protecting identity layer for the Internet, and sets out a formal model for such a layer, defined through the set of services the layer must provide.

The paper is the outcome of a year-long collaboration between Dr. Kai Rannenberg, Dr. Reinhard Posch and myself. We were introduced by Dr. Jacques Bus, Head of Unit Trust and Security in ICT Research at the European Commission.

Each of us brought our different cultures, concerns, backgrounds and experiences to the project and we occasionally struggled to understand how our different slices of reality fit together. But it was in those very areas that we ended up with some of the most interesting results.

Kai holds the T-Mobile Chair for Mobile Business and Multilateral Security at Goethe University Frankfurt. He coordinates the EU research projects FIDIS  (Future of Identity in the Information Society), a multidisciplinary endeavor of 24 leading institutions from research, government, and industry, and PICOS (Privacy and Identity Management for Community Services).  He also is Convener of the ISO/IEC Identity Management and Privacy Technology working group (JTC 1/SC 27/WG 5)  and Chair of the IFIP Technical Committee 11 “Security and Privacy Protection in Information Processing Systems”.

Reinhard taught Information Technology at Graz University beginning in the mid 1970’s, and was Scientific Director of the Austrian Secure Information Technology Center starting in 1999. He has been federal CIO for the Austrian government since 2001, and was elected chair of the management board of ENISA (The European Network and Information Security Agency) in 2007. 

I invite you to look at our paper.  It aims at combining the ideas set out in the Laws of Identity and related papers, extended discussions and blog posts from the open identity community, the formal principles of Information Protection that have evolved in Europe, research on Privacy Enhancing Technologies (PETs), outputs from key working groups and academic conferences, and deep experience with EU government digital identity initiatives.

Our work is included in The Future of Identity in the Information Society – a report on research carried out in a number of different EU states on topics like the identification of citizens, ID cards, and Virtual Identities, with an accent on privacy, mobility, interoperability, profiling, forensics, and identity related crime.

I’ll be taking up the ideas in our paper in a number of blog posts going forward. My hope is that readers will find the model useful in advancing the way they think about the architecture of their identity systems.  I’ll be extremely interested in feedback, as will Reinhard and Kai, who I hope will feel free to join into the conversation as voices independent from my own.

How to set up your computer so people can attack it

As I said in the previous post, the students from Ruhr Universitat who are claiming discovery of security vulnerabilities in CardSpace did NOT “crack” CardSpace.
 
Instead, they created a demonstration that requires the computer&#39s owner to consciously disable the computer&#39s defenses through complex configurations – following a recipe they published on the web.

The students are not able to undermine the system without active co-operation by its owner. 

You might be thinking a user could be tricked into accidently cooperating with the attack..  To explore that idea, I&#39ve captured the steps required to enable the attack in this video.  I suggest you look at this yourself to judge the students’ claim they have come up with a “practical attack”.

 In essence, the video shows that a sophisticated computer owner is able to cause her system to be compromised if she chooses to do so.  This is not a “breach”.

Out-manned and out-gunned

Jeff Bohren draws our attention to this article on Cyber Offence research being done by the US Air Force Cyber Command (AFCYBER).  The article says:

…Williamson makes a pretty decent case for the military botnet; his points are especially strong when he describes the inevitable failure of a purely defensive posture. Williamson argues that, like every fortress down through history that has eventually fallen to a determined invader, America’s cyber defenses can never be strong enough to ward off all attacks.

And here, Williamson is on solid infosec ground-it’s a truism in security circles that any electronic “fortress” that you build, whether it’s intended to protect media files from unauthorized viewers or financial data from thieves, can eventually be breached with enough collective effort.

Given that cyber defenses are doomed to failure, Williamson argues that we need a credible cyber offensive capability to act as a deterrent against foreign attackers. I have a hard time disagreeing with this, but I’m still very uncomfortable with it, partly because it involves using civilian infrastructure for military ends…

Jeff then comments:

The idea (as I understand it) is to use military owned computers to launch a botnet attack as a retaliation against an attack by an enemy.

In this field of battle I fear the AFCYBER is both out-manned and out-gunned. The AF are the go-to guys if you absolutely, positively need something blown up tomorrow. But a DDoS attack? Without compromising civilian hardware, the AF likely couldn’t muster enough machines. Additionally the network locations of the machines they could muster could be easily predicted before the start of any cyber war.

There is an interesting alternative if anyone from AFCYBER is reading this. How about a volunteer botnet force? Civilians could volunteer to download an application that would allow their computer to be used in an AFCYBER controlled botnet in time of a cyber war. Obviously securing this so that it couldn’t be hijacked is a formidable technical challenge, but it’s not insurmountable.

If the reason for having a botnet is because we should assume every system can be compromised, don&#39t we HAVE TO assume the botnet can be compromised too?   Once we say “the problem is not surmountable” we have turned our back on the presuppositions that led to the botnet in the first place.