When attribution in cyberspace is debated and discussed, most of the focus has been on whether the U.S. government should take an offensive strike against cyberattackers. But recently, a different angle has surfaced: What’s the government’s role in leveraging the “Dark Web” — the Internet underworld inaccessible to the uninitiated — to give private-sector organizations a heads-up they’re in the crosshairs of adversaries?
The answer is pretty straightforward: Tipping your hand could mean compromising your sources close to the adversary and disrupt a valuable information-gathering process, said Shane Harris, Daily Beast senior intelligence and national security correspondent, speaking Sept. 1 at IBM’s i2 Summit for a Safer Planet in downtown Washington.
In the case of the Sony Pictures Entertainment hack, the U.S. was fairly quick to publicly attribute the hack to North Korea. Less than a month following the cyberattack that leaked the entertainment conglomerate’s emails and financial information, the FBI issued a statement saying it had “enough information to conclude that the North Korean government is responsible for these actions.”
The hack was devastating — and humiliating to Sony. But what would have happened if the U.S. government knew what the hackers were planning and had tipped off Sony? “You’d burn your sources in North Korea,” Harris said.
So, with its vast trove of knowledge, should the government ever warn private-sector organizations about relevant chatter on the Dark Web sooner? There’s no straightforward answer.
The question is “whether the government has a responsibility to help its citizens or its corporations,” said Matthew Wong, director of intelligence for Flashpoint, who spoke with Nextgov a day after the event. “And sadly, the act of helping sometimes causes undesired effects. If you help a company, you’re risking your sources and methods, so that’s why the government sometimes doesn’t help citizens and companies even though it has the power and ability to do so,” he said.
Wong elaborated further: “You can have a short-term gain now, if you use this intelligence to protect this asset, and then you lose the long-term gain of intelligence and you potentially lose the ability to leverage that information to protect yourself in the long term.”
The conundrum about whether to notify intended targets about malicious activity isn’t new. During World War II, the U.K. cracked the Germans’ Enigma code, but to conceal its knowledge of the code, the U.K. had to sit idle, allowing certain “hazards” to occur, Wong said during the panel. (Alan Turing, the British mathematician who worked for U.K.’s code-breaking unit, is famously credited with cracking the Enigma code; however, Polish intelligence had years prior cracked the same type of messages.)
That strategy allowed the U.K. to gather more intelligence and study its adversary, gleaning valuable information and eventually winning the war.
“Just because we have the intelligence to stop every intrusion doesn’t mean we should,” Wong said.