The Normalization of DDoS Attacks
In June, I traveled to Israel to attend BsidesTLV and Cyber Week. Both of these events included incredible presentations, workshops, and networking opportunities. They also provided many unique opportunities to discuss research, privacy, and policy on many different levels with industry leaders and government officials from around the world.
Some of my preferred events during Cyber Week included Exploring The Grey Zone of Cyber Defense, Cyber Attacks Against Nations, and Academic Perspective’s on Cybersecurity Challenges.
One of the expert lectures during the Academic Perspective’s event struck a chord with me. The speech was titled, ‘Normalization as an Approach to Norms,’ and was presented by Prof. Martin Libicki, Professor at the U.S. Naval Academy.
At a high level, the talk was about the use of normalization as an approach to determining what cyber behaviors, carried out by governments, could be considered social norms in the cyber domain and who gets to set this gold standard. (If you would like to watch it for yourself, it can be found here on YouTube).
The part that resonated with me is when Prof. Libicki started talking about who might set the gold standard and what is considered normal cyber behaviors from different countries. For example, North Korea is known for robbing banks, and Russia is known for election interference and targeting the energy sector. Are these activities we want to accept as normal behavior? Of course not.
What about China’s behaviors that include launching DDoS attacks on dissidents? Are we, the security industry, the gold standard, comfortable with allowing others to use denial of service attacks as a way to silence others?
This lecture was focused on nation-state attacks and real cyber warfare, but it left me connecting dots and wondering, hasn’t the security industry already accepted denial of service attacks as normalized behavior?
Are Denial of Service Attacks a Social Norm?
In my opinion, yes, denial of service attacks and assisting the behaviors are now accepted and expected on all levels. But why has this happened? Why have denial of service attacks become tolerated? The sad truth is we, the security and tech industry, allowed this to happen by accepting specific actions within the community and not speaking up about others.
One of the main reasons why denial of service attacks became a social norm is because of their popularity, and the attention paid to them earlier in the decade among hacktivist and gamers. With this came the availability for anyone to freely access source codes, tools, and resources need to conduct an attack of their own.
In general, no one prevents the availability of the source code and tools from being publicly accessible. In fact, criminals AND researchers do their fair share in propagating these tools and scripts used to launch denial of service attacks by hosting them on code repository sites.
Another reason why denial of service attacks became a social norm is that legitimate companies like hosting providers and social media outlets allowed the activity for one reason or another. For example, social media platforms enable criminals to not only post operational details but also to advertise their malicious services publicly. At the same time, the hosting providers turn a blind eye for profit and allow criminals to host and mask their infrastructure with their services.
Also, at this point, you could almost say manufactures and some ISPs are co-conspirators. Manufacturers are building and shipping vulnerable IoT devices with no intention of patching or providing software updates for known exploits thus contributing to the number of possible devices that could be leveraged by a botherder for a denial of service attack. You also have ISPs that know they are significant offenders and the main source of the malicious traffic, yet do very little to mitigate the activity, let alone respond to abuse reports.
So, are we comfortable allowing others to use denial of service attacks as a way to silence people? From my perspective, it seems like we do a lot to support the activity.
Acceptance is a Slippery Slope
To be clear, in no way am I saying that a denial of service attack is nothing to worry about now that they have become a norm. But I believe most of us have grown to accept denial of service attacks, specifically temporary network outages, as a regular occurrence or have written it off as the cost of doing business in the digital era, which has led to this path of acceptance and normalization.
At any rate, if China’s use of denial of service attacks against foreign platforms used by Chinese dissidents is acceptable, or something we allow to happen without any action, then the average denial of service attack against your corporate network is considered normal behavior as well.
Under this current environment of acceptance, it becomes harder to look at the average botherder and say their behavior is not normal or acceptable, while simultaneously taking a passive approach on nation-states that use the same attack vector.
If we want to reduce the number of denial of service attacks by non-government actors, then we have to lead by example as the gold standard. We have to make sure people know that nation-states use of denial of service attack is unacceptable. We also have to do more to prevent malicious actors from gaining access to the tools used to launch these attacks.
Hosting attack services and code should not be acceptable behavior from the security community.
How Much More Will We Tolerate?
This is a question I don’t have an answer for. At the moment, we tolerate a lot. At this rate, almost every teenager, at some point, will be involved in or know someone who is engaged in launching a DDoS attack. And while some will write it off as child’s play to just knock their friend offline, we all know they likely got the code from one of our public repositories or used different services that some of us manage to mask their origin.
Remember, we as the security industry set the golden standard, and when we tolerate specific behavior for long enough, it becomes socially acceptable.