Category Archives: Cyber Conflict

Dutch Hacking: The Rise of a New Cyber Power?

The world opened its eyes to a new cyber power. Last month, Dutch reporters from Nieuwsuur and de Volkskrant revealed that in mid-2014 the Dutch Joint Sigint Cyber Unit (JSCU) infiltrated the computer networks of the infamous Russian hacker group “Cozy Bear.”

By sharing information with their U.S. counterparts, JSCU helped oust the Russian government-linked group thought to be responsible for the Democratic National Committee breach during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.

Hacking by its very nature is a secretive business. Although numerous states reportedly are interested in the development of offensive cybercapabilities, we typically hear about only a small set of state actors conducting operations. The public disclosure of Dutch intelligence success — based on leaked information — has important signaling effects, both internationally and domestically. And it bumps the Netherlands high in the world pecking order of offensive cyber-capability.

There’s a paradox about signaling offensive cyber-capability

It is difficult for an actor to prove its offensive cyber-capability without playing its hand — and losing this advantage. This is in part because cyber-capabilities are difficult to showcase — other than waving your hand with a USB stick containing malicious code. As strategic studies scholar Thomas Rid notes, “You can’t parade a code on the streets of Moscow.”

My research on the transitory nature of cyberweapons also explains that once a country’s cyber-capability is exposed, the adversary can often relatively easily adapt its systems to avert intrusion. Revelations about a country’s cyber capability after the fact are therefore essential to gauge an actor’s ability to conduct cyber-operations. 

These factors create a number of paradoxical dynamics. The release of classified NSA documents by Edward Snowden was perhaps the most embarrassing episode in the history of the intelligence agency. Yet the Snowden disclosures also exposed the U.S. government’s impressive arsenal, including at least 231 offensive cyber-operations in 2011. As RAND Corporation scholars David Gompert and Martin Libicki point out, the leaks ironically “broadcast how deeply the NSA can supposedly burrow into the systems of others.”

After Kaspersky Lab, a Russian anti-virus company, reported in 2014 on the espionage platform “Animal Farm,” many analysts believed the French government to be behind the sophisticated intel capabilities embedded in the malware. The French government initially denied any role.

During a lecture in mid-2016, however, Bernard Barbier, the former technical head of France’s external intelligence agency, admitted his agency had developed the malware. Security blogger Bruce Schneier points out Barbier “talked about a lot of things he probably shouldn’t have.” But for France, this post-hoc confirmation of capabilities likely enhanced the government’s reputation in this new area of conflict.

A well-placed leak — or just lucky timing? 

It remains unclear whether the signaling was intentional in the Dutch case. Access to the computer networks of Cozy Bear was already lost — perhaps because the Russians were alerted after earlier Washington Post revelations. And the Dutch government may see a diplomatic backlash from the Trump administration as the intelligence helps the FBI investigation — similar to what some say happened to Australia after officials passed information about Trump’s possible campaign links to Moscow, triggering the initial Russia inquiry.

There were certainly gains at home from this type of signaling. Last Friday, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte didn’t go into any detail about the case but told members of the media he was “immensely proud” of the intelligence unit’s success. And Rutte used the occasion to stress the importance of a controversial Dutch intelligence law from June 2017 that would allow the government to conduct large-scale, untargeted tapping of Internet traffic. Even though it is certain the law will come into effect on May 1, critics were able to enforce a national “advisory referendum” on the issue this March. With the government under pressure, the achievement of the Dutch intelligence apparatus is a very welcome PR success. 

What’s next for the Netherlands?

As of now, Dutch cyber-capability has yet to produce a major military activity. It remains to be seen just how the JSCU, a relatively small unit, is organized within the General Intelligence and Security Service and the Military Intelligence and Security Service.

The two Dutch reporters who broke the case mistakenly wrote that JSCU has the authority to conduct computer networks attacks. This is not the case; the JSCU cannot“disrupt, deny, degrade, or destroy.” It can, however, conduct computer network exploitation — that is, espionage.

Of course, network exploitation and network attacks can be quite similar. As former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden states in his book, “Playing the Edge”: “Reconnaissance should come first in the cyber-domain. … How else would you know what to hit, how, when — without collateral damage?”

At the moment, it remains unclear to what degree the JSCU capabilities support the maturation of the Dutch military cyber-command — which does have full authority to attack computer networks. Although organizational integration and coordination between network espionage and network attacks may be beneficial — increasing the opportunity for knowledge transfer and more efficient allocation of resources — my research on organizational integration indicates it is not a given within any government.

In the U.S. government, for instance, NSA and U.S. Cyber Command have numerous coordination problems. Not least among them is the fact that the NSA is not always willing to share capabilities with the military as it increases the risk that its espionage efforts — exploiting the same vulnerabilities and following similar coding procedures — also are exposed. Dutch cyber-capabilities historically reside in the intelligence community, as well. It would be hardly surprising if the Dutch government is dealing with similar organizational problems.

Finally, (cyber) power comes with a price. Russian hackers — and other actors — may now see the Dutch intelligence services as a more interesting target. Russia may retaliate accordingly — and publicly — against the Dutch to signal mutual vulnerability. At least the Dutch government seems to have taken precautions, choosing to tabulate election results by hand earlier this year.

This article is an edited version of my op-ed published by the Washington Post, The Monkey Cage

Why We Are Unconvinced NATO’s Cyber Policy Is More Aggressive, and That’s a Good Thing

Written together with Daniel Moore.

Retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Rizwan Ali, who helped to establish NATO’s cyber program, makes that case in a recent article in Foreign Policy that NATO has “embraced” a more “aggressive” stance with respect to “the use of cyber weaponry” when it recently established a Cyber Operations Center. The article provides valuable policy insights and highlights an important set of issues which have frequently been overlooked, including international cooperation on cyber capabilities and the (evolving) role of NATO in the cyber domain. It may also help to signal to a broad audience that NATO takes the ‘cyber domain’ seriously.

Yet, we are critical of his remarks and would like to pose two basic questions. First, should NATO want to be aggressive? Second, does the operations center truly mark a radical shift in policy?

First, an individual state or alliance may resort to the use of military force to pursue a range of objectives, such as defending a territory, deterring an adversary, or compelling a rival to do something. As a result, states try to be predictable in their actions or signal their credibility to follow through on a threat. All of these things are hard to do in cyberspace, making it prone to conflict and escalation. For example, states have a hard time assessing each other’s relative strength and capabilities, increasing the likelihood that offensive actions on either side could spiral out of control. As Ben Buchanan’s Cybersecuirty Dilemma shows, even routine intelligence operations can be misinterpreted as aggressive intent.

Second, (luckily) there is also little evidence to suggest that NATO has become more aggressive. It’s worth citing Secretary General Stoltenberg’s briefing following the Defense Ministers meeting held in November, which Col. Ali refers to, at length here:

Finally, we discussed ways to strengthen our cyber defense. We must be as effective in the cyber domain as we are on land, at sea, and in the air, with real-time understanding of the threats we face and the ability to respond however and whenever we choose. Today, ministers agreed on the creation of a new Cyber Operations Centre as part of the outline design for the adapted NATO Command Structure. This will strengthen our cyber defenses, and help integrate cyber into NATO planning and operations at all levels. We also agreed that we will be able to integrate Allies’ national capabilities into NATO missions and operations. While nations maintain full ownership of those capabilities. Just as Allies own the tanks, the ships and aircraft in NATO missions. NATO is a defensive alliance, whose actions are always subject to strict political oversight and always act in accordance with international law.

It might be that the prepared statements are an ill-reflection of what’s happening behind the scenes. Yet, from what’s known, NATO’s initiative to create of a new cyber operations center can equally be characterized as a new effort to solve internal integration problems or as a way for NATO to provide a more credible deterrence posture. From this perspective, the new center seems to represent both a consolidation of efforts that began with the establishing the Tallinn-based Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence in 2008 and continued with the acknowledgement of “cyber” as a warfighting domain in 2017.

Individual NATO member states have a hard enough time articulating a defense strategy, aligning interests, developing and coordinating new capabilities among military branches and government departments. Although states have the intent to develop cyber weapons, very few actually possess a meaningful capability. Even states that can conduct military cyber operations, like the United States, have faced significant challenges in making them effective.

Between NATO member states, these issues are equally relevant and perhaps even more daunting. Hyping up NATO’s efforts does nothing to promote a better understanding of how states operate in cyberspace, or of how state interactions in cyberspace work.

This article was first published on the Net Politics Blog of the Council on Foreign Relations

Cyber References Project

I started my graduate studies a few years ago thinking not much was published in the field of cyber conflict. I quickly found my assumption was wrong when I optimistically began a systematic literature review of ‘all’ the relevant works in the field. It was a project I had to abandon after a few weeks (although I do believe that more reviews like this should be conducted).

Even though it is true that still not enough has been published in the top academic journals, one can hardly say that people don’t write on ‘cyber’. With relevant readings currently being scattered across journal articles, books, blog posts, news articles, cyber security firm reports, and more, it becomes increasingly difficult to know what’s out there and build upon earlier insights and arguments published by others.

Whereas this has led some ( Oxford Bibliographies Project and State of the Field of Conference 2016) to direct efforts towards finding the ‘core’ of the field – focusing on key readings –  I have started a complimentary ‘Cyber References Project with as aim to be much more inclusive.

The database currently includes about 800-1000 readings (and also lists a few podcasts and documentaries), which I have sorted into 48 categories. The categories are not mutually exclusive. The goal is not to search based on author (or title) like conventional search engines.

This database includes the references listed on various cyber security course syllabi, State of the Field of Conference 2016,  Oxford Bibliographies Project, SSRN, Google Scholar, Oxford SOLO, PhD-Manuscripts, and think-tank search engines.

Where I see this project going: I plan to include another 150+ academic articles & 200+ blog posts in the near future. I also hope to improve formatting and sort the current list of readings (by year & add categories). In addition, Olivia Lau maintains a great notes/summary pool of key readings on International Relations. It would be great if we could establish something similar for cyber conflict.

Please let me know if readings are missing or categorized incorrectly. Of course, any ideas on how to make this platform easier to use are also very welcome.