Chinese Hackers? Russian Hackers? Hacktivists? Uncertainty Behind the Source of the Recent Breaches of Government Agencies

It started late in October, when computer networks at the White House were breached by an outside group, causing disruptions throughout the entire system.  Since then a number of agencies, including the U.S. Postal Service and the National Weather Service, have reported attacks.  Then, this past Sunday, the State Department took the unprecedented step of shutting down its entire unclassified email system as technicians repair possible damage from a suspected hacker attack. Voice of America News (VOA) reports that the White House computer systems are among the most highly fortified in the world, and begs the question: who was behind these successful and brazen attacks?  China? Russia? Political hacktivists? Or independent highly skilled hackers with their own agenda?

The White House hack is raising alarm that one of the most serious threats to online security may not be coming from China, but from Russia, reports Voice of America.  According to Darren Hayes, the director of cyber-security at Pace University who is cited in the VOA article, the Russians are a lot more sophisticated in terms of state-sponsored attacks than the Chinese.  VOA also cites Jeffrey Carr, who wrote the book Inside Cyber Warfare:

The threat from China is overinflated, (and) the threat from Russia is underestimated.  Russia certainly has been more active than any other country in terms of combining cyber-attacks, or cyber-operations, with physical operations. . . . And nobody else has ever done that – China has never done anything like that.

Nonetheless, articles by major networks continue to point the finger in different directions.  The Washington Post reported that Chinese hackers were behind the NOAA attack.  The National Post reported that Chinese hackers were suspected of hacking the U.S. Postal Service. Both Russia and China deny involvement in these attacks.  So how are these sources being attributed?

According to the VOA article, each country develops their own style of language coding.  However, Kurt Baumgartner, the Principal Security Researcher at the web-security firm Kaspersky Lab, told VOA:

[S]ource attribution is practically impossible as cybercriminals have been known to use various techniques to keep themselves hidden, using different languages from their own in their code or work, constantly changing locations or working with a large organization of criminals. . . .Functionality found in malware or techniques can be misleading.  It cannot be relied on to speculate that a specific campaign was operated out of one part of the world or another – analysis and identifying the source is much more complex than that. . . .Viruses don’t carry ID cards.

Not only that, but Hayes reported to VOA that another tactic is for governments to use non-governmental groups to give the government plausible deniability for involvement.  The VOA article specifically noted that the Russian government is not afraid to use young hacker groups, but that does not isolate them as the only country willing to use this tactic.

So what does the United States need to accomplish to prevent future breaches on government systems?  According to the VOA article, the U.S. needs to clearly define what cyber-warfare is, attribute it to various nations, and discuss repercussions for theft of intellectual property or money or just destructive attacks.  In order to do that, the U.S. needs to find accurate ways to attribute attacks to sources.  For the full VOA article, click here.

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Professor William Snyder

Professor William C. Snyderis a member of the faculty of the Institute for National Security and Counter-terrorism at Syracuse University after fifteen years with the United States Department of Justice.

Ryan D. White

Ryan D. WhiteRyan is currently a third year law student at Syracuse University College of Law, and is also pursuing a Master of Public Administration degree from Syracuse’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. Ryan spent time with Homeland Security Investigations while pursuing his undergraduate degree at Wesleyan University, and spent his first summer of law school as clerk for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of New York. He is a member of Syracuse Law Review, the Journal on Terrorism and Security Analysis, and participates in the Veteran’s Legal Clinic. Full biography

Shelby E. Mann

Ryan D. WhiteShelby is a second year law student at the Syracuse University College of Law. She is the 2018-9 Editor in Chief of the Syracuse Law Review, as well as a member of the Journal on Terrorism and Security Analysis, and the senior editor for the Syrian Accountability Project. During her final year at the University of Missouri, she served as a full-time news producer for ABC 17 News. Shelby spent her first summer of law school at the Shelby County District Attorney General's Office in Memphis, Tenn., in the Public Corruption and Economic Crimes Unit. Full biography

Christopher w. FolkChristopher W. Folk

is a 2017 graduate of SU College of Law. A non-traditional student, Christopher returned to academia after spending nearly twenty years in the high tech industry. Christopher served in the Marine Corps, graduated from Cornell University with a B.S. In Applied Economics and Business Management, attended Northeastern University’s High-Tech MBA Program and received a M.S. In Computer Information Systems. Christopher previously worked in Software Engineering. Christopher is currently serving his second term as Town Justice for the Town of Waterloo. Christopher externed with a Cybersecurity firm in the Washington, D.C. area between his first and second year at SU College of Law. Full biography

Anna Maria Castillo

Anna Maria Castillois 2016 graduate of Syracuse College of Law. She also holds a Master of Arts in International Relations from Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. She has interned at a London-based think-tank that specializes in transnational terrorism and global security and at the legal department of a defense contractor. She served as an executive editor in the Syracuse Law Review. Full biography

Jennifer A. CamilloJennifer A. Camillo

is a 2015 graduate of Syracuse College of Law and is a prosecutor. She has served as a law clerk in the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of New York and the Cayuga County District Attorney’s Office and as an extern in the Oneida County District Attorney’s Office. She was a member of the Syracuse National Trial Team and was awarded the Tiffany Cup by the New York Bar Association for her trial advocacy achievements.

Tara J. PistoreseTara J. Pistorese

holds Juris Doctor and Masters of Public Administration degrees from Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and its College of Law. She wrote for this blog when a student. She is now a member of the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General's Corps.

Benjamin Zaiser

is both a scholar and a Federal Agent of the Federal Criminal Police Office of Germany. (Opinions expressed here are his own and not any part of official duty.) Full biography


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