By Will Dixon, Global Head of the Academy and Community at ISTARI
Cyberattacks are becoming more frequent, and their potential consequences are becoming more severe. With Critical National Infrastructure and other important services constantly in the virtual crosshairs of both state actors and cybercriminals, it is entirely conceivable that an attack, or a series of attacks, will lead to significant public harm.
In the event that this happens, governments and law enforcement will find themselves facing calls to act. In the eyes of the public, we might assume that doing so would seem natural; after all, offensive cyber operations are not as risky as military operations in the real world, so why not do more to disrupt these groups?
The picture is, of course, not as simplistic. The negotiations currently taking place at the United Nations on a treaty on cybercrime are demonstrative of the complexity of getting international agreements on what constitutes a cybercrime. The penalties that should be enacted against the perpetrators and the powers global law enforcement agencies should have in order to prosecute these perpetrators are also up for debate.
That definition is fiercely contested, given the significant implications for countries such as Russia and China that want the definition to include terms allowing them to impose strict censorship laws and pursue dissidents. While this debate continues, the lack of agreed rules of the road is leading to action against cyber criminals.
Nonetheless, the relentlessness of cybercrime means that it is worth considering how governments and law enforcement should deal with cyber criminals. We have seen how knee-jerk reactions to major events have led to poor outcomes in the past. The cyber community should endeavour to avoid making the same mistakes.
Change in Policy
There needs to be more cooperation between national and supranational agencies, which includes better access to global data sources. This would require deep, scalable operations and partnerships with law enforcement agencies on an international scale. Some of these partnerships will likely involve countries that would rather not collaborate.
It will also require better collaboration between victim organisations and law enforcement, as the recent takedown of Hive, a ransomware group that targeted more than 1,500 victims in over 80 countries around the world, has shown. Close cooperation between victims and forensics investigators at the FBI ultimately allowed law enforcement to map and disrupt the entire Hive network. If law enforcement agencies want to do this on a wider scale, they must open their doors to victims and make sure that these victims are not afraid of further penalties for being more open about the events that resulted in an attack.
Implementing Positive Incentive Models
It is an unfortunate reality that there are not nearly enough cybersecurity companies or organisations that possess the bespoke capabilities, human resources, and training to safely secure the convergence of enterprise software, the Internet of Things (IoT), and Operational Technology (OT) environments associated with Critical National Infrastructure. Preventing harm to the public requires that we fix this.
While there are many negative incentive models, such as regulation and fines for non-compliance, this can only take us so far. More positive incentive models are needed, whereby the government works alongside the community to provide resources and the financial support required to create a strong ecosystem of organisations that can navigate the complexity of critical national infrastructure environments. There has been some evidence of this in the USA, such as the federal government’s investment in cybersecurity controls following the Colonial Pipeline attack. However, more meaningful public-private cooperation is needed in order to create the ecosystem of advanced capabilities we need.
There is no escaping the fact that the cyber-threat level is growing, and it appears that we are on an unavoidable path towards law enforcement campaigns acting against cyber criminals. Whilst an appetite for more muscular action against cybercriminals is entirely understandable, we must also accept that it is not guaranteed to make a positive difference; campaigns against international criminal networks of other kinds have proved ineffective before. If we want to keep digital systems and the public they serve safe from harm, we need to invest more time and effort in creating the capabilities to do so.