Information Warfare: Raiders of the Lost Exploit

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July 12, 2007: Cyber War commanders are resigned to the fact that they will have to use mercenaries if they want to survive any future Internet based conflict. Much use is being made of mercenaries right now, in the race to build up stockpiles of munitions. In Cyber War, the ammo is information. That is, knowledge of vulnerabilities in software connected to the Internet, or major networks not connected to the Internet.

The software vulnerabilities are basically bugs that enable a hacker to gain access to a computer they are not supposed be in. Not all vulnerabilities are equal. Some are much more valuable than others. Commercial Internet security firms offer rewards to people (usually software engineers who spend too much time on the Internet) who first discover a "zero day vulnerability" (this is a bug that has not yet been put to use by a hacker to create a "zero day exploit.") The rewards can sometimes exceed $100,000. The commercial security firms, which provide services for corporate and government clients, offer the rewards openly. There is a more lucrative underground market, financed by criminals and some governments, that offer even larger rewards.

The commercial firms get after the software publishers to fix the bugs, but they have noted that this takes, on average, 348 days. The publishers know that every time they open their source code to repair something, there is high risk of creating more bugs. Moreover, it's expensive to fix the bug, test the patched software, and then distribute it to their customers. Thus, unless the bug is highly likely to be exploited, it is not attended to right away. The problem with this approach is that the software publisher may not be aware of how exploitable the bug is. Criminals and Cyber Warriors have an interest in finding ways to exploit bugs that appear relatively harmless. That turns the bug into ammunition, for the Cyber War, and a way to make money, for the criminals.

In preparation for a Cyber War, ammo supply is critical. Put simply, whoever has the largest number of vulnerabilities (unpatched, of course), and has turned them into exploits, will win. There's a lot of evidence that the United States and China have both compiled large arsenals, and tested a lot of their stuff. Other countries are players as well, but the U.S. and China appear to be the superpowers of Cyber War.

The U.S. has an edge in the number of potential "mercenaries" (commercial security firms, and freelance experts) it could enlist for the war effort. China openly encourages its hackers to go out and practice on foreigners, especially the Japanese (still hated for World War II era atrocities) and the United States. China is also believed to have arrangements and understandings with the gangs that specialize in Internet based crime. Remember, China is still a police state, and communist secret police organizations have long been known to use criminal organizations for all sorts of things.

In the United States, some police agencies have been known to at least open up communications channels with Internet criminals. If only for intelligence purposes. But in wartime, offers of employment might made as well.

There hasn't been a full out, no-holds-barred Cyber War yet. But there's no longer any doubt that it is possible. And the major powers are getting ready.

 


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