Is attack attribution a lost cause?

One of the cornerstones of policing is the ability to identify perpetrators to bring them to justice, which is a difficult task for cybercrime

One of the cornerstones of policing is the ability to identify perpetrators to bring them to justice. For cybercrime, this is a difficult task, due to the multitude of ways to create anonymity over the Internet.

As a trivial example, imagine an attacker sending messages to a victim through a third computer called a proxy. After the attack, the proxy is wiped of all data, losing the ability to directly attribute previous messages.

Botnets are a more complex example of this, where a large number of computers conspire to remove the ability to trace messages to the original attacker. Tor is another example, with the same technology simultaneously used both to support freedom against oppression and to enable cybercrime to happen anonymously.

With the number and quality of anonymisation technologies available, it would seem that attack attribution is a lost cause. Direct attribution, the tracing of a message across networks to its origin, is exactly the problem that is "solved" by these technologies.

In many cases, the only way attribution through networks such as Tor has been through loopholes or security flaws, which are quickly overcome once discovered.

There exists another possibility for attribution, known as indirect attribution. In indirect attribution, the methods and attributions of an attack help build a model which is then used to link attacks to a suspect.

One example of this is the use of language and grammar in phishing attacks - such language can be used to profile an attacker, obtaining information such as age, gender and first language. This type of attribution is much more difficult to overcome, as it forces attackers to remove features from their attack which may be necessary to the attacks success.

In phishing attacks, this may require the phisher to remove forceful language such as the infamous "You must activate your account within the next 24 hours". Such information, the exact way in which the message is conveyed, improves the effectiveness of indirect attribution methods.

Language is not the only way indirect attribution can occur; an attacker trying to perform a brute force attack on a password may use a unique rainbow table which may later be discovered in another attack.

Indirect attribution at the cutting edges of cybercrime research, with research into enabling methods being performed around the world.

Indirect attribution will pose a major threat for cybercriminals in the next decade. It creates a fine line for attackers; do they increase their customisation of the attacks and risk being personally identified or do they use standard attacks and risk being blocked by simpler pattern recognising algorithms?

Indirect attribution also poses a challenge for forensic investigators and administrators. The information used to attribute an attack may not be immediately obvious, forcing a larger requirement to store more data about an attack.

When did it happen? Which specific attack messages were sent? Which router did those messages come from? What was the character encoding of the email? All these questions, and many more, may give the answer to attack attribution in the future.

I welcome your thoughts, input and feedback via comment.

Follow @CSO_Australia and sign up to the CSO Australia newsletter.

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags cyber attackssecuritycybercrime

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by Robert Layton

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Will your data protection strategy be enough when disaster strikes?

    Speakers: - Paul O’Connor, Engagement leader - Performance Audit Group, Victorian Auditor-General’s Office (VAGO) - Nigel Phair, Managing Director, Centre for Internet Safety - Joshua Stenhouse, Technical Evangelist, Zerto - Anthony Caruana, CSO MC & Moderator

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts

Market Place