Dark Reading is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Perimeter

3/11/2010
12:09 PM
Gadi Evron
Gadi Evron
Commentary
Connect Directly
Twitter
LinkedIn
RSS
E-Mail
50%
50%

Cyberwarfare: Play Offense Or Defense?

One of the key differences in military theory between Internet warfare and kinetic warfare is whether defense or offense are stronger. Here's a shortened version of an argument I am formulating about this matter following years of debate.

One of the key differences in military theory between Internet warfare and kinetic warfare is whether defense or offense are stronger. Here's a shortened version of an argument I am formulating about this matter following years of debate.To begin, we require an understanding of theory. While it is a widely held belief that offense is the strongest form of defense, this is unsubstantiated. Military experts worldwide recognize that in the physical world, defense is stronger. Why is this the case, and why doesn't it hold water on the Internet?

There are several reasons, ranging from the defense's ability to choose the battlefield, bring reinforcements, supply the troops, and have knowledge of the land and support of the local population, to the offense's long supply lines, need to defend these, lack of agility on reinforcements, knowledge of the land, and lack of support from the local population.

The defender can also weaken the attacker's position by retreating into his country, making the costs of a successful offense higher.

Then there is attitude and control of momentum, and rarely would you find anyone who disagrees that acting offensively is a bad idea, even in defense.

Carl von Clausewitz said:

"The offensive side can only have the advantage of one complete surprise of the whole mass with the whole, whilst the defensive is in a condition to surprise incessantly, throughout the whole course of the combat, by the force and form which he gives to his partial attacks."

The source of the urban legend on offense being stronger is unclear. In a funsec mailing list discussion some time ago, Tomas L. Byrnes, Gary Warner, and I tried to locate this origin. While most mistakenly attribute it to Clausewitz, many claim it comes from heavyweight fighter Jack Dempsey. As Gary says, "[Dempsey] denies saying this and calls it 'an overworked quotation.'"

Gary pointed out that in Dempsy's 1950 book, "Championship Fighting," he wrote:

"You must have a good defense to be a well-rounded fighter. And the best defense is an aggressive defense."

However, no rule ever holds for all cases, and as Tom pointed out, Clausewitz said:

We must say, that the defensive form of war is in itself stronger than the offensive."
Tom reminds us that Clausewitz wrote this "in an age when the greatest mobility was on horseback," which as Tom mentions, Guderian showed with Blitzkrieg that when you have the advantage of maneuver, you can flank a static defense.

What of Cyber Warfare? Is Defense Still Stronger?
While some lesser-appreciated types of defense work exactly by adding maneuverability to the equation, classic defenses on the Internet don't have much maneuverability at all. The particular for the "real world" becomes the general for the virtual one: Offense is much stronger.

To begin with, we must examine the mindset of both attacker and defender in cyberspace.

Security researchers know for a fact that there are always bugs in programs, and therefore it follows that there are always more vulnerabilities to be found and exploited. The only question is how much time (or resources, in general) one is capable and willing to invest.

Defenders, on the other hand, know for a fact that they can't defend everything. Every computer has thousands of pieces of code running on it, interconnected with various trust levels with different hardware, and even more software. Then there are multiple computers in an organization, and these often rely on one another for essential services, such as authentication. Defenders would examine the entire picture and determine the risk.

Which systems are most at risk? Which are actively threatened? Which matter most? What can be done to reduce the risk for each, and how much would it cost?

The attacker needs only ONE vulnerability to gain access, while the defender needs to actively protect everything, try to limit exposure, and increase the attacker's cost. The two mindsets don't work well together.

And defense, in most cases, is purely reactive: It sets the immobile defenses and then tries to detect breaches of policy. A smart attacker could go completely undetected while the defenders are busy dealing with false positive hits in their warning systems.

While defense decides the layout and landscape, it does not control them in any effective fashion. The attacker needs only to be patient and invest the resources, and a breach is guaranteed. That's why some information is stored separately, and why defenders often speak of layered defenses.

Follow Gadi Evron on Twitter: http://twitter.com/gadievron.

Gadi Evron is an independent security strategist based in Israel. Special to Dark Reading. Gadi is CEO and founder of Cymmetria, a cyber deception startup and chairman of the Israeli CERT. Previously, he was vice president of cybersecurity strategy for Kaspersky Lab and led PwC's Cyber Security Center of Excellence, located in Israel. He is widely recognized for ... View Full Bio

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Video
Cartoon Contest
Write a Caption, Win a Starbucks Card! Click Here
Latest Comment: Our Endpoint Protection system is a little outdated... 
Current Issue
The Year in Security: 2019
This Tech Digest provides a wrap up and overview of the year's top cybersecurity news stories. It was a year of new twists on old threats, with fears of another WannaCry-type worm and of a possible botnet army of Wi-Fi routers. But 2019 also underscored the risk of firmware and trusted security tools harboring dangerous holes that cybercriminals and nation-state hackers could readily abuse. Read more.
Flash Poll
Rethinking Enterprise Data Defense
Rethinking Enterprise Data Defense
Frustrated with recurring intrusions and breaches, cybersecurity professionals are questioning some of the industrys conventional wisdom. Heres a look at what theyre thinking about.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2019-10694
PUBLISHED: 2019-12-12
The express install, which is the suggested way to install Puppet Enterprise, gives the user a URL at the end of the install to set the admin password. If they do not use that URL, there is an overlooked default password for the admin user. This was resolved in Puppet Enterprise 2019.0.3 and 2018.1....
CVE-2019-10695
PUBLISHED: 2019-12-12
When using the cd4pe::root_configuration task to configure a Continuous Delivery for PE installation, the root user�s username and password were exposed in the job�s Job Details pane in the PE console. These issues have been resolved in version 1.2.1 of the ...
CVE-2019-5085
PUBLISHED: 2019-12-12
An exploitable code execution vulnerability exists in the DICOM packet-parsing functionality of LEADTOOLS libltdic.so, version 20.0.2019.3.15. A specially crafted packet can cause an integer overflow, resulting in heap corruption. An attacker can send a packet to trigger this vulnerability.
CVE-2019-5090
PUBLISHED: 2019-12-12
An exploitable information disclosure vulnerability exists in the DICOM packet-parsing functionality of LEADTOOLS libltdic.so, version 20.0.2019.3.15. A specially crafted packet can cause an out-of-bounds read, resulting in information disclosure. An attacker can send a packet to trigger this vulner...
CVE-2019-5091
PUBLISHED: 2019-12-12
An exploitable denial-of-service vulnerability exists in the Dicom-packet parsing functionality of LEADTOOLS libltdic.so version 20.0.2019.3.15. A specially crafted packet can cause an infinite loop, resulting in a denial of service. An attacker can send a packet to trigger this vulnerability.