Even as security pros get better at tracing attacks, proper attribution in the world of cyberwar remains a tricky business.
So while a new report (PDF) from FireEye outlines how certain tactics can serve as fingerprints that tie individual targeted attacks to others from a given region of the world, it does so with a huge caveat: False flag operations are commonplace.
"I would wager my paycheck that they occur every day," says Kenneth Geers, senior global threat analyst with FireEye. "A hacker never wants to be a zebra within a herd of horses. He or she would be wise to route their attack through a nation that is the most obvious guilty party. This leads to tunnel vision on the part of the victim."
For this reason, a mix of both technical and nontechnical information must be used to identify the source of an attack.
"At the nation-state level, computer forensics, reverse-engineering, and log-file analysis are only one part of cyberattack attribution," Geers says. "Governments have human and signals intelligence, 'hack backs,' law enforcement, diplomacy, economic pressure, political incentives, and much more. It is easy to forget how big the national toolbox really is."
But attackers are also working from a metaphorical toolbox as well, and there are some common items inside it. This collection of tools, tactics, and procedures can tie together seemingly disparate attacks in ways that help nation-states determine who is behind an attack. For example, Russian cybercriminals typically include a heavier reliance on human intelligence sources, as well as command-and-control that uses custom embedded encoding.
"TTP [tools, tactics, and procedures] often includes the delivery of weaponized email attachments, though Russian cybercriminals appear to be adept at changing their attack patterns, exploits, and data exfiltration methods to evade detection," according to the report. "In fact, one telltale aspect of Russian hackers seems to be that, unlike the Chinese, they go to extraordinary lengths to hide their identities and objectives. FireEye analysts have even seen examples in which they have run 'false-flag' cyber operations, designing their attack to appear as if it came from Asia."
The Chinese malware that FireEye researchers have analyzed is not always the most advanced or created, but in many circumstances it is very effective, the report notes.
"China employs brute-force attacks that are often the most inexpensive way to accomplish its objectives," according to FireEye. "The attacks succeed due to the sheer volume of attacks, the prevalence and persistence of vulnerabilities in modern networks, and a seeming indifference on the part of the cybercriminals to being caught."
While Asia tends to be home to large, bureaucratic hacker groups such as the "Comment Crew," Eastern European hacking groups tend to be more technically advanced and effective at evading detection, according to FireEye. Western attacks, such as Stuxnet and Gauss, also tend to be highly engineered, the report says.
Viewed outside its geopolitical context, a cyberattack offers little legal maneuvering for a defending state, says Professor Thomas Wingfield of the Marshall Center.
"False flag operations and the very nature of the Internet make tactical attribution a losing game," he says in a statement. "However, strategic attribution -- fusing all sources of intelligence on a potential threat -- allows a much higher level of confidence and more options for the decision maker. And strategic attribution begins and ends with geopolitical analysis."
Have a comment on this story? Please click "Add Your Comment" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message. Brian Prince is a freelance writer for a number of IT security-focused publications. Prior to becoming a freelance reporter, he worked at eWEEK for five years covering not only security, but also a variety of other subjects in the tech industry. Before that, he worked as a ... View Full Bio