Businesses worldwide are gaining control of previously unmonitored and unsupported cloud applications and devices, known as shadow IT, that lurk in their IT environments, according to the 2019 Duo Trusted Access Report. The average number of organizations protecting cloud apps with Duo surged 189 percent year-over-year, indicating that enterprises are catching up with the explosion of cloud use and shadow IT in the workplace. In addition, the frequency of out-of-date devices has dropped precipitously, hardening … More →
The headlines this week further ramps up the pressure on the UK government to follow suit, by implementing a similar ban on the use of Huawei smartphones and network devices within the UK, a step beyond their initial 5G critical infrastructure ban announced last month. But is this really about a foreign nation-state security threat? Or is it more about it geo-economics and international politicking?
Huawei: A Security Threat or an Economic Threat?
It’s no secret that Huawei was founded in 1987 by Ren Zhengfei, a former engineer in the People's Liberation Army, and the company was quickly built with the backing of major Chinese state and military contracts. But the US government, secret services and military are also known to invest heavily in Silicon Valley and US tech firms. In recent weeks there have been a number of accusations about deliberate backdoors placed within Huawei devices, implying the usage of Huawei devices could aid Chinese forces in conducting covert surveillance, and with potentially causing catastrophic impacting cyber attacks.
The reality is all software and IT hardware will have a history of exploitable vulnerabilities, and it is pretty much impossible to determine which could be intentionally placed covert backdoors, especially as an advanced and sophisticated nation-state actor would seek to obfuscate any deliberately placed backdoor as an unintentional vulnerability.
For instance, the following are critical security vulnerabilities reported within tech made by US firms in just the last 9 days, no suggestion any of these are intentionally placed backdoors:
Secret Backdoors are already unintentionally there to be discovered
The more usual approach taken by nation-state intelligence and offensive cyber agencies is to invest in finding the unintentional backdoors already present in software and hardware. The discovery of new and completely unknown 'zero-day' security vulnerability is their primary aim. Non-published zero-days vulnerabilities are extremely valuable, clearly, a value lost if they were to inform the vendors about the vulnerability, as they would seek to quickly mitigate with a software patch.
The WhatsApp vulnerability reported last week was another public example of this approach, where a private Israeli firm NSO Group found a serious vulnerability within WhatsApp. But instead of informing Facebook to fix it, NSO created a tool to exploit the vulnerability, which it sold to various governments. The ethics of that is a debate for another day.
The Laws which allows Nation-States to Conduct Cyber Surveillance
The United States has significant surveillance powers with the "Patriot Act", the Freedom Act and spying internationally with FISA. China has its equivalent surveillance powers publicly released called the "2017 National Intelligence Law". This law states Chinese organisations are "obliged to support, cooperate with, and collaborate with national intelligence work". But just like Apple, Microsoft and Google, Huawei has categorically said it would refuse to comply with any such government requests, in a letter in UK MPs in February 2019. Huawei also confirmed "no Chinese law obliges any company to install backdoors", a position they have backed up by an international law firm based in London. The letter went on to say that Huawei would refuse requests by the Chinese government to plant backdoors, eavesdropping or spyware on its telecommunications equipment.
Why the UK Gov is stuck between a Rock and Hard Place
The UK government continue to be stuck between a rock and a hard place, playing a balancing act of trying to keep both the United States and China happy, in a bid to score lucrative post-Brexit multi-billion-pound trade deals. This status-quo leaves UK Huawei smartphone consumers and UK businesses using Huawei network devices, caught in the middle. However, due to the relentless US pressure causing regular negative mainstream media headlines about the security of Huawei products, the Chinese tech giant may well be driven out of UK markets without a UK government ban.
A Netscout Threat Landscape Report declared in the second half of 2018, cyber attacks against IoT devices and DDoS attacks had both rose dramatically. Fuelled by the compromise of high numbers of IoT devices, the number of DDoS attacks in the 100GBps to 200GBps range increased 169%, while those in the 200GBps to 300GBps range exploded 2,500%. The report concluded cybercriminals had built and used cheaper, easier-to-deploy and more persistent malware, and cyber gangs had implemented this higher level of efficiency by adopting the same principles used by legitimate businesses. These improvements has helped malicious actors greatly increase the number of medium-size DDoS attacks while infiltrating IoT devices even quicker.
In a rare speech, Jeremy Fleming, the head of GCHQ warned the internet could deteriorate into "an even less governed space" if the international community doesn't come together to establish a common set of principles. He said "China, Iran, Russia and North Korea" had broken international law through cyber attacks, and made the case for when "offensive cyber activities" were good, saying "their use must always meet the three tests of legality, necessity and proportionality. Their use, in particular to cause disruption or damage - must be in extremis". Clearly international law wasn't developed with cyber space in mind, so it looks like GCGQ are attempting to raise awareness to remedy that.
I will be speaking at the e-crime Cyber Security Congress in London on 6th March 2019, on cloud security, new business metrics, future risks and priorities for 2019 and beyond.