Category Archives: Incidents

The FBI Intrusion Notification Program

The FBI intrusion notification program is one of the most important developments in cyber security during the last 15 years. 

This program achieved mainstream recognition on 24 March 2014 when Ellen Nakashima reported on it for the Washington Post in her story U.S. notified 3,000 companies in 2013 about cyberattacks

The story noted the following:

"Federal agents notified more than 3,000 U.S. companies last year that their computer systems had been hacked, White House officials have told industry executives, marking the first time the government has revealed how often it tipped off the private sector to cyberintrusions...

About 2,000 of the notifications were made in person or by phone by the FBI, which has 1,000 people dedicated to cybersecurity investigations among 56 field offices and its headquarters. Some of the notifications were made to the same company for separate intrusions, officials said. Although in-person visits are preferred, resource constraints limit the bureau’s ability to do them all that way, former officials said...

Officials with the Secret Service, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security that investigates financially motivated cybercrimes, said that they notified companies in 590 criminal cases opened last year, officials said. Some cases involved more than one company."

The reason this program is so important is that it shattered the delusion that some executives used to reassure themselves. When the FBI visits your headquarters to tell you that you are compromised, you can't pretend that intrusions are "someone else's problem."

It may be difficult for some readers to appreciate how prevalent this mindset was, from the beginnings of IT to about the year 2010.

I do not know exactly when the FBI began notifying victims, but I believe the mid-2000's is a safe date. I can personally attest to the program around that time.

I was reminded of the importance of this program by Andy Greenberg's new story The FBI Botched Its DNC Hack Warning in 2016—but Says It Won’t Next Time

I strongly disagree with this "botched" characterization. Andy writes:

"[S]omehow this breach [of the Democratic National Committee] had come as a terrible surprise—despite an FBI agent's warning to [IT staffer Yared] Tamene of potential Russian hacking over a series of phone calls that had begun fully nine months earlier.

The FBI agent's warnings had 'never used alarming language,' Tamene would tell the Senate committee, and never reached higher than the DNC's IT director, who dismissed them after a cursory search of the network for signs of foul play."

As with all intrusions, criminal responsibility lies with the intruder. However, I do not see why the FBI is supposed to carry the blame for how this intrusion unfolded. 

According to investigatory documents and this Crowdstrike blog post on their involvement, at least seven months passed from the time the FBI notified the DNC (sometime in September 2015) and when they contacted Crowdstrike (30 April 2016). That is ridiculous. 

If I received a call from the FBI even hinting at a Russian presence in my network, I would be on the phone with a professional incident response firm right after I briefed the CEO about the call.

I'm glad the FBI continues to improve its victim notification procedures, but it doesn't make much of a difference if the individuals running IT and the organization are negligent, either through incompetence or inaction.

Note: Fixed year typo.

Forcing the Adversary to Pursue Insider Theft

Jack Crook pointed me toward a story by Christopher Burgess about intellectual property theft by "Hongjin Tan, a 35 year old Chinese national and U.S. legal permanent resident... [who] was arrested on December 20 and charged with theft of trade secrets. Tan is alleged to have stolen the trade secrets from his employer, a U.S. petroleum company," according to the criminal complaint filed by the US DoJ.

Tan's former employer and the FBI allege that Tan "downloaded restricted files to a personal thumb drive." I could not tell from the complaint if Tan downloaded the files at work or at home, but the thumb drive ended up at Tan's home. His employer asked Tan to bring it to their office, which Tan did. However, he had deleted all the files from the drive. Tan's employer recovered the files using commercially available forensic software.

This incident, by definition, involves an "insider threat." Tan was an employee who appears to have copied information that was outside the scope of his work responsibilities, resigned from his employer, and was planning to return to China to work for a competitor, having delivered his former employer's intellectual property.

When I started GE-CIRT in 2008 (officially "initial operating capability" on 1 January 2009), one of the strategies we pursued involved insider threats. I've written about insiders on this blog before but I couldn't find a description of the strategy we implemented via GE-CIRT.

We sought to make digital intrusions more expensive than physical intrusions.

In other words, we wanted to make it easier for the adversary to accomplish his mission using insiders. We wanted to make it more difficult for the adversary to accomplish his mission using our network.

In a cynical sense, this makes security someone else's problem. Suddenly the physical security team is dealing with the worst of the worst!

This is a win for everyone, however. Consider the many advantages the physical security team has over the digital security team.

The physical security team can work with human resources during the hiring process. HR can run background checks and identify suspicious job applicants prior to granting employment and access.

Employees are far more exposed than remote intruders. Employees, even under cover, expose their appearance, likely residence, and personalities to the company and its workers.

Employees can be subject to far more intensive monitoring than remote intruders. Employee endpoints can be instrumented. Employee workspaces are instrumented via access cards, cameras at entry and exit points, and other measures.

Employers can cooperate with law enforcement to investigate and prosecute employees. They can control and deter theft and other activities.

In brief, insider theft, like all "close access" activities, is incredibly risky for the adversary. It is a win for everyone when the adversary must resort to using insiders to accomplish their mission. Digital and physical security must cooperate to leverage these advantages, while collaborating with human resources, legal, information technology, and business lines to wring the maximum results from this advantage.