What’s a “State-Sponsored Actor”?

Yahoo![Updated thanks to an old friend.]

In Yahoo!’s announcement of the theft of 500 million accounts, the Chief Information Security Officer Bob Lord wrote that the company believes a “state-sponsored actor” was behind the attack.  What does that mean and how would Yahoo! come to this conclusion?

The term “state-sponsored” is vague.  It could means someone who works for a government, or it could mean someone who has in effect been contracted out by a government.  Both Russia and China have been accused of this sort of behavior in the past.  In the case of Russia, there are two well known hacking organizations, Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear that the Washington Post previously reported were involved in the cyberattack against the Democratic National Committee’s systems.  In the case of China, the Elderwood Group was accused of taking part in a successful phishing attack against His Holiness, the Dalai Lama.

But why does Yahoo! believe that the culprit is one of these groups and not any other hacker?  There are several possibilities:

  • Perhaps the botnet systems used used to gain access to the Yahoo! passwords were the same as those used in an earlier attack in which a state-sponsored actor was known to be involved; or
  • The code used to break into Yahoo!’s internal network was the same or similar to code used in an earlier attack that is known to be from one of these groups; or
  • The investigation has been able to determine where the control systems of an attack are and who is accessing them.
  • As my friend points out, governments aren’t in this for the money but for some other purpose.  That means that stolen information isn’t likely to hit the black market anytime soon.  In this case, by the time Yahoo! discovered the problem, the breach was two years old.

Finding proof beyond a reasonable doubt will be difficult.  Consider this: it is possible for the Chinese to make use of a botnet run in Russia or America, or for America to operate a botnet in China to attack systems in Russia, just to lend the appearance as to who the source is, without revealing who the actual source is.

The only fundamental solution to this sort of attack is better end system security.  Only when botnets have dried up can we establish the true source of attacks.  Maybe in my lifetime this will happen.  Maybe.  But that means a lot of people have to do a lot of work.

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