I for one will not defend our nation's critical infrastructure home wifi base stations

Apparently the UK government is planning to spend lots of money building a "Cyber National Guard", which means that a "reserve guard" of civilians will be available on call when the military needs them to organise "cyber strikes" against enemies or defend the national infrastructure.

Or as the Daily Mail (remember, it's not a real paper and has a history of supporting fascism) says:

A new ‘Cyber National Guard’ of part-time reservists will be open to computer whizzkids who cannot pass the current Territorial Army fitness tests, on the basis that press-ups do not aid computer skills. ‘A TA for computer geniuses’, as Mr Hammond called it.

He poured scorn on ‘crude and bonkers attacks by armchair generals’ who have criticised him for cutting the number of soldiers – and made it clear conventional forces faced more cuts in the switch.

Moon Street

In theory I meet some of the criteria, even if I am fitter than the sneering prejudices of the Daily Mail would think.

However, this does not make me suitable for some national-cyber-guard-thingy because if you look at the one documented instance of a nation state committing a (peacetime) over-the-net attack on another nation state, Olympic Games, it's clear that this project took person-years of effort to come up with a virus so subtle it could make use of multiple 0-day exploits to get into Windows, then trickle over to the SCADA-managed industrial machinery by way of USB sticks that were neither near empty or near full (to make the loss in capacity less obvious). Once there, recognise the characteristics of an iranian enrichment centrifuge, change their spin rates to destroy them -all the while reporting valid parameters to the ops team. That's not a activity of some weekend developers: That is the R&D spend of a goverment, the integration of gained knowledge of the Iranian enrichment process, the ability to write code to destroy it -the testing of that on real hardware, and the transport mechanism using 0-day exploits and a forged signing certificate. That is what the future of inter-nation-state conflict over the net looks like, and it doesn't depend on script-kiddies running metasploit.

The classic reserve forces model trains people, part time, to be soldiers, a process which roughly consists of
  1. learning how to avoid getting killed.
  2. learning how to shoot at things and people
  3. learning how to follow orders even when the outcome involves a non-0 zero probability of becoming a KSI statistic.
  4. learning how to use skills 1 & 2 to achieve goals the person shouting the orders wants to achieve.

That training and learning scales well, as shown in the twentieth century by two global conflicts and the Korean war. Teaching people how to code malware to infiltrate and damage other government's national and commercial infrastructure does not. What does that leave? Botnets are designed to be O(1) scaling, so you don't need regiments of engineers there. Unless it is just script-kiddie work rummaging around opposing computing facilities -but that's something best done in peacetime, to a relaxed schedule (which is presumably why the Chinese govt. do appear to have associates doing that).

As for myself, unless I am needed to write JUnit tests to break the North Korean missile program, well, I'm not useful.

Maybe, therefore, it's not military attack the army wants, it's defending the nation's critical infrastructure.

Which is what exactly?

Because if its the network, then what you need is not on skills in things like configuring telco-scale switches, it's having that network set up with as much intrusion and anomaly detection as possible, with the people on call to handle the support calls. You aren't going to be able keep part time computer people around to field calls on that if all they know about network security is that turning off UPNP on the home router is a good idea.

No, network management at the government scale is a skill for the few, not the many. That doesn't mean that those people who do have to look after corporate and national intranets shouldn't be up to date with current tools and thinking w.r.t. defending critical network security from nation states, of which a key one is don't buy routers from a company owned by the Chinese Army.

Beyond the network, well there's the many desktops out there. I can just about defend my home set of machines by Romanian Botnet gangs, primarily by disabling most browser plugins, updating flash weekly and not running code I don't trust. I also have to defend my home passwords from an 11 year old. Neither skill will give me a chance to defend my machines against a nation state, not unless the attack by the state in question involves a small boy looking over your shoulder as you type in the password to give him extra time on the machine. In that case -and only in that case- would my advice -use some uppercase characters and learn to touch type- would be of use.

But going round locking down PCs by deleting security risks like Acroread? Enforcing password policies? These are IT dept things, not something for a team of reservist-cyber-warriors. Even there though, the threat posed by foreign governments sending spear-phished PPT documents containing ActiveX controls with 0-day exploits in them (ActiveX is derived from Ole Control Extensions which is built on top of Object Linking and Embedding, all atop the COM common object model). Once the unsuspecting slideware gets opened, whatever payload it goes on to download.

Where does that leave? If the outer network is the netops, the deskopt the PC IT dept, what's left? The applications.

It means designing and building applications that don't let you steal millons if you attach a KVM switch to an employee's desktop.

It means designing databases apps so that SQL injection attacks never work, irrespective of how the input comes in, and validation of that data at entry time, in flight and when it is stored in the database -so that corruption is detected.

It means having some way of backing up application state securely, so that if damage is done to it, then you can recover.

It means thinking about security in a more complex way than generic "user" -with different levels of access to different things, and it means having a defensible audit trail so that if someone were to download large quantities of an organisations files and stick them up
on wikileaks or hand them to a paper -at least you know what's been taken.

From that perspective, people like myself are more generally useful if we do actually make the things we code as securely as possible, and put in audit trails on the off chance that we can't. And it implies that the government would be better of spending money teaching us to understand Kerberos as well as other aspects of secure computing, rather than having some pool of script-kiddies whose skill stops at metaspoit and wireshark, and whose networking understanding stops at home routers. Of course there the problem lies that some of the course matter needed to keep those foreign nation states at bay, "don't trust HTTPS or SSH with 1024 bit keys" may start the audience asking questions you don't want asked.

Overall, these proposals -as presented in the newspapers- appear to be naively unrealistic and based on a complete misunderstanding of how you can both attack and defend core computing infrastructures -as well as who is capable and responsible for doing so.

Why then do they appear?

I can see a number of possibilities
  1. Null Hypothesis: Politican is clueless, and said things they don't understand;
  2. Politician reported someting realistic, but reporter clueless and reached a conclusion that makes no sense
  3. Both Politican and Reporter clueless leading to a complete misunderstanding, where the reporter didn't realise
  4. the politician was talking bollocks and then exaggerated even that
  5. Politician knew that what he was talking about was utterly unrealistic, but did it in an attempt to distract the audience and justify other actions

Given the structure of the talk -to offset cuts in the core "shoot things, achieve goals ordered to achieve, come back alive" bit of the army and reserve forces -he's probably doing #5: divert and justify those actions. But the scary thing is: he may actually believe what he's been saying.

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