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🔑 Key Takeaways

  1. Nation State Actors are government-sanctioned hackers who operate in secrecy to steal secrets and disrupt targets. Getting caught could result in a war, so it's essential to protect sensitive equipment and technology to prevent threats to the nation.
  2. Nations use cyber espionage as a means of gaining sensitive information by following a seven-step process called the "cyber kill chain." It starts with collecting data on the target and emphasizes secrecy to avoid political backlash.
  3. Before attempting to access a network, conduct passive reconnaissance, gather information about devices and vulnerabilities, and use open source intelligence tools and social engineering techniques. Knowing the network structure and defenders is crucial to success.
  4. Successful cyberattacks require thorough research on the target's environment and personnel, identification of potential database administrators, and gathering information on security tools to select appropriate tools and exploits. Phases One and Two of the cyber kill chain involve gathering information and weaponizing the attack.
  5. Successfully infiltrating a foreign government's network requires a thorough understanding of the cyber kill chain, careful planning, and execution of each phase, including weaponization, delivery, and exploitation. Knowledge of website admins, developers, and network personnel can prove valuable, but any misstep can lead to disastrous consequences.
  6. In the cyber kill chain, hackers use a waiting game to install an implant on a target system and gain remote access. IT admins should be aware of this tactic and take necessary precautions to prevent such attacks.
  7. Even the most advanced cyber espionage technology can be risky, and organizations must weigh the potential benefits against the possibility of being caught. Detecting and addressing issues promptly is crucial to minimize the risk of political blowback.
  8. Sometimes it's better to wait and observe to avoid detection. Reflect on mistakes, like in a post-mortem, to prevent similar events and improve future outcomes.
  9. Keeping updated with information and vigilance remain important in maintaining cybersecurity. Despite having competing priorities, organizations should prioritize addressing security concerns, adapt to changing environments, and always weigh risks and rewards.

📝 Podcast Summary

The Invisible Elite Hackers of Nation State Actors

Nation State Actors are an elite group of hackers working for government agencies with a license to hack which allows them to work without fear of legal retribution. They are tasked with stealing secrets or disrupting targets through connected networks while being invisible and going entirely under the radar. It is crucial to not let the enemies know about the hacking techniques or capture them because it could have devastating consequences. An anonymous source with fifteen years of experience running offensive cyber operations says getting caught could result in a war. It's important to keep top-secret government equipment and technology out of the wrong hands because it could put the nation at risk. The Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency are examples of Intelligence Departments all governments have to get information on enemies regarding threats to the nation.

The Evolution of Cyber Espionage and the Seven Phases of a Nation State Actor's Cyber Kill Chain.

Governments have been spying on each other for centuries, but with the rise of technology, cyber espionage has become the new norm. Governments actively hack into other governments for national security purposes, such as gaining knowledge about upcoming attacks or stealing top-secret plans. Hackers can now steal information from the other side of the globe, exposing a whole new attack surface. To conduct a successful cyber-attack, a Nation State Actor follows the cyber kill chain, which has seven phases. The first phase is reconnaissance, where information about the target is gathered. It's imperative that Nation State Actors stay clandestine to avoid political blowback, protect their tools and exploit infrastructure.

Collecting Information for Network Access

To access a network, information should be collected about the network using passive reconnaissance and mapping. Gathering information about hardware, software, antivirus, internet-facing devices and their vulnerabilities is important. Open source intelligence tools such as Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, Reddit and technical forums should be used to find employees, full names, email addresses, and positions of a target organization. Social engineering techniques should also be used to gather information from IT and InfoSec people. Having a potential point of entry into a network is not enough; it is important to have a map of the network structure and know the defenders of the network. Outdated systems are more vulnerable and open to cyber threats.

Understanding the Phases of Successful Cyberattacks

To successfully execute cyberattacks, thorough research on the target's environment and personnel is needed. This includes identifying potential database administrators and gathering information on the specific systems and software used. Obtaining approval to use expensive and top-secret exploits is dependent on the level of risk posed to the target's equities. Researching and identifying their antivirus and security tools can help in selecting tools and exploits that can bypass those defenses. Phase One of the cyber kill chain involves gathering as much information as possible on the target, while Phase Two involves weaponization and obtaining approval to use specific tools and exploits based on the gathered information.

Phases of the cyber kill chain for successful network infiltration.

Successfully infiltrating a foreign government's network requires careful planning and execution of each phase of the cyber kill chain. The weaponization phase involves building a targeting package and obtaining operational approval, while the delivery phase involves sending the exploit to the system in the network. The exploitation phase is critical for gaining control of the administrator’s computer, which can provide access to everything in the network. Linux servers are easier to infiltrate since they don't have antivirus software. Knowing the website administrator, developers, and network people can provide valuable information in planning and executing the infiltration. However, any misstep can have disastrous consequences and lead to getting caught.

The Importance of Understanding the Cyber Kill Chain

In the cyber kill chain, hackers wait for an admin to log in to troubleshoot a problem caused by them, so they can install an implant on the target system. The implant is a bug, a Trojan or a remote access tool that allows hackers to take ownership of that computer. Once the implant is installed, hackers move on to the next phase of the cyber kill chain, which is command and control. This gives them remote access to the network admin's computer and the ability to take data they need. Waiting for an admin to log in can take a long time, so hackers sometimes cause a problem on the web server to prompt an admin to log in. However, in some cases, the problem may be caused by the admin upgrading the operating system and making the implant incompatible.

The Risks of Sophisticated Cyber Espionage

A secret and expensive implant that was being used to carry out cyber espionage stopped playing well with the newer version of Windows in the target system and started causing weird behavior that could have alerted the victim to the breach. The deployment of the sophisticated implant posed a high risk of being caught and causing political blowback. When the problem was detected, it triggered alarms, memos, and meetings to assess the risks and find a solution. The decision to leave it and not delete it was taken to avoid making things even worse. The incident highlights the challenges involved in carrying out sophisticated cyber espionage activities while minimizing the chances of getting caught.

The Art of strategic and careful action in high-stakes situations

Sometimes the best course of action is to wait and observe, even if it means delaying the achievement of objectives. In the case of obtaining data from an Oracle database, the team chose to minimize their presence and avoid detection by not taking action until the right opportunity presented itself. This decision, while frustrating at the time, ultimately prevented an even larger network breach. Additionally, after the successful completion of the operation, there was a post mortem to analyze what happened and how to prevent similar events. This illustrates the importance of being strategic and careful in high-stakes situations, and the value of reflecting on mistakes to improve future outcomes.

The Challenges of Cybersecurity in a Cautionary Age

Cybersecurity is becoming increasingly difficult due to the awareness and caution exercised by people. Hackers, whether nation states or individuals, rely heavily on luck to exploit vulnerabilities. It is important to maintain updated information and remain vigilant as organizations have competing priorities that may hinder the ability to address security concerns. The NSA was unable to obtain access to the database due to the network configuration, but had considered the risks and rewards of attempting to do so. The operational decision to not capture credentials before implanting the box was debatable, but ultimately deemed acceptable given prior knowledge. Cybersecurity is a dynamic and evolving field that requires constant attention and adaptation.