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Hacking back will only get you in more trouble

Taylor Armerding | March 4, 2016
RSA panel warns there is no easy solution to online IP theft in response to economic espionage.

The online theft of U.S. intellectual property (IP) by other nation states continues to be a big problem, a panel of experts agreed this week at the RSA conference in a session titled, “Responses to state-sponsored economic espionage.”

That much is obvious – awareness of economic cyber espionage has reached the mainstream, with CBS-TV’s newsmagazine “60 Minutes” even doing a segment on it last month, labeling it, “the great brain robbery of America.”

What to do about it is also a big problem. The panel agreed that the most tempting and instinctive response of “active defense” – more commonly known as “hacking back” – is not a good one.

The debate over hacking back remains fierce overall in the security community, with a number of prominent advocates in favor of it, including Stewart Baker (also an RSA presenter), now a partner at Steptoe & Johnson but with a high-level government history as a former assistant secretary for policy in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and former general counsel at the National Security Agency.

But there wasn’t much debate on this panel.

“Hacking back doesn’t get your IP back,” said Christopher Painter, coordinator for cyber issues at the State Department, adding that attribution – determining who actually committed the theft – can be very difficult.

“It can be a bit like you trying to punch somebody, but they duck and you punch somebody else,” he said. “You don’t get the benefit and it can cause legal and international harm. It just doesn’t work very well.”

Mark Weatherford, chief cybersecurity strategist at vArmour agreed, noting that given the difficulties of attribution, a victim could be “punching an opponent you cannot see – and it might be a nation state.”

That, he said, could result in “unintended consequences,” including retribution from a much more powerful adversary, not to mention legal problems.

The only partial dissent was from Paul Rosenzweig, founder of Red Branch Law & Consulting and a former deputy assistant secretary for policy at the DHS. He said hacking back can work effectively sometimes.

But he agreed on the “legally complicated” part. He told of an unnamed corporate client that had retaliated against a hack and was then looking for legal help against the attacker from both the U.S. government and the government of the country where the attacker was located.

The problem, Rosenzweig said, was that the firm, “had committed crimes in both countries, so they were in a legal box they couldn’t get out of.”

“We basically agreed that they should just fix the hole and then never speak of it again,” he said.

That leaves less volatile responses – diplomacy, threats and agreements like the one between President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced with much fanfare last September. But while they are less risky, they also have not been very effective so far.

 

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