Thursday, August 10, 2017

Evasion and Regeneration; Decoys and Deception

I recently had an interesting conversation with Alex Gounares, the CEO at Polyverse. Alex calls Polyverse’s security approach “Moving Target Defense.” Polyverse’s technology basically causes your operating system to continuously morph into something functionally the same and dynamically different, at a very high rate of speed, while replacing the container with each morph. The idea is to give attackers virtually no time to exploit a vulnerability before the vulnerability has been moved somewhere else. If malware does enter the system, the OS is replaced with a brand new, clean morphed OS almost as quickly as the malware had arrived. Full disclosure: I had been referred by a friend to Polyverse for contract work. There was not a synergy in current needs but the ensuing conversation was engaging and thought provoking. This is the “evasion and regeneration” I am talking about in the title of this blog.

One of my all-time favorite quotes goes something like this. “If you only see one solution you probably don’t understand the problem.” This sage advice that I found in the sidebar of a DIY robotics book applies to life. Sometimes when I do not like a solution. I discover I’m not actually trying to solve the real problem. Sometimes the first solution I see is the best solution. Other times I find multiple appealing solutions.  Regardless, I am always more educated by remembering to apply this principle to my life.

I really am intrigued by Alex’s classifications of defenses as “stationary” and “moving target.” The moving target defense looks to me like a novel solution. Damn. The “S” word… “solution.” “If you only see one solution…” Sigh .Now my challenge became one to see if I could find better or equally appealing solutions that use a stationary target defense. In other words “Can a stationary endpoint be defended as well as an endpoint that is moving faster than the attackers can catch and inflict damage upon?”

There are many types of stationary target defenses but for this blog I am limiting discussion to one class of stationary target defense – deception and decoy. The reason is simple. It was the first to come to mind because my friend Gadi Evron is everywhere I go. Facebook, email, countries all over the world… Gadi is everywhere. In thinking about a stationary target defense solution that might be able to provide the effectiveness of a moving target defense, I remembered Gadi telling me about how his company, Cymmetria, uses decoys and deception to keep an attacker away from a stationary target. TrapX, Attivo Networks, and CounterCraft are three other companies that use a deception and decoy strategy. Aside from any technical merits of these solutions, I absolutely love the idea of deceiving the bad guys. Digital karma. Ask me about the time I kept a PC support scammer on the line for 45 minutes. He even waited for me to “cook my breakfast.”

I have an all-time favorite example of a successful stationary target defense. The defense was called “Rope-a-dope” and it made the “Rumble in the Jungle” one of the most exciting boxing matches in history. Muhammed Ali was essentially a stationary target for almost 8 rounds. In the 8th round Ali stopped being a stationary target and destroyed George Forman in an offensive flurry lasting less than 10 seconds. Rope-a-dope worked for Ali. Although it was an offensive maneuver that ended the fight, the defense was essentially stationary. I can’t imagine that getting pummeled by George Foreman felt like an Ashiatsu massage, but I wasn’t there.
Unlike Ali’s approach, companies employing decoys and deception do not let their targets stand and take punches – no matter how hardened the target is. Different companies use different techniques, but the high level concept is to use real or virtual computers that keep attention drawn away from the target by making the decoys look like they have the Holy Grail. One of the potential weaknesses of the decoy approach is that there is still a stationary target. I’m sure that all of the companies that use this approach are aware of this and have some pretty cool counter-measures, but still, there is a stationary target. If the decoys work all of the time then the actual target does not need to move.

My favorite moving target defense analogy is the SR-71 Blackbird. This spy plane was the fastest aircraft ever to fly.  The Blackbird had vulnerabilities. The Blackbird was designed for stealth, but you don’t really fly at Mach 3+ without leaving a detectable heat signature. To add to that, the skin around parts of the fuselage could be easily damaged. How did the Blackbird defend itself?  It flew faster than the missiles could reach it, faster than any other aircraft could fly, and it moved around a lot. Stealth was still a factor too. By the time the missile got there, the Blackbird was not. It didn’t matter that the Blackbird was in plain (no pun intended) sight.

Surveillance is a critical part of moving target defenses, deception and decoy defenses, and many other security approaches. Repelling attacks is good, but not everything. You want to have a discreet, digitally intimate relationship with your attacker. You just don’t want the attacker to know they are in the relationship. This should be your relationship status


This is what the adversary’s relationship status should be

You want to stalk your enemy… watch them... What is my enemy after? How are they going after it? How are their tactics adapting? Who is attacking me? What am I going to do about it? And so on… Ah ha! The OODA Loop is back!

Update: Attivo Networks expressed concern that I may be making decoy and deception defense look like a passive technology. I am actually surprised that none of the other vendors raised this concern because they all fight the misconception that they are glorified honeypots.

Modern decoy and deception approaches employ algorithms that can create a series of dynamically changing decoys and potentially even dynamically changing network topologies in response to the tactics of attackers. This is active engagement with the enemy, not passive intelligence collection.

Again, I am not recommending or endorsing any specific technology or security market segment. We’re talking philosophic approaches and challenging assumptions. I can’t imagine any single tactic working through the entire kill chain.

Given multiple approaches to achieve the same goals, which strategy is best? I can’t tell you, I don’t know your problem.

If you are Schick you are defending trade secrets. Encryption, DRM and data recovery probably address the real problem. Yes indeed, defend your endpoints, but don’t lose focus on the problem. Get that IP protected, then worry about the network and endpoints.

If you are a hospital you are defending human lives first. Protecting the equipment required to maintain the physical well-being of a patient probably requires different protection technologies and/or approaches than protecting the systems remotely monitoring a pacemaker. Banking Trojans may be the biggest threat to the accounting department, where data theft is the major threat to systems holding health records.

Make sure you are clear on the problem, assess the suitability of the approach to the problem, and them compare technologies and approaches. The right technological approach for you may not have been mentioned in this blog.

I really wanted to share with you the concept of diverse philosophical approaches to security, and demonstrate what happens when I remember some of the wisest words I know - “If you only see one solution you probably don’t understand the problem”

This is the official end of the blog, but feel free to read on if you enjoy the diversions that research on the Internet results in.  As you all know, the problem with research on the internet is not attribution and not validation, it’s that you get diverted to rather irrelevant information that is too compelling to ignore. In thinking about analogies to use in this blog, holograms came to mind. I could think of analogies using holograms for either type of defense, but they fell apart the very first time an adversary tried to “touch them.”  This analogy requires a hologram that can be “touched” to really fly. With that in mind I remembered that George Washington once said “if you can dream it you can find it on the Internet.”

Research into my dream led me to a company called Ultrahaptics. Ultrahaptics is developing a holographic technology which can make it seem like you are touching a hologram. How cool is that?

Randy Abrams

Independent Security Analyst (ISA)
Fan of Historical Quotes (FHQ)
Chaser of Internet Squirrels (CIS)

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