Get the Boiling Oil Ready

I've blogged before on the topic of computer security and the need for approaches like "asymmetric warfare" to the security problems that our industry – actually our entire society – is experiencing. The recent Target breach is yet another example of how out-of-control the situation is becoming.

I believe we are now on the cusp of a large shift in the corporate and governmental stance on this problem. And this shift may finally begin to turn the tide.

Going On Offense

First you have to understand that as an industry, we've always been in a defensive posture when it comes to cyber attacks. This has been a natural consequence of US law providing no protection for retaliatory responses. Any actions you take against an attacker must not violate the same laws that the attacker violated when they attacked you.

This stance is a purely defensive one – meaning only the US government has the right to retaliate against the hackers, whether that be by legal means or cyber attack. The problem is that the US government doesn't have the resources to effectively track, prosecute and/or retaliate against the hackers. It is not that there are so many hackers; it's that there are so many weak spots for them to attack.

The Internet is like the Wild West where there was one US Marshal for many hundreds of square miles with bands of bandits roaming around. The key difference is back in the Wild West, everybody was armed with weapons to defend themselves. The current state of cyber attacks is that victims get to wear all the body armor they like – but they cannot raise a hand in response.

You cannot win a war if you are always on defense.

An Internet Castle Doctrine

The clear precedent for changing this situation is the concept of self-defense. You can legally take the life of another human being if you do so in defense of your own life. This concept has been around for a very long time and is well tested by and supported by the law and the courts.

In addition to self-defense is the Castle Doctrine. While laws supporting this doctrine do not exist in all states, the concept is pretty simple – the immunity of self-defense is extended to your abode. In other words, your home is treated as your "castle" and you can use lethal force to defend it.

What I believe is needed now is a cyber version of the Castle Doctrine – an "Internet Castle Doctrine". Laws supporting an Internet Castle Doctrine would closely follow the principles of the Castle Doctrine and self-defense. These laws would protect you or your organization if you choose to retaliate against a cyber attack in an offensive fashion.

It seems that most cyber security professionals agree that it is time for this change. Only 30% of IT security leaders were not ready to pursue non-defensive responses to cyber attacks because "too many legal and ethical questions" remain.

Weaponizing Cyber Security

In the same way that the need for self-defense feeds the gun industry, an Internet Castle Doctrine is likely to feed an industry producing cyber self-defense weaponry. CrowdStrike is a startup that came out of stealth mode in 2013 pursuing new approaches to responding to cyber attacks. While they are not offering cyber weaponry yet, they are working on "active defense" systems. There are bound to be more startups quietly working on this too.

Along with the creation of this cyber weapons market will come the inevitable counter arguments that will fuel "cyber weapon control" efforts. As James Lewis, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies put it, enabling counter attacks

Create[s] the risk that some idiot in a company will make a mistake and cause collateral damage that gets us into a war with China.

Yes, collateral damage and unintended consequences are a real concern. However, we have the same concern with guns and self-defense and yet seem to manage well enough. And, at the moment, there doesn't appear to be any other viable alternative to weaponizing and counterattacking.

So, next time the barbarians start attacking your castle walls don't just fill the moat and raise the drawbridge – start thinking about boiling some oil.