Sunday, June 17, 2018

Notes on "The President is Missing"

Former president Bill Clinton has contributed to a cyberthriller "The President is Missing", the plot of which is that the president stops a cybervirus from destroying the country. This is scary, because people in Washington D.C. are going to read this book, believe the hacking portrayed has some basis in reality, and base policy on it. This "news analysis" piece in the New York Times is a good example, coming up with policy recommendations based on fictional cliches rather than a reality of what hackers do.


The cybervirus in the book is some all powerful thing, able to infect everything everywhere without being detected. This is fantasy no more real than magic and faeries. Sure, magical faeries is a popular basis for fiction, but in this case, it's lazy fantasy, a cliche. In fiction, viruses are rarely portrayed as anything other than all powerful.

But in the real world, viruses have important limitations. If you knew anything about computer viruses, rather than being impressed by what they can do, you'd be disappointed by what they can't.

Go look at your home router. See the blinky lights. The light flashes every time a packet of data goes across the network. Packets can't be sent without a light blinking. Likewise, viruses cannot spread themselves over a network, or communicate with each other, without somebody noticing -- especially a virus that's supposedly infected a billion devices as in the book.

The same is true of data on the disk. All the data is accounted for. It's rather easy for professionals to see when data (consisting of the virus) has been added. The difficulty of anti-virus software is not in detecting when something new has been added to a system, but automatically determining whether it's benign or malicious. When viruses are able to evade anti-virus detection, it's because they've been classified as non-hostile, not because they are invisible.

Such evasion only works when hackers have a focused target. As soon as a virus spreads too far, anti-virus companies will get a sample, classify as malicious, and spread the "signatures" out to the world. That's what happened with Stuxnet, a focused attack on Iran's nuclear enrichment program that eventually spread too far and got detected. It's implausible that anything can spread to a billion systems without anti-virus companies getting a sample and correctly classifying it.

In the book, the president creates a team of the 30 brightest cybersecurity minds the country has, from government, the private sector, and even convicted hackers on parole from jail -- each more brilliant than the last. This is yet another lazy cliche about genius hackers.

The cliche comes from the fact that it's rather easy to impress muggles with magic tricks. As soon as somebody shows an ability to do something you don't know how to do, they become a cyber genius in your mind. The reality is that cybersecurity/hacking is no different than any other profession, no more dominated by "genius" than bridge engineering or heart surgery. It's a skill that takes both years of study as well as years of experience.

So whenever the president, ignorant of computers, puts together a team of 30 cyber geniuses, they aren't going to be people of competence. They are going to be people good at promoting themselves, taking credit for other people's work, or political engineering. They won't be technical experts, they'll be people like Rudi Giuliani or Richard Clarke, who have been tapped by presidents as cyber experts despite knowing less than nothing about computers.

A funny example of this is Marcus Hutchins. He's a virus researcher of typical skill and experience, but was catapulted to fame by finding the "kill switch" in the famous Wannacry virus. In truth, he just got lucky, being just the first to find the kill switch that would've soon been found by another researcher (it was pretty obvious). But the press set him up as one of the top 5 experts in the world. That's silly, because there is no such thing, like there's no "top 5 neurosurgeons" or "top 5 bridge engineers". Hutchins is certainly skilled enough to merit a solid 6 figure salary, but such "top cyber geniuses" don't exist.

I mention Hutchins because months after the famed Wannacry incident, he was arrested in conjunction with an unrelated Russian banking virus. Assuming everything in his indictment is true, it still makes him only a minor figure with a few youthful indiscretions. It's likely this confusion between "fame" and "cyber genius" catapulted him into being a major person of interest in their investigations.

The book discusses the recent major cyberattacks in the news, like Mirai, Wannacry, and nPetya, but they are distorted misunderstandings of what happened. For example, it explains DDoS:
A DDoS attack is a distribute denial-of-service attack. A flood attack, essentially, on the network of servers that convert the addresses we type into our browsers into IP numbers that the internet routers use.
This is only partial right, but mainly wrong. DDoS is any sort of flood from multiple sources distributed around the Internet, against any target. It's only the Mirai attack, the most recent famous DDoS, that attacked the name servers that convert addresses to numbers.

The same sort of misconceptions are rife in Washington. Mirai, Wannacry, and nPetya spawned a slew of policy recommendations that get the technical details wrong. Politicians reading this Clinton thriller will just get more wrong.


In terms of fiction, the lazy cliches and superficial understand of cybersecurity will be hard for people of intelligence to stomach. However, the danger I want to point out is that people in Washington D.C., politicians who make policy, will read this book. Their understanding of how cyber works will come from such books. And it will be wrong.



3 comments:

Ivo Blaauw said...

It is allways a good idea to watch a few episodes of SCI to enhance your knowledge of cyber security. Or read Daemon, by Daniel Suarez.

Phil Pearl said...

Although I haven't read this book, I concur wholeheartedly with your comments. And as it happens I have also written a novel, called "Cyber Insecurity", that addresses the same subject. I just hope that I've managed to avoid the pitfalls discussed here!

Phil Pearl

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