swannysec Musings on InfoSec

Talking Point - On Attribution



Over the next week or so, I’m going to cover, in short form, a couple of topics that have been rattling around my brain for a while now as I continue learning and growing more comfortable working with and thinking about threat intelligence. We are fortunate to have a wonderful community built up around the discipline and I’ve had the opportunity to interact with a lot of amazing people who provide immeasurable wisdom and perspective. Exposure to the community and my own work related to the field inevitably leads me to draw some conclusions and formulate some strong opinions, so here we go.

On Attribution

Whodunnit? Stop it! Stop right there. Before you ask that question, or allow it to be asked of you by management, you need to ask a different question first. Does it matter? While I believe attribution has its place in the analytical process associated with generating threat intelligence, I’m not of the belief it’s always relevant to an organization’s aims in producing that intelligence. While I’m certain that your execs would love to hear that “China did it,” does that matter to your organization? Can you actually do anything with that information?

Electronic Dragon

Image courtesy Charis Tsevis, provided under a Creative Commons license.

Attribution, as with any other element of good threat intelligence, needs to be actionable for it to be relevant. See Richard Bejtlich’s post on attribution here for more on the value of attribution used properly. If you can successfully make a strategic, operational, or tactical shift on the basis of knowing who your adversary is, then by all means, attribute! However, I would imagine very few organizations possess the operational and intelligence maturity to respond meaningfully to knowing which specific cybercriminal, activist, or nation-state actor is targeting them. My personal belief is that all the time, effort, and hot air spent over attribution in our industry is largely wasteful. I will say that there is one key exception to this, however; attribution as an element of analysis (as opposed to an end-goal) may give valuable context to an analyst if they can pivot on some element of that attribution and use it to discover additional items of interest related to the actor. Be careful though, because attribution can also introduce cognitive bias! Robert M. Lee, a man much smarter than I, covers this topic and how attribution applies to the various levels of intelligence here.

Attribution is flashy. Attribution makes it sound like you really know your stuff. Attribution might even give your shareholders someone else to blame. However, if you’re producing intelligence with a stated goal of determining attribution, ask yourself if and how that is relevant to your requirements. If you’re able to translate attribution to meaningful action designed to prevent or respond to a threat, bravo, please continue! If you can’t figure out how to make attribution work for you, either as a component of a finished intelligence product or as an analytical tool, re-assess your goals and requirements and re-direct your efforts to more meaningful analysis that will produce real return on investment for your organization. Threat intelligence is hard enough to master and demonstrate the value of without wasting time pointing fingers to no end, so please, think before you attribute.

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Author: John D. Swanson - Contact me at [email protected]
Opinions are my own and do not reflect those of my employer.
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