What are they attacking me for?

There are three main types of motivations: advantages to them; disadvantages to us; resources.

I wrote an article a few weeks ago called What’s a State Actor, and should I care?, and a number of readers asked if I could pull apart a number of the pieces that I presented there into separate discussions[1].  One of those pieces was the question of who is actually likely to attack me.

I presented a brief list thus:

  • insiders
  • script-kiddies
  • competitors
  • trouble-makers
  • hacktivists
  • … and more.

One specific “more” that I mentioned was State Actors.  If you look around, you’ll find all manner of lists.  Other attacker types that I didn’t mention in my initial list include:

  • members of organised crime groups
  • terrorists
  • “mercenary” hackers.

I suspect that you could come up with more supersets or subsets if you tried hard enough.

This is all very well, but what’s the value in knowing who’s likely to attack you in the first place[3]?  There’s a useful dictum: “No system is secure against a sufficiently resourced and motivated attacker.”[5]  This gives us a starting point, because it causes us to ask the question

  • what motivates the attacker?

In other words: what do they want to achieve?  What, in fact, are they trying to do or get when they attack us?  This is the core theme of this article.

There are three main types of motivations:

  1. advantages to them
  2. disadvantages to us
  3. resources.

There is overlap between the three, but I think that they are sufficiently separate to warrant separate discussion.

Advantages to them

Any successful attack is arguably a disadvantage to us, the attacked, but that does not mean that the primary motivation of an attacker is necessarily to cause harm.  There are a number of other common motivations, including:

  • reputation or “bragging rights” – a successful attack may well be used to prove the skills of an attacker to other parties.
  • information to share – sometimes attackers wish to gain information about our systems to share with others, whether for gain or to enhance their reputation (see above).  Such attacks may be painted a security research, but if they occur outside an ethical framework (such as provided by academic institutions) and without consent, it is difficult to consider them anything other than hostile.
  • information to keep – attackers may gain information and keep it for themselves for later use, either against our systems or against similarly configured systems elsewhere.
  • practice/challenge – there are attacks which are undertaken solely to practice techniques or as a personal challenge (where an external challenge is made, I would categorise them under “reputation”).  Harmless as this motivation may seem to some parts of the community, such attacks still cause damage and require mitigation, and should be considered hostile.
  • for money – some attacks are undertaken at the request of others, with the primary motivation of the attacker being that money or other material recompense (though the motivation of the party commissioning that attack likely to be one of these other ones listed)[6].

Disadvantages to us

Attacks which focus on causing negative impact to the individual or organisation attacked can be listed in the following categories:

  • business impact – impact to the normal functioning of the organisation or individual attacked: causing orders to be disrupted, processes to be slowed, etc..
  • financial impact – direct impact to the financial functioning of the attacked party: fraud, for instance.
  • reputational impact – there have been many attacks where the intention has clearly been to damage the reputation of the attacked party.  Whether it is leaking information about someone’s use of a dating website, disseminating customer information or solely replacing text or images on a corporate website, the intention is the same: to damage the standing of those being attacked.  Such damage may be indirect – for instance if an attacker were to cause the failure of an oil pipeline, affecting the reputation of the owner or operator of that pipeline.
  • personal impact – subtly different from reputational or business impact, this is where the attack intends to damage the self-esteem of an individual, or their ability to function professionally, physically, personally or emotionally.  This could cover a wide range of attacks such as “doxxing” or use of vulnerabilities in insulin pumps.
  • ecosystem impact – this type of motivation is less about affecting the ability of the individual or organisation to function normally, and more about affecting the ecosystem that exists around it.  Impacting the quality control checks of a company that made batteries might impact the ability of a mobile phone company to function, for instance, or attacking a water supply might impact the ability of a fire service to respond to incidents.

Resources

The motivations for some attacks may be partly or solely to get access to resources.  These resources might include:

  • financial resources – by getting access to company accounts, attackers might be able to purchase items for themselves or others or otherwise defraud the company.
  • compute resources – access to compute resources can lead to further attacks or be used for purposes such as cryptocurrency mining.
  • storage resources – attackers may wish to store illegal or compromising material on others’ systems.
  • network resources – access to network resources allows attackers to launch attacks elsewhere or to stream information with little traceability.
  • human resources – access to some systems may allow human resources to be deployed in ways unintended by the party being attacked: deploying police officers to a scene a long distance away from a planned physical attack, for instance.
  • physical resources – access to some systems may also allow physical resources to be deployed in ways unintended by the party being attacked: sending ammunition to the wrong front in a war, might, for example, lead to military force becoming weakened.

Conclusion

It may seem unimportant to consider the motivations of those attacking us, but if we can understand what it is that they are looking for, we can decide what we should defend, and sometimes what types of defence we should put in place.  As always, I welcome comments on this article: I’m sure that I’ve missed out some points, or misrepresented others, so please do get in touch and let me know your thoughts.


1 – I considered this a kind and polite way of saying “you stuffed too much into a single article: what were you thinking?”[2]

2 – and I don’t necessarily disagree.

3 – unless you’re just trying to scare senior management[4].

4 – which may be enjoyable, but is ultimately likely to backfire if you’re doing it without evidence and for a good reason.

5 – I made a (brief) attempt to track the origins of this phrase: I’m happy to attribute if someone can find the original.

6 – hat-tip to Reddit user poopin for spotting that I’d missed this one out.

Author: Mike Bursell

Long-time Open Source and Linux bod, distributed systems security, etc.. Now employed by Red Hat.

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