A few weeks ago, the German government was a cyber attack victim, according to news reports. According to them, the attack affected the Ministry of Defense and the Department of Foreign Affairs. There is an assumption that the attack had been carried out by APT28, a group of Russian hackers. However, only very few details are available to the public.
When reading the news, there are various points that made me raise my eyebrows. These include
- it has been a group of Russian hackers
- the attack is under control/isolated
- the German government network is well secured
- there has been only one attack
Let’s be realistic and start with the last one. Anything but having continuous attacks against the German government network would be an unrealistic assumption. There must be permanent automated attacks, but also manual ones on a regular basis. Most of them will just bounce at the perimeter, but others will go through undetected. That one large attack has been detected, obviously after already running for quite a while. It might be under control or not. That is in the nature of APTs (Advanced Persistent Threats), involving various attack vectors and spanning multiple systems. Isolating it is not easy at all.
The fact that this attack took place and went undetected for quite a while raises the question whether there are other, undetected attacks still running (or dormant to further evade detection). The probability is high. Notably, the source of the attack remains unclear. Even while there might be hints to a certain group of attackers, it also might turn out that other attackers camouflaged as them. Contrary to some sources quickly jumping to conclusions, cyberattack attribution is a very difficult and unreliable process.
So, this leads to the question: Is the German government network so super secure as they claim?
Obviously not. It might be good in security, it might even be above average. But it is, as every network, vulnerable to attacks. When looking at the IT security spending of the German government, I have massive doubts that it can be secure enough. Security costs money, and the cost of security increases exponentially when approaching 100% security. Notably, the limit is infinite here, or, in other words, there is no absolute security.
This all should be kept in mind when commenting on the recent attack:
- we can’t be sure about who the attackers were or whether they’re associated with any state actors;
- even if this particular attack has been isolated (which isn’t necessary so), there might be other attacks still running and new attacks will continue on daily basis;
- the network might be well-secured, but there is no 100% security and its safety should not be a blind assumption;
The essence is: prevention alone is not enough anymore. It is about understanding the weaknesses and potential attack vectors. Modern IT security combines well-designed, multi-layered protection/prevention with advanced detection, response and recovery and is all about continuous improvement. That needs people and costs a lot of money. Time for the German government to review their cyber security spending.