Content uploaded by Daniel Cvrcek
All content in this area was uploaded by Daniel Cvrcek on Jul 10, 2014
Content may be subject to copyright.
Fighting the ‘Good’ Internet War
Dan Cvrˇcek†and George Danezis
1University of Cambridge, UK & Brno University of Technology, CZ.
2Microsoft Research, Cambridge, UK.
Abstract. We review the current strategies to counter Internet threats under the light
of the classic strategy literature. The literature often advocates proactive action, and
dominance of the (virtual, in our case) battleﬁeld, which is the opposite from what we
see defenders deploy today. Their actions are instead reactive and exclusively defensive.
We propose strategies for defenders to regain the initiative and push security solutions
far beyond the reach of current security tools – yet those strategies start mirroring the
actions and technologies of the bad guys, and confront us with important technical,
legal and moral dilemmas.
“He who ﬁghts with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become
Friedrich Nietzsche — Beyond Good and Evil, Chapter IV:
Apothegms and Interludes
1 Looking For the Adversary. . .
Security engineering textbooks  teach us that the most prevalent and damaging enemy
comes from within an organisation. Yet in the PC and the Internet era not everyone is part
or protected by an organisation, or by its system administrators. Huge numbers of home users
are left on their own to fend oﬀ a number of attackers. They are left exposed to attack by their
ignorance of the existing threats, inadequate technical knowledge, the overwhelming dangers
stemming from anonymity of Internet, and the huge gap between user interface and correct
Their vulnerability is not the users’ fault, as they cannot be expected to be technical
experts, to browse the Internet, send emails, or play games. They make up a huge group of
people and machines that without being malicious easily become hostages of real attackers,
and a fertile ground from which attacks are launched.
The real Internet enemy are small groups of highly technically skilled people that use
innocent and unaware users to carry out their criminal, and usually highly lucrative, activities.
Some easily visible signs of their existence include the huge quantities of spam, phishing sites
or large-scale operations attracting users to anchor on pages packed with malware, to turn
their machines into bots.
These all are observable signs of the enemy’s existence but still, the enemy itself is well
hidden. Our goal, in this paper, is to suggest strategies and tactics to uncover them.
2 Waging War – History Lessons and Internet Warfare
Humanity has a long history of military conﬂicts, from which we can learn. This section picks
some interesting ideas from several famous military strategists, namely Carl von Clausewitz
[CvC] , Antoine-Henri Jomini [AHJ] , Sun Tzu [ST] , Mao Ce-Tung [MCT] , and
Maurice’s Strategikon [MS] . Ideas that we ﬁnd useful for even a warfare in a digital
environment – it shows that some military principles go way above military actions.
†Dan is partially supported by the Research Plan No. MSM, 0021630528 – Security-Oriented
Research in Information Technology.
2.1 Military Strength
Some key elements of strength are outlined from Carl von Clausewitz’s [CvC] work:
–Strength of forces is not only deﬁned by numerical strength and their organisation, but
also with their relationship to “country and terrain”, i.e. they should take the environment
into account. The relative strength of the forces can be improved by advanced guards and
outposts, proper lines of communication, and the command of heights [CvC].
–The defence is built around several types of elements: militia (armed population that can
be eﬀectively used to defend enemy), fortresses (strongholds that oﬀer protection but also
gain inﬂuence), the people, and allies. [CvC]
–The defence in physical sense comprises of: defensive position (it cannot be bypassed),
ﬂank position (can be bypassed by the enemy, but it holds), defence of special types of
terrain (swamps, ﬂoo ded areas, forests, . . . ). [CvC]
Internet. Attackers are well aware of the importance of terrain: they overtake weakly defended
machines, to use them as a multiplier of their strength. Hiding behind those hosts also makes
them invulnerable to direct technical or legal attacks. This behaviour, and the logical extension
to [CvC] suggestion is the foundation of guerrilla warfare, the study of which is of some
importance in the context of Internet conﬂict.
The fortresses can be viewed as security vendors and their services oﬀering protection
mechanisms – probably a common view today. Their infrastructure, be it incident handling,
virus reverse-engineering, signature updating, or monitoring should be strengthened against
attempts to disable it.
The militia are the security aware Internet users, that deploy security software, sometimes
aid in the monitoring of threats or debugging of applications, as well as apply security patches.
Their role is not oﬀensive, it is rather to make it diﬃcult for the adversary to gain more ground
from which it can launch attacks. Their coordination can happen through security vendors,
as well as on a peer-to-peer level.
Clearly, the side that is more active is also able to enforce the rules of the warfare. This is
important for any type of warfare and also extensively covered.
–Aggressive action will deprive enemy of time. It will make him do quick decisions and
increase the chance of strategic errors [ST].
–All the resources must be engaged, and the purpose of the engagement is one of: destruc-
tion of enemy, conquest of locality, conquest of object [CvC].
Internet Every action on the digital battleﬁeld must be carefully prepared, because the actions
will be instantaneous, responses automated, and the ﬁght very short. Aggressive action may
force the enemy to alter their tools and procedures, omit some precautions, to become nervous.
The goal will be to create pressure on speedy actions that are not routine and require manual
What are the goals of our ﬁght? It will diﬀer from time to time. Probably, we will want to
conquest an object – a botnet operated by the enemy. We may want to clean users’ machines,
but we would then be forced to defend an area, which would require a lot of resources. We
want to hit heads and cut them from the rest of the enemy’s army (botnets). Finally we may
want to destroy the enemy – ﬁnd the operator of the bot net, and who they work for, and
secure a conviction against them.
We believe that tactics used to combat malicious parties on the Internet are always a step
behind and a strategy does not really exist. However, Jomini stated several centuries back
that the key to warfare is strategy. Let us start with several notes from history.
–There is an asymmetrical relationship between attack and defence. One should try to
reverse the asymmetry whenever possible. Attacks have several decisive advantages of
attack: surprise, beneﬁt of terrain, concentric attack, popular support, and moral factors
–Divide and conquer, a particular tactics that further developed e.g. by Matyas Rakosi for
Hungarian Communist Party in the late 1940s as salami tactics, uses alliances to increase
political power [AHJ].
–If you use a common sense, you are inevitably doing a bad strategy choice [ST].
–Inner line of operations, i.e. operations inside the enemy’s army will allow for ﬁghting
separate parts of the enemy’s forces [ST].
–Divide forces to arouse the masses, concentrate forces to deal with the enemy. Red Army
ﬁghts by conducting propaganda among the masses, organising them, arming them, and
helping them to establish . . . power [MCT].
–Mobilisation of the whole nation forces the enemy to “defend the area” and we can pick
the right time and the right place to ﬁght battles [MCT].
–Ambushes are of the greatest value in warfare. The most powerful is an ambush from
both sides and the timing should be precise to maximise the eﬀect [MS].
Internet We believe that we can make use of most of the tactics used above. The most proper
seem to be Mao Ce-Tung’s principles.
Yet the most neglected advice when it comes to Internet conﬂict, is the focus on oﬀence.
Defenders make no attempt to ‘reverse the asymmetry’ and instead believe that security shall
come by digging deeper trenches around the few secured hosts. This gives the adversary full
strategic advantage to attack when, where and how she wishes.
2.4 The Power of Information
Many commanders have quickly realised the power of information and careful planning. In-
terestingly, there are more rules related to concealment of own actions and strengths.
–Hiding real purpose of actions is an important element in strategy [CvC].
–Conceal your plans, or plan for several steps ahead [ST].
–One should not engage enemy in combat or show their strength before learning the enemy’s
–One should prevent hostile reconnaissance and thereby conceal the second line of their
Internet There is a warfare already and so we can learn a bit about our enemy and study
their behaviour. We can design new tools and use them in the war but no-one is really doing
any plans. We are ﬁghting isolated battles and loosing the war.
The plans are very easy to read if anyone bothered to do that, as the threat posed by
them is very small.
The organisation of the enemy consists of a head, support groups (organise speciﬁc crimes),
and working units. The working units will cover the following activities: vulnerability discov-
ery, exploit design, spam management, managing DNS records, coding, web site building and
managing, managing botnets, sales agents.
The most activities are oﬄine and the enemy goes on-line only the manage the botnets
and web sites, and sales agents). It is also possible to detect the on-line malicious activities
– the actual attacks. We can learn from the way the bot-nets are commanded and organised,
but our tools must be equally stealthy so they cannot become easy targets in the wars of
The battleground is already set by the enemy – organised crime groups. We cannot change
it and we do not want to change it, in fact. It is formed by users that are most vulnerable.
These are not actively trying to get rid of the negative eﬀects the enemy’s activity has on
their machines, but they could be easily persuaded to join the warfare by providing their
The organised groups use a very ﬂexible structure and hide their on-line activities among
unaware Internet users.
–Heads of operations – they are on-line only for short periods of time, and there are no
limits regarding the place of their Internet connections.
–Information gathering servers – must be on-line for considerable amount of time (at least
hours) but they can be physically moved around. The connection is provided via updated
–Bots – users’ machines that are taken over by the group and used for various types of
hostile activities. These are not directed against owner of the machine, thus decreasing
incentives for the owner to deal with the situation.
It is very hard to ﬁnd the heads or the servers gathering information. The only chance is
to ﬁnd the machines forming the botnets. So what is the goal of the war?
3.2 Current Tactics and Strategy
The good guys are so far reasonably predictable and the organised crime groups made provi-
sions against them. We can see two basic approaches the good guys use:
1. Develop and sell security mechanisms
2. Identify dangerous websites and provide the information to interested users
Obviously, neither approach is trying to ﬁght the enemy directly. They only protect those
users who are vigilant and aware of security threats. When we take into account the size of
this niche security market and compare it with the total number of the Internet users, we
can see that it does not hurt the enemy the least. The basic problem of the above mentioned
approaches is that they target diﬀerent subset of users from those targeted by bad guys. What
is the structure of the enemy’s army?
The approach for an eﬀective ﬁght would be similar to the Mac Ce-Tung approach – to
use “the people” and to create the “militia”. First of all, however, we have to learn and ﬁnd
3.3 Reaching the Battleground
The key problem for securing systems today is to reach the digital battleground and to
encounter the enemy at all. Current defence strategies are reactive: poorly fortiﬁed systems
are lame ducks, to attacks launched from behind the crowd of innocent yet compromised
machines. While feeling the full might of the adversary, our only reaction is to mend our
shields in the hope they will resist the next round of oﬀensive technology innovation. No one
is surprised when in the long run they break!
The main problem is the communication channels the good guys employ. Security vendors
expect customers to ﬂy to them and pay good money to be aﬀorded any protection. Unfor-
tunately most home users not only do not seek those products but are deﬁnitely not ready
to pay for them, even in the rare cases they are aware they exist.
The adversary, on the other side, is targeting exactly those users that security vendors
fail to attract. Using spam or search engines as their communication channel, they attract
security unaware users and turn their machines into part of the digital battleground.
Defenders will never eﬀectively ﬁght the enemy until they are able to reach, one way or
the other, those users. This will involve distributing security software in innovative ways to
meet the adversary.
–The most obvious way to reach users who follow-up links and get infected through spam is
to use spam. Some may object to this tactic, by arguing that it might train users to click
on spam even more. We do not advocate running an advertisement or awareness campaign
promoting the of untrusted software. At the same time we have to recognise that the only
way to reach users that have not been moved by campaigns with the opposite message is
through this channel.
–A second vector of infection are unpatched machines running services with known vulner-
abilities that are waiting to, or are already, infected with malware. It is only a question
of time until those are turned to weapons against third party systems. Clearly the most
forward way of reaching those machines is exploiting the vulnerability to install software.
Again, many objections can be raised including legal and technical ones. The ﬁrst objec-
tion is that overtaking an unpatched machine may lead to ﬁnancial damage or may aﬀect
its stability. This is undoubtedly true, and only a matter of time until this damage is
caused by a malicious user taking over the machine for nefarious purposes. It is all good
keeping our hands clear, and arguing that at least the damage was not caused through
our actions; yet on the utilitarian balance sheet we have let a greater evil take place: the
machine being infected and the computer being used for further mischief.
–Similar strategies can be deployed using any infection or propagation vector that malware
utilises, as well as vulnerabilities in the malware itself, that is often not of the highest
quality. Web-pages serving infected ﬁles, search engine poisoning, phishing sites, etc.
Those strategies can also be deployed against networking equipment that stands un-
patched and vulnerable, such as cable modems or wireless routers that are misconﬁgured
A common objection to the eﬃcacy (leaving aside the numerous objections as to the
morality of the matter) of this deployment strategy is that intrusion detection systems, anti-
virus software or security services will detect and neutralise our deployment attempts. Hosts
that deploy those counter-measure should be deemed safe, and would not the least beneﬁt
from the active attempts to block the adversary described above. Yet if those protection
systems would be universally deployed and eﬀective we would not be witnessing the levels of
compromises we do today – the day they are the proposed deployment approach would be
unneeded, at the safe time it stops being eﬀective.
3.4 Identifying the Enemy
Once we have found means to deploy software on the digital battleground that is comprised
by infected machines, the battle is just starting. It may be tempting to be too earnest at
this point, patch a single security vulnerability and vacate the ground. This strategy is naive,
since a vulnerability is probably indicative of a pattern of security neglect typical of a user
and a machine, rather than a one-oﬀ incident.
Instead of doing a quick cleaning job the position represented by the machine should
be fortiﬁed and the defenders should be ready to hold their ground. This means deploying
eﬀective tools to allow us to carry out tactical decisions and plans. The tools should implement
tasks within the main strategic plan: reconnaissance, analysis of information, elimination of
the enemy’s activity, as well as trace the enemy.
The reconnaissance activity should be able to retrieve as much useful information as
possible. At the same time, the tools used on the battleground must be hard to detect and
circumvent – it’s necessary to use stealthy and polymorphic technologies, as well as hard to
detect communication channels. The adversary who owns the compromised territory acts as
a defender that might have deployed sophisticated systems to prevent us from reaching it and
One could envisage the following components being needed:
–Monitoring capabilities being deployed reporting and aggregating information on lists of
processes, start-up processes, outbound and inbound network connections and their de-
tails, or unusual system activity. Defenders can use these to detect out breaks, vulnerable
services, as well as track attackers.
–Since the adversary will attempt to disrupt communications a robust, and DoS resistant
networking infrastructure has to be constructed. This involves allowing the defensive
software to create a peer-to-peer mesh and use it for robustness as well as hiding the
command and control centres of the defensive operation.
–The deployed software itself should be hardened against any detection mechanisms the
adversary might have deployed on compromised hosts. This mandates the use of poly-
morphic code, stealthy root-kits as well as obfuscated binaries.
–Finally the back-end system – databases for storing important data, analysing observa-
tions from robots, and issuing commands – have to be hardened against attacks, or even
better hidden using covert communications.
It is obvious that if one is serious about conquering back the infected ground that the
adversary controls, they cannot limit themselves to conventional technologies. They have to
be ready to put on their oﬀensive hat, to defeat a well motivated and security aware defender
– in this case the adversary.
Yet no strategy deployed should be at the detriment of prudent security practices. The
oﬀensive deployment strategies described here should gracefully fold back in case the user
installs proper protective software or a serious patching regime is followed. It is not acceptable
to try to disrupt those, merely to allow for oﬀensive propagation to still be possible – this is a
key moral distinction between those that oﬀensively deploy software as a self-defence strategy
versus the adversary that does it for malicious purposes.
4 The Permanent War Economy
No conﬂict is ever settled for good. Any resolution is based on political strategy that depends
hugely on economic interests and the relative power of all parties. (No one will negotiate as
long as they think they can unconditionally win.)
The cost of law enforcement has to always be compared to the signiﬁcance of the crime.
This signiﬁcance from the social point of view is diﬀerent from the proﬁtability of the crime
that would be limited. Economic tools can be used to model equilibriums but it is unlikely
that crime can be completely eliminated so long as there is an economic incentive for it.
Hence it is unlikely that defenders will ever stop their activities, and there is a need to ﬁnd
sustainable ways to ﬁnance the perpetual defence eﬀort.
The money for waging the war should not be received from the “battleground”, from
users allowing us to use their machines. Although it is probably possible to diﬀerentiate
oﬀered services to attract some reward: monitoring a machine can be for free, but a fee can
be charged for the removal of malware.
A secondary source of revenue may be entities interested in data about the state of Internet
threats to assess overall potential dangers. We could inform potential targets of e.g. DDoS
attacks about the danger and negotiate a price of further services if they ﬁnd the information
valuable. Or if an attack cannot be blocked, we may be able to identify the source of the
attack and allow thus future crime prosecutions.
The general idea would be to build the business model on the revenues from big players
and potentially services for common users (Robin Hood strategy).
Acknowledgements. We thank the research institutions that employ us and that in no
way share the views expressed in this paper.
1. R. Anderson. Security Engineering: A Guide to Building Dependable Distributed Systems. Wiley,
2. Carl von Clausewitz. Principles of war. London, John Lane, 64p., 1943.
3. Maurice, emperor of the East. Maurice’s Strategikon: handbook of Byzantine military strategy /
translated by George T. Dennis. Philadelphia, University of Pensylvania Press, 178p, 1984.
4. Antoine-Henri Jomini. The art of war. London: Greenhill Books, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1992.
5. P. Paret, G. A. Craig, F. Gilbert. Makers of modern strategy: from Machiavelli to the nuclear age.
Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 941p, 1986.
6. Sun Tzu. The Art of War. available on-line, http://www.sonshi.com, 2008.