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Active Cyber Defense Certainty Act: Should we 'hack back'?

With the proposal of the Active Cyber Defense Certainty Act, individuals would be able to 'hack back' when information is stolen. Matt Pascucci makes the case against the bill.

Recently, a bill was proposed by Georgia Congressman Tom Graves named the Active Cyber Defense Certainty Act, which has now gone on to be called the hack back bill by individuals in the cyber community. This bill is being touted as a cyberdefense act that will enable those who have been hacked to defend themselves in an offensive manner. It's essentially attempting to try and fill the holes the antiquated Computer Fraud and Abuse Act has left wide open.

I'm a big fan of evolving our laws to bring them into a modern state when it comes to cybersecurity, but I feel this law will cause more harm than good. Allowing others to hack back without the proper oversight -- which I feel is extremely lacking in the proposed bill -- will create cyber vigilantes more than anything else. I also feel that this law can be abused by criminals, and it doesn't leave us in any better state than we're in now.

First, the jurisdiction of the Active Cyber Defense Certainty Act only applies to the U.S. If someone notices an attack coming from a country outside the U.S., or if stolen data is being stored outside the boundaries of our borders, then they won't be able to hack back.

This already severely limits the effectiveness of this bill, as it can easily be bypassed by attackers who can avoid consequences by launching an attack with a foreign IP. It can also enable pranksters or attackers to start problems for Americans by purposefully launching attacks from within compromised systems in the U.S. to other IPs inside the country. This would give the victims the legal right to hack back against the mischievous IPs, while the spoofed organizations remained unaware of what happened, and started the process of attacking them back.

In theory, this would create a hacking loop within the U.S. and would end up causing disarray, giving an advantage to the hackers. Not only can systems be hacked by a malicious entity, but they can be legally hacked by Americans following the initial attack; hackers would essentially be starting a dispute between two innocent organizations.

On that note, if attackers launch attacks from the U.S. against other systems within the U.S., it's possible for them to attack the systems that regulate our safety. And what if they attack the systems of our healthcare providers, critical infrastructure or economy? Do we really want someone who might not be trained well enough to defend against attacks poking at these systems? This isn't safe, and it borders on being negligent on the part of those who were compromised.

The mention of 'qualified defenders with a high degree of confidence of attribution,' really leaves the door open to what someone can do within the Active Cyber Defense Certainty Act.

The mention of "qualified defenders with a high degree of confidence of attribution," really leaves the door open to what someone can do within the Active Cyber Defense Certainty Act. First, what makes someone a "qualified defender," and how are they determining a "high confidence of attribution"? Is there a license or certification that someone must have in order to request the ability to hack back? Even if they did receive something similar, they still won't know the architecture or systems they're looking to compromise in order to defend themselves. What tools are they able to use and what level of diligence must be shown for attribution? This is a recipe for disaster, and it's also very possible that emotions could get in the way when determining what to delete or how far to go.

The Active Cyber Defense Certainty Act also mentions contacting the FBI in order to review the requests coming into the system before companies are given the right to hack back. This could lead to an overwhelming number of requests for an already stretched cyber department within the FBI.

If anything, I feel that the bill should leave these requests to the Department of Homeland Security instead of the FBI, as an entirely new team would need to be created just to handle these requests. This team should be the one acting as the liaison to the victim organizations.

For example, if we knew someone stole a physical piece of property, and we knew where they were storing it, we'd most likely call the local authorities and let them know what occurred. In the case of cybercrime, they're giving us the ability to alert the authorities, and then go after our stolen goods ourselves. This is a mistake that could lead to disaster.

Lastly, there are technical issues that might make this a lot more difficult than people think. What if a system is being attacked by the public Port Address Translation/Network Address Translation address of an organization? Are they going to start looking for ways into that network even though they can't access anything public-facing?

Also, what will happen if cloud systems are being used as the source of an attack? How do you track systems that might be moving or destroyed before someone notices? In that case, you could end up attacking the wrong organization. I personally don't trust someone attacking back and making changes to a system that they don't manage, since it leaves the door open for errors and issues later on that we're not even considering now.

Data theft today is a massive concern, but the privacy implications and overzealous vigilantism of this bill could make a bad situation much worse. The Active Cyber Defense Certainty Act should be removed from consideration, and the focus should be put on how Americans can work toward creating a better threat intelligence and cybersecurity organization that can act as a governing body when attacks like these occur. Leaving such matters in the hands of those affected will never produce positive results.

This was last published in December 2017

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