Cybersecurity

U.S. blames WannaCry on North Korea

 

The Trump administration has formally accused North Korea of engineering the WannaCry cyberattack that locked access to hundreds of thousands of computers across 150 different countries earlier this year. In the wake of the attribution, the Department of Homeland Security plans to take a more active role in interceding with the private sector in the midst of targeted attacks.

"After careful investigation, the United States is publicly attributing the massive WannaCry cyberattack to North Korea," White House homeland security advisor Tom Bossert told reporters on a Dec. 19 press call. "We do not make this accusation lightly -- we do so with evidence and with partners." He added that allies like the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Japan have seen the U.S. government's analysis and "stand behind the assertion."

Bossert also revealed that Facebook and Microsoft moved recently to shut down accounts associated with North Korean cyber activity and patch their systems for WannaCry and other malware infections.

Bossert first announced the attribution in a Dec. 18 article for the Wall Street Journal.

Jeanette Manfra, assistant secretary for the office of cybersecurity and communications at the Department of Homeland Security, announced that the federal government was planning to significantly expand its role engaging with private sector companies in the near future to combat similar threats.

"To ensure adequate security in the private sector, DHS plans to move beyond only offering voluntary assistance to more proactively becoming the world leader in cyber risk analysis and intervening directly with companies when necessary," she said.

While the administration has stated it is confident in its assertions, Bossert admitted that identifying a smoking gun definitively proving culpability is "difficult." When questioned by reporters, he all but acknowledged that administration officials believe the attacks were likely carried out by intermediaries operating outside the borders of North Korea.

"People operating keyboards all over the world on behalf of a North Korean actor can be launching from places that are not in North Korea, so that's one of the challenges of cyber attribution," said Bossert. "We're comfortable in this case, though, that it was directed by the government of North Korea."

Michael Daniel, cybersecurity coordinator under the Obama administration, told FCW that the news was not surprising, given widespread consensus in the aftermath of the attacks linking them to Lazarus Group – which many cybersecurity researchers have identified as a proxy for North Korean activities.

Daniel said the government is always challenged in a situation where officials are making a public case based on classified or non-public intelligence and law enforcement sources.

"My general sense is the administration has not been out there willy-nilly accusing countries of specific sets of activities," said Daniel. "I have to surmise they followed the same procedures that we did, where you're not going to come out…without a high level of confidence."

Steve Grobman, CTO at McAfee and a noted skeptic of attribution, told FCW that the administration's process for determining culpability in this instance was "responsible." He argued that both technical and traditional data sources are capable of tracing an attack back to its source.

"The administration is in a unique position to make this attribution assessment. Technical forensics alone cannot provide strong attribution to a threat's origin," said Grobman. "However, technical forensics combined with information from trusted intelligence or law enforcement agencies can improve confidence on the underlying actor behind a cyber-attack or campaign."

The decision by the U.S. government to publicly blame Pyongyang comes at a time of heightened tensions between the two nuclear powers. President Donald Trump's new national security strategy, released Dec. 18, calls for "swift and costly consequences on foreign governments, criminals, and other actors who undertake significant malicious cyber activities."

In the past, Bossert has called for "real-world consequences" to retaliate against nation-state hacks. However, he told reporters Dec. 19 that the administration will not consider a cyberattack on U.S. private sector entities the same as an attack on the U.S. government.

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a senior staff writer at FCW, covering governmentwide IT policy, cybersecurity and a range of other federal technology issues.

Prior to joining FCW, Johnson was a freelance technology journalist. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, GoodCall News, Foreign Policy Journal, Washington Technology, Elevation DC, Connection Newspapers and The Maryland Gazette.

Johnson has a Bachelor's degree in journalism from Hofstra University and a Master's degree in public policy from George Mason University. He can be contacted at djohnson@fcw.com, or follow him on Twitter @derekdoestech.

Click here for previous articles by Johnson.


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