Monthly Archives: January 2019
James Bone is the author of Cognitive Hack: The New Battleground in Cybersecurity–The Human Mind (Francis and Taylor, 2017) and is a contributing author for Compliance Week, Corporate Compliance Insights, and Life Science Compliance Updates. James is a lecturer at Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies in the Enterprise Risk Management program and consults on ERM practice.
He is the founder and president of Global Compliance Associates, LLC and Executive Director of TheGRCBlueBook. James founded Global Compliance Associates, LLC to create the first cognitive risk management advisory practice. James graduated Drury University with a B.A. in Business Administration, Boston University with M.A. in Management and Harvard University with a M.A. in Business Management, Finance and Risk Management.
Christopher P. Skroupa: What is the thesis of your book Cognitive Hack: The New Battleground in Cybersecurity–The Human Mind and how does it fit in with recent events in cyber security?
James Bone: Cognitive Hack follows two rising narrative arcs in cyber warfare: the rise of the “hacker” as an industry and the “cyber paradox,” namely why billions spent on cyber security fail to make us safe. The backstory of the two narratives reveal a number of contradictions about cyber security, as well as how surprisingly simple it is for hackers to bypass defenses. The cyber battleground has shifted from an attack on hard assets to a much softer target: the human mind. If human behavior is the new and last “weakest link” in the cyber security armor, is it possible to build cognitive defenses at the intersection of human-machine interactions? The answer is yes, but the change that is needed requires a new way of thinking about security, data governance and strategy. The two arcs meet at the crossroads of data intelligence, deception and a reframing of security around cognitive strategies.
The purpose of Cognitive Hack is to look not only at the digital footprint left behind from cyber threats, but to go further—behind the scenes, so to speak—to understand the events leading up to the breach. Stories, like data, may not be exhaustive, but they do help to paint in the details left out. The challenge is finding new information buried just below the surface that might reveal a fresh perspective. The book explores recent events taken from today’s headlines to serve as the basis for providing context and insight into these two questions.
Skroupa: IoT has been highly scrutinized as having the potential to both increase technological efficiency and broaden our cyber vulnerabilities. Do you believe the risks outweigh the rewards? Why?
Bone: The recent Internet outage in October of this year is a perfect example of the risks of the power and stealth of IoT. What many are not aware of is that hackers have been experimenting with IoT attacks in increasingly more complex and potentially damaging ways. The TOR Network, used in the Dark Web to provide legitimate and illegitimate users anonymity, was almost taken down by an IoT attack. Security researchers have been warning of other examples of connected smart devices being used to launch DDoS attacks that have not garnered media attention. As the number of smart devices spread, the threat only grows. The anonymous attacker in October is said to have only used 100,000 devices. Imagine what could be done with one billion devices as manufacturers globally export them, creating a new network of insecure connections with little to no security in place to detect, correct or prevent hackers from launching attacks from anywhere in the world?
The question of weighing the risks versus the rewards is an appropriate one. Consider this: The federal government has standards for regulating the food we eat, the drugs we take, the cars we drive and a host of other consumer goods and services, but the single most important tool the world increasingly depends on has no gatekeeper to ensure that the products and services connected to the Internet don’t endanger national security or pose a risk to its users. At a minimum, manufacturers of IoT must put measures in place to detect these threats, disable IoT devices once an attack starts and communicate the risks of IoT more transparently. Lastly, the legal community has also not kept pace with the development of IoT, however this is an area that will be ripe for class action lawsuits in the near future.
Skroupa: What emerging trends in cyber security can we anticipate from the increasing commonality of IoT?
Bone: Cyber crime has grown into a thriving black market complete with active buyers and sellers, independent contractors and major players who, collectively, have developed a mature economy of products, services, and shared skills, creating a dynamic laboratory of increasingly powerful cyber tools unimaginable before now. On the other side, cyber defense strategies have not kept pace even as costs continue to skyrocket amid asymmetric and opportunistic attacks. However, a few silver linings are starting to emerge around a cross-disciplinary science called Cognitive Security (CogSec), Intelligence and Security Informatics (ISI) programs, Deception Defense, and a framework of Cognitive Risk Management for cyber security.
On the other hand, the job description of “hacker” is evolving rapidly with some wearing “white hats,” some with “black hats” and still others with “grey hats.” Countries around the world are developing cyber talent with complex skills to build or break security defenses using easily shared custom tools.
The implications of the rise of the hacker as a community and an industry will have long-term ramifications to our economy and national security that deserve more attention otherwise the unintended consequences could be significant. In the same light, the book looks at the opportunity and challenge of building trust into networked systems. Building trust in networks is not a new concept but is too often a secondary or tertiary consideration as systems designers are forced to rush to market products and services to capture market share leaving security considerations to corporate buyers. IoT is a great example of this challenge.
Skroupa: Could you briefly describe the new Cognitive Risk Framework you’ve proposed in your book as a cyber security strategy?
Bone: First of all, this is the first cognitive risk framework designed for enterprise risk management of its kind. The Cognitive Risk Framework for Cyber security (CRFC) is an overarching risk framework that integrates technology and behavioral science to create novel approaches in internal controls design that act as countermeasures lowering the risk of cognitive hacks. The framework has targeted cognitive hacks as a primary attack vector because of the high success rate of these attacks and the overall volume of cognitive hacks versus more conventional threats. The cognitive risk framework is a fundamental redesign of enterprise risk management and internal controls design for cyber security but is equally relevant for managing risks of any kind.
The concepts referenced in the CRFC are drawn from a large body of research in multidisciplinary topics. Cognitive risk management is a sister discipline of a parallel body of science called Cognitive Informatics Security or CogSec. It is also important to point out as the creator of the CRFC, the principles and practices prescribed herein are borrowed from cognitive informatics security, machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI), and behavioral and cognitive science, among just a few that are still evolving. The Cognitive Risk Framework for Cyber security revolves around five pillars: Intentional Controls Design, Cognitive Informatics Security, Cognitive Risk Governance, Cyber security Intelligence and Active Defense Strategies and Legal “Best Efforts” considerations in Cyberspace.
Many organizations are doing some aspect of a “cogrisk” program but haven’t formulated a complete framework; others have not even considered the possibility; and still others are on the path toward a functioning framework influenced by management. The Cognitive Risk Framework for Cybersecurity is in response to an interim process of transitioning to a new level of business operations (cognitive computing) informed by better intelligence to solve the problems that hinder growth.
Christopher P. Skroupa is the founder and CEO of Skytop Strategies, a global organizer of conferences.
When we think of hacking we think of a network being hacked remotely by a computer nerd sitting in a bedroom using code she’s written to steal personal data, money or just to see if it is possible. The idea of a character breaking network security to take control of law enforcement systems has been imprinted in our psyche from images portrayed in TV crime shows however the real story is much more complex and simple in execution.
The idea behind a cognitive hack is simple. Cognitive hack refers to the use of a computer or information system [social media, etc.] to launch a different kind of attack. The sole intent of a cognitive attack relies on its effectiveness to “change human users’ perceptions and corresponding behaviors in order to be successful.” Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russian operatives is an example of a cognitive hack taken to the extreme but demonstrates the effectiveness and subtleties of an attack of this nature.
Mueller’s indictment of an elaborately organized and surprisingly low-cost “troll farm” set up to launch an “information warfare” operation to impact U.S. political elections from Russian soil using social medial platforms is extraordinary and dangerous. The danger of these attacks is only now becoming clear but it is also important to understand the simplicity of a cognitive hack. To be clear, the Russian attack is extraordinary in scope, purpose and effectiveness however these attacks happen every day for much more mundane purposes.
Most of us think of these attacks as email phishing campaigns designed to lure you to click on an unsuspecting link to gain access to your data. Russia’s attack is simply a more elaborate and audacious version to influence what we think, how we vote and foment dissent between political parties and the citizenry of a country. That is what makes Mueller’s detailed indictment even more shocking. Consider for example how TV commercials, advertisers and, yes politicians, have been very effective at using “sound bites” to simplify their product story to appeal to certain target markets. The art of persuasion is a simple way to explain a cognitive hack which is an attack that is focused on the subconscious.
It is instructive to look at the Russian attack rationally from its [Russia’s] perspective in order to objectively consider how this threat can be deployed on a global scale. Instead of spending billions of dollars in a military arms race, countries are becoming armed with the ability to influence the citizens of a country for a few million dollars simply through information warfare. A new more advanced cadre of computer scientists are being groomed to defend and build security for and against these sophisticated attacks. This is simply an old trick disguised in 21st century technology through the use of the internet.
A new playbook has been refined to hack political campaigns and used effectively around the world as documented in an article March, 2016. For more than 10 years, elections in Latin America have become a testing ground for how to hack an election. The drama in the U.S. reads like one episode of a long running soap opera complete with “hackers for hire”, “middle-men”, political conspiracy and sovereign country interference.
“Only amateurs attack machines; professionals target people.”
Now that we know the rules have changed what can be done about this form of cyber-attack? Academics, government researchers and law enforcement have studied this problem for decades but the general public is largely unaware of how pervasive the risk is and the threat it imposes on our society and the next generation of internet users.
I wrote a book, Cognitive Hack: The New Battleground in Cybersecurity…the Human Mind to chronicle this risk and proposed a cognitive risk framework to bring awareness to the problem. Much more is needed to raise awareness by every organization, government official and risk professionals around the world. A new cognitive risk framework is needed to better understand these threats, identify and assess new variants of the attack and develop contingencies rapidly.
Social media has unwittingly become a platform of choice for nation state hackers who can easily hide the identify of organizations and resources involved in these attacks. Social media platforms are largely unregulated and therefore are not required to verify the identity and source of funding to set up and operate these kinds of operations. This may change given the stakes involved.
Just as banks and other financial services firms are required to identify new account owners and their source of funding technology providers of social media sites may also be used as a venue for raising and laundering illicit funds to carry out fraud or attacks on a sovereign state. We now have explicit evidence of the threat this poses to emerging and mature democracies alike.
Regulation is not enough to address an attack this complex and existing training programs have proven to be ineffective. Traditional risk frameworks and security measures are not designed to deal with attacks of this nature. Fortunately, a handful of information security professionals are now considering how to implement new approaches to mitigate the risk of cognitive hacks. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), is also working on an expansive new training program for information security specialists specifically designed to understand the human element of security yet the public is largely on its own. The knowledge gap is huge and the general public needs more than an easy to remember slogan.
A national debate is needed between industry leaders to tackle security. Silicon Valley and the tech industry, writ large, must also step up and play a leadership role in combatting these attacks by forming self-regulatory consortiums to deal with the diversity and proliferation of cyber threats through vulnerabilities in new technology launches and the development of more secure networking systems. The cost of cyber risk is far exceeding the rate of inflation and will eventually become a drag on corporate earnings and national growth rates as well. Businesses must look beyond the “insider threat” model of security risk and reconsider how the work environment contributes to risk exposure to cyberattacks.
Cognitive risks require a new mental model for understanding “trust” on the internet. Organizations must begin to develop new trust measures for doing business over the internet and with business partners. The idea of security must also be expanded to include more advanced risk assessment methodologies along with a redesign of the human-computer interaction to mitigate cognitive hacks.
Cognitive hacks are asymmetric in nature meaning that the downside of these attacks can significantly outweigh the benefits of risk-taking if not addressed in a timely manner. Because of the asymmetric nature of a cognitive hack attackers seek the easiest route to gain access. Email is one example of a low cost and very effective attack vector which seeks to leverage the digital footprint we leave on the internet.
Imagine a sandy beach where you leave footprints as you walk but instead of the tide erasing your footprints they remain forever present with bits of data about you all along the way. Web accounts, free Wi-Fi networks, mobile phone apps, shopping websites, etc. create a digital profile that may be more public than you realize. Now consider how your employee’s behavior on the internet during work connects back to this digital footprint and you are starting to get an idea of how simple it is for hackers to breach a network.
A cognitive risk framework begins with an assessment of Risk Perceptions related to cyber risks at different levels of the firm. The risk perceptions assessment creates a Cognitive Mapof the organization’s cyber awareness. This is called Cognitive Governance and is the first of five pillars to manage asymmetric risks. The other five pillars are driven from the findings in the cognitive map.
A cognitive map uncovers the blind spots we all experience when a situation at work or on the internet exceeds our experience with how to deal with it successfully. Natural blind spots are used by hackers to deceive us into changing one’s behavior to click a link, a video, a promotional ad or even what we read. Trust, deception and blind spots are just a few of the tools we must incorporate into a new toolkit called the cognitive risk framework.
There is little doubt that Mueller’s investigation into the sources and methods used by the Russians to influence the 2016 election will reveal more surprises but one thing is no longer in doubt…the Russians have a new cognitive weapon that is deniable but still traceable, for now. They are learning from Mueller’s findings and will get better.
“In 1981, Carl Landwehr observed that “Without a precise definition of what security means and how a computer can behave, it is meaningless to ask whether a particular computer system is secure.”[i]
Researchers George Cybenko, Annarita Giani, and Paul Thompson of Dartmouth College introduced the term “Cognitive Hack” in 2002 in an article entitled, “Cognitive Hacking, a Battle for the Mind”. “The manipulation of perception —or cognitive hacking—is outside the domain of classical computer security, which focuses on the technology and network infrastructure.”[i] This is why existing security practice is no longer effective at detecting, preventing or correcting security risks, like cyber attacks.
Almost 40 years after Landwehr’s warning cognitive hacks have become the most common tactic used by more sophisticated hackers or advanced persistent threats. Cognitive hacks are the least understood and operate below human conscious awareness allowing these attacks to occur in plain sight. To understand the simplicity of these attacks one need look no further than the evening news. The Russian attack on the Presidential election is the best and most obvious example of how effective these attacks are. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that these attacks were refined in elections of emerging countries over many years.
A March 16, 2016 article in Bloomberg, “How to Hack an Election” chronicled how these tactics were used in Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Venezuela long before they were used in the American elections.
“Cognitive hacking [Cybenko, Giani, Thompson, 2002] can be either covert, which includes the subtle manipulation of perceptions and the blatant use of misleading information, or overt, which includes defacing or spoofing legitimate norms of communication to influence the user.” The reports of an army of autonomous bots creating “fake news” or, at best, misleading information in social media and popular political websites is a classic signature of a cognitive hack.
Cognitive hacks are deceptive and highly effective because of a basic human bias to believe in those things that confirm our own long held beliefs or beliefs held by peer groups whether social, political or collegial. Our perception is “weaponized” without our knowledge or full understanding we are being manipulated. Cognitive hacks are most effective in a networked environment where “fake news” can be picked up in social media sites as trending news or “viral” campaigns encouraging even more readers to be influenced by the attacks without any sign an attack has been orchestrated. In many cases, the viral nature of the news is a manipulation through the use of an army of autonomous bots on various social media sites.
At its core the manipulation of behavior has been in use for years in the form of marketing, advertisements, political campaigns and in times of war. In the Great World Wars, patriotic movies were produced to keep public spirits up or influence the induction of volunteers to join the military to fight. ISIS has been extremely effective using cognitive hacks to lure an army of volunteers to their Jihad even in the face of the perils of war. We are more susceptible than we believe which creates our vulnerability to cyber risks and allows the risk to grow unabated in the face of huge investments in security. Our lack of awareness to these threats and the subtlety of the approach make cognitive hacks the most troubling in security.
I wrote the book, “Cognitive Hack, The New Battleground in Cybersecurity.. the Human Mind”, to raise awareness of these threats. Security professionals must better understand how these attacks work and the new vulnerabilities they create to employees, business partners and organizations alike. But more importantly, these threats are growing in sophistication and vary significantly requiring security professionals to rethink assurance in their existing defensive posture.
The sensitivity of the current investigation into political hacks by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees may prevent a full disclosure of the methods and approaches used however recent news accounts leave little doubt to their effect as described more than 14 years ago by researchers and more recently in Paris and Central and South American elections. New security approaches will require a much better understanding of human behavior and collaboration from all stakeholders to minimize the impact of cognitive hacks.
I proposed a simple set of approaches in my book however security professionals must begin to educate themselves of this new, more pervasive threat and go beyond simple technology solutions to defend their organization against them. If you are interested in receiving research or other materials about this risk or approaches to address them please feel free to reach out.
[i] C.E. Landwehr, “Formal Models of Computer Security,” Computing Survey, vol. 13, no. 3, 1981, pp. 247-278.