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Exposing Cybersecurity’s Hidden Deception

By Tom Seest

What Is A False Flag In Cybersecurity?

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False flag attacks are online strategies designed to deceive investigators and conceal your tracks, avoid detection, or assign blame for actions you did not commit.
Russia is renowned for its use of false flag operations, but these have also been carried out by several other states, such as Iran.

What Is A False Flag In Cybersecurity?

What Is A False Flag In Cybersecurity?

Can You Spot a False Flag Attack in Cybersecurity?

False Flag Attack, also referred to as Deception or Diversion Technique, is an attempt at concealment that someone or something else has been attacked. This tactic can be employed in order to cover up attackers’ tracks and avoid capture.
In the past, false flag attacks have been used to galvanize citizens around a leader and assign blame on adversaries. But thanks to satellite images and live video from the ground, governments now face greater difficulty staging these types of operations.
Unfortunately, such attacks often backfire. Not only do they fail to generate popular support, but they make it more difficult for leaders to get away with violating laws and international norms.
It is therefore essential to comprehend how false flags operate in cybersecurity and what attribution techniques exist for them. Beyond traditional detection methods, there is also a growing field of research which seeks to connect identified activities with their relevant actors.
Attack detection typically relies on evasiveness, deception and destruction of records; attribution focuses on identifying an actor and their applied tactics and techniques. To do this accurately, one must have a comprehensive understanding of an actor group’s capabilities as well as how they are applied within a particular cyber kill chain (Zimmermann 2014; MITRE 2019).
In such cases, several artifacts can assist a cyber investigator in correctly attributing the attack (Caltagirone et al. 2013).
These include actor profiles and other related information sources. Artifacts such as these are essential for attribution, since they enable one to connect identified actions with capabilities and the applied tactics and techniques of actors.
However, this attribution process can be tricky for digital forensics and security specialists. Furthermore, in certain circumstances it may even be possible to falsify certain traces.
In January 2022, a Ukrainian government website was targeted with an attack designed to make it appear as though it had been perpetrated by a pro-Ukrainian hacking group. Research eventually led them to identify the incident as being perpetrated by a Russia-based cybercriminal collective.

Can You Spot a False Flag Attack in Cybersecurity?

Can You Spot a False Flag Attack in Cybersecurity?

Are False Flag Attacks the Ultimate Deception in Cybersecurity?

False Flag Attacks are cybercrimes designed to deceive the public and intelligence agencies about who is responsible for an attack. These strategies may range from issuing false claims of responsibility to copying the tools, techniques, and languages typically employed by the group or country the hackers are targeting.
Nation State Actors are often motivated by nationalistic objectives and assigned the task of gathering information or disrupting other countries through cyber means. They go to great lengths to conceal their activities, often planting false flags in order to misdirect attribution efforts and prevent cyber security experts from tracing back their campaigns back to their home nation.
These attackers typically employ malware and botnets to launch cyberattacks that impact businesses and government entities worldwide. Additionally, they may spread phishing emails and create false social media accounts.
False flag tactics are one of the most prevalent, targeting a particular country or political group with malicious intent. When hackers attacked Israel’s government in 2019, analysts initially believed Iran was behind it due to their writing in Farsi and the use of similar techniques as Iranian hackers. But as more evidence came in, it became evident that Chinese operatives were behind it all.
Another form of false flag is code obfuscation, which makes it appear an attack was conducted by a different country or group than its actual perpetrators. For instance, in 2017 Wikileaks revealed that the CIA had developed a tool called Marble that could alter a file’s code to make it appear as though malicious software originated from Russia.
As recent events demonstrate, the success of attribution relies heavily on the quality and reliability of the investigation – including analysis of technical artifacts that may be left behind during an attack. This is where expertise in cybersecurity forensics, along with services like MITRE’s ATT&CK, can be immensely useful.

Are False Flag Attacks the Ultimate Deception in Cybersecurity?

Are False Flag Attacks the Ultimate Deception in Cybersecurity?

Are False Flag Attacks the Ultimate Cybersecurity Deception?

False flag attacks are operations designed to deceive victims and other cyber security defenders into believing an operation was conducted by another party. In cybersecurity, this could range from impersonating another country’s infrastructure or tactics to using tools and techniques similar to those employed by a threat actor known for wreaking havoc.
Recent attacks have drawn attention to false flags, such as an Israeli cybersecurity firm revealing Russian hackers posing as Iranian operatives were infiltrating networks worldwide. Most prominent among them was the OlympicDestroyer cyberattack of 2018, which Russia’s GRU reportedly designed to make it appear that it had been carried out by North Korea.
These operations can be deceptive and diversionary, but they also possess the potential to be highly destructive if not attributed correctly. Therefore, it is critical to develop an accurate and reliable way of detecting these types of attacks.
False flag operations employ a variety of tactics, but two of the most prevalent are obfuscation and emulation. The former involves concealing one’s identity or goal from attackers, while emulation involves employing similar language, infrastructure, or techniques as an established actor.
Emulation, however, can be more complex than anticipated; it’s often difficult to tell if someone has attempted to deceive the attribution process. That is why various indicators exist to identify such operations.
Kaspersky Lab researchers discovered that OlympicDestroyer attackers used NordVPN, a privacy-protection service, and a website accepting Bitcoins as payment methods – both known to have been utilized by Sofacy – a well-known Russian actor responsible for numerous attacks in recent years.
Though false flags are likely to persist, more sophisticated analysis may allow for their detection. It’s essential to remember that attribution capabilities are highly asymmetric and nation states remain the most capable threat actors on Earth.

Are False Flag Attacks the Ultimate Cybersecurity Deception?

Are False Flag Attacks the Ultimate Cybersecurity Deception?

Who Would Benefit from a False Flag Cyber Attack?

False flag attacks are attempts to conceal one’s own malicious actions by claiming another actor carried out the action. Motives for cyber threat actors may range from deflecting responsibility for an incident they did not commit, to concealing their illicit activities in order to justify committing violent acts (Morgan and Kelly 2019).
False flag attacks are an increasingly common form of information warfare in cybersecurity. While they have been used for centuries in the physical world, false flag attacks are becoming more and more popular among today’s threat actors due to their convenience and ability to quickly exploit vulnerabilities.
These attacks have been widely attributed to Russia, but any nation-state or even an expert cybercriminal could carry out these tasks. Indeed, obscuring an attacker’s identity poses a significant challenge in cybersecurity.
Obfuscation is the practice of masking an attack by using software and other technologies in order to make it appear that the attack was not carried out by a nation-state, cybercriminal, or other threat actor responsible. For instance, during the OlympicDestroyer cyberattack against PyeongChang Winter Olympics, Russians were able to obscure their code by altering it so it appeared as though it originated from another country such as North Korea.
These techniques may not always be successful, but they can be especially potent when a nation-state or experienced cybercriminal is behind the attack. Additionally, it helps if the threat actor is willing to share critical data about their activities with other entities like state agencies or cybersecurity firms.
False flag attacks are an integral part of the United States’ ongoing information war against Russia. These campaigns aim to damage Russia’s reputation and its image abroad rather than stir up anti-government feelings at home.
As the United States and Russia brace for midterm elections, large gatherings, and potential sociopolitical developments that could spark a public outcry, cybersecurity experts warn there is ample opportunity for threat actors to carry out false flag attacks. After the Parkland school shooting, conspiracy theories spread on social media that it was all part of an elaborate hoax orchestrated by liberals or Democrats in an attempt to paint conservatives as radicals ahead of November’s midterms.

Who Would Benefit from a False Flag Cyber Attack?

Who Would Benefit from a False Flag Cyber Attack?

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