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Cyber attribution

Cyber attribution definition

Cyber attribution is the process of tracing and identifying the origin or nature of a cyberattack. The goal is to reveal the identity or geographical location of the perpetrator(s) and attribute responsibility to a specific actor or group.

The process of cyber attribution can be quite complex. Due to the nature of the internet, perpetrators' actions can be anonymized, and traces can be misleading or completely erased.

See also: cyberattack, cyber warfare

Cyber attribution process

  • Detection and analysis. First, a cyberattack needs to be detected and analyzed. This involves using tools and techniques to understand the nature of the attack and gather initial data about it. The data can include the malware used, the IP addresses involved, and the vulnerabilities exploited.
  • Investigation. Once the initial data is gathered, a more in-depth investigation is conducted. This may involve analyzing the malware code, the servers used, and the methods of the attack to trace back to its origin.
  • Correlation and attribution. Information gathered is then correlated with other known attacks or threat actors. Cybersecurity organizations maintain databases of known threat actors, their digital signatures, and their tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs). By correlating the data from the new attack with this database, they can often attribute the attack to a known actor.
  • Verification. Before finalizing the attribution, the information must be verified to ensure accuracy. This often involves cross-checking with different data sources, reanalyzing the attack data, and consulting other cybersecurity experts.

Limitations of cyber attribution

  • Spoofing and misdirection. Skilled attackers may hide their actions by using IP spoofing or routing their attacks through many countries. They may also use malware or methods associated with other known groups to mislead investigators.
  • Lack of physical evidence. Unlike traditional crime scenes, cyber attacks don't leave physical evidence. Investigators must rely on digital traces, which are easy to manipulate or erase.
  • Time delay. The process of cyber attribution can be time-consuming. Meanwhile, the attacker can continue their activities or even attack the same target again.
  • Lack of international consensus. There's no universal legal framework or standard for cyber attribution. This makes it difficult to take legal action even if the perpetrator is identified.
  • False positives. The tools used for cyber attribution aren't foolproof and can lead to false positives. That means innocent parties can be mistakenly identified as culprits.