Forcing Attacker Decisions

Today I want to talk to you about forcing decisions and how you can use the concept to gain a strategic advantage in your infosec work.

Over the past few years, the Golden State Warriors have revolutionized the game of basketball while winning two NBA championships and putting up record-setting numbers in a variety of statistical categories. They aren’t just winning, they’re dominating and changing how people approach the game at a fundamental level. There are a lot of reasons for this, but none more apparent than their fast-paced offense that is built around passing.

I recently read an article from ESPN describing how Warriors coach Steve Kerr formulated his offense. The article’s worth reading if you care about basketball, but even if you don’t I think there’s one quote in there that’s relevant beyond basketball. The Warriors star player, Steph Curry, had this to say:

“The main goal is to just make the defense make as many decisions as you can so that they’re going to mess up at some point with all that ball movement and body movement and whatnot.”

The concept is simple but powerful. When a player makes a pass to another player, it forces the five defenders to make a decision and react. There are a lot of variables that have to be considered very quickly.

Now, let’s say that as soon as the second player receives a pass, they make another pass. What happened?

It forces the defense to consider a new set of variables, probably before they’ve had a chance to fully react to the variables encountered from the first pass. This mental reset causes confusion and slows the ability to react with the correct adjustment. Every quick pass compounds the opportunity for confusion. The Warriors rely on this to succeed, and it’s one of the reasons they track their passes per game statistic aggressively.

Watch the guys in blue. Notice how lost they look after the first few passes? They’re lost! A couple of them have basically given up on the play by the time the shot goes up.

Of course, this concept goes well beyond basketball. It relates to all decision-making.

 

Forcing Attacker Decisions

Any time you make a decision you are processing all available information. Good decision making is based on understanding every variable and having time to thoughtfully process the data. I believe network defenders are in a unique position to force poor attackers into poor decisions.

Home court advantage matters.

The attacker doesn’t know your network. To learn it, they have to go through a period of iterative discovery. An attacker gains access to something, pokes around, gains access to something else, pokes around more, rinse and repeat. The attacker doesn’t know your network, but they will learn it as they move closer to their objective. Each step of discovery provides an opportunity to force decisions through the strategic introduction of information. When this happens, an attacker might do something aggressive enough that it trips a signature, pivot around rapidly and leave a few extra breadcrumbs in your logs, or withdraw completely. 

Let’s talk about a few ways you can accomplish this.

Honeypots. I’m not talking about traditional external malware-catching honeypots that we’ve all set up and forgotten about. Production honeypots sit inside the network and are designed to mimic systems, processes, and data. Nobody should ever access these things, so any access constitutes an alert worthy event. Beyond detection, internal honeypots can also serve to confuse attackers and waste their time. Security is an economic problem and when defenders can increase the cost of an attack, this can serve to ward off opportunistic or lesser resourced attackers.

Deception Traps. The use of deception tech (beyond honeypots) is on the rise, and I think we’re well behind on leveraging these concepts. I’m not talking hacking back or security through obscurity — I’m talking passive engagement of attackers on your home court through automated traps. These are the traps that, when interacted with, provide information to an attacker that can confuse their understanding of the network itself. For example, IP space that responds to scans, but houses no systems. Perhaps some of those systems respond differently to scans depending on the source or time of day. Another example might be web application directories that when accessed, redirect the user to random pages or create endless redirect loops. One last example might be running processes on a system that appear to be named after multiple antivirus binaries. That would certainly be confusing to see multiple AV tools on a single system. One more — what if an attacker discovered user accounts and logs that indicate they aren’t the only attacker on the system? That might cause them to make a hasty retreat or try an aggressive pivot. These ideas aren’t exclusively about detection (although they could be used in that way). They’re about providing confusing information at inopportune times.

Scheduled Shutdowns and Restricted Logon Hours. It’s insanely easy to configure systems to shut down during off-hours and to limit certain user accounts to specific login hours. Yet, I never see anyone doing it. Sure, you have to account for users who might work late and keep systems up so that they receive important updates. However, forcing these schedules will throw an attacker who is poking around on your network off. They will likely figure it out eventually, but that still gives them a time window wherein decisions could become hastened when they know the deadline is approaching. There’s no better way to force decisions than to put a time limit on them. As an added bonus, limiting login times can help workers maintain a healthier work/life balance, and shutting systems down lowers your electric bill and is good for the environment.

 

Conclusion

These strategies won’t completely stop the attacker, but they do have the potential to slow them down enough so that you may detect them before they reach their goal and you’re dealing with a larger breach. Furthermore, it increases the attacker’s cost and effort to reach their goal, and this might just be enough to ward off opportunistic attackers or attacks based on automated processes.

While these techniques aren’t appropriate for every security program maturity level, they provide an opportunity for innovation in the open source and commercial product space.

The Warriors succeed because they tried something different using the skillful talent they had. You can do the same, but like Steve Kerr and Steph Curry, you may need to think differently and apply a unique strategy. The fundamentals matter, but so does being different.

My challenge to you: Think of a way you can force an attacker into making a bad decision. Have some cool ideas? Post them in the comments below.

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