NSA Deputy Director Richard Ledgett described a 2014 Russian cyber attack against the U.S. State Department as “hand-to-hand” combat:
“It was hand-to-hand combat,” said NSA Deputy Director Richard Ledgett, who described the incident at a recent cyber forum, but did not name the nation behind it. The culprit was identified by other current and former officials. Ledgett said the attackers’ thrust-and-parry moves inside the network while defenders were trying to kick them out amounted to “a new level of interaction between a cyber attacker and a defender.”
Fortunately, Ledgett said, the NSA, whose hackers penetrate foreign adversaries’ systems to glean intelligence, was able to spy on the attackers’ tools and tactics. “So we were able to see them teeing up new things to do,” Ledgett said. “That’s a really useful capability to have.”
I think this is the first public admission that we spy on foreign governments’ cyber warriors for defensive purposes. He’s right: being able to spy on the attackers’ networks and see what they’re doing before they do it is a very useful capability. It’s something that was first exposed by the Snowden documents: that the NSA spies on enemy networks for defensive purposes.
Interesting is that another country first found out about the intrusion, and that they also have offensive capabilities inside Russia’s cyberattack units:
The NSA was alerted to the compromises by a Western intelligence agency. The ally had managed to hack not only the Russians’ computers, but also the surveillance cameras inside their workspace, according to the former officials. They monitored the hackers as they maneuvered inside the U.S. systems and as they walked in and out of the workspace, and were able to see faces, the officials said.
There’s a myth that it’s hard for the US to attribute these sorts of cyberattacks. It used to be, but for the US — and other countries with this kind of intelligence gathering capabilities — attribution is not hard. It’s not fast, which is its own problem, but it’s not hard.