CyberwarfareNew cyber-attack model helps hackers time the next Stuxnet

By Akshat Rathi

Published 14 February 2014

Taking the enemy by surprise is usually a good idea. Surprise can only be achieved if you get the timing right — timing which, researchers argue, can be calculated using a mathematical model, at least in the case of cyber-wars. The researchers say that based on the stakes of the outcome, a cyberweapon must be used soon (if stakes are constant) or later (if the stakes are uneven). In other words, when the gain from a cyberattack is fixed and ramifications are low, it is best to attack as quickly as possible. When the gain is high or low and ramifications are high, it is best to be patient before attacking.

Of the many tricks used by the world’s greatest military strategists, one usually works well — taking the enemy by surprise. It is an approach that goes back to the horse that brought down Troy. But surprise can only be achieved if you get the timing right. Timing which, researchers at the University of Michigan argue, can be calculated using a mathematical model — at least in the case of cyber-wars.

James Clapper, the director of U.S. National Security Agency, said cybersecurity is “first among threats facing America today,” and that’s true for other world powers. In many ways, it is even more threatening than conventional weapons, since attacks can take place in the absence of open conflict. And attacks are waged not just to cause damage to the enemy, but often to steal secrets.

Timing is key for these attacks, as the name of a common vulnerability — the zero-day attack — makes apparent. A zero-day attack refers to attacking a vulnerability in a computer systems on the same day that the vulnerability is recognized, when there is preparedness to defend against attack. That is why cyber-attacks are usually carried out as soon as a cyber-weapon is ready and before an opponent has the time to fix its vulnerabilities.

As Robert Axelrod and Rumen Iliev at the University of Michigan write in a paper just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “The question of timing is analogous to the question of when to use a double agent to mislead the enemy, where it may be worth waiting for an important event but waiting too long may mean the double agent has been discovered.”