Compromising vital infrastructure: communication

Compromising vital infrastructure: communication

Have you ever been witness to a Wi-Fi failure in a household with school-aged children? If so, I don’t have to convince you that communication qualifies as vital infrastructure. For the doubters: when you see people risking their lives in traffic just to check their phone, you’ll understand why most adults consider instant communication to be vital as well.

Forms of communication

Humanity has come a long way in communication techniques. From drawings on the cave wall to wartime messages sent via courier to the Pony Express and now, the Internet. Modern communication tools enable us to reach most places across the world in a matter of seconds.

What are the lines of communications that are more or less vital to our everyday life?

  • The Internet
  • Telephone lines
  • Mobile telephone networks
  • TV and radio broadcasting

Granted, if one of these communication forms fails, part of its traffic can be taken over by another form, but they all have their specific pros and cons that make a durational outage hard to cope with. For example, most smartphones are capable of using both the mobile networks and the Internet, but the latter is limited to when they have Wi-Fi access. When cell phone towers go down, as they did during 9/11, users could send messages via Internet messaging services—at that time, AIM, but today WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, or other platforms.

Growing importance

In the list I posted earlier, you may have felt that I missed out on letters and postcards, or snail-mail as we often call it. This is because a growing number of companies are keeping us informed through email, their websites, text messages, and other forms of communication that are way faster than postal services. Most companies will still send letters and paper bills if you ask for them, but it’s no longer the default. Our mail delivery services are increasingly starting to resemble package delivery services. They see a growing number of deliveries that require a physical transfer of an object rather than information alone.

Instead, the majority of modern communication is digital.

Securing digital communication

Digital information that needs to be kept from prying eyes and eavesdropping is usually encrypted. To establish secure communication, one may use encrypted mail, crypto-phones, and secure protocols on the Internet. Most of these encryptions are strong enough to withstand brute force attempts at entry—at least for long enough to outlive the usefulness of intercepting the message. Future computer systems like qubit quantum computers, however, may require us to upgrade the encryption strength that we use for these methods.

Breaking the Internet

Because of the way the Internet has grown and become more versatile, the Internet backbone is robust enough to withstand DDoS attacks of a large magnitude. Yet, there have been instances where an entire country, such as North Korea, was taken offline, or where an attack on a major DNS provider caused a serious disruption in the number of sites we were able to visit.

These attacks were targeted at systems that were important for specific parts of the Internet. Nevertheless, they demonstrated that there are weaknesses in the infrastructure that can be exploited to paralyze parts of the Internet, and therefore, parts of our vital communication.

Misinformation and fake news

Another growing problem with predominantly online communication is the spreading of fake news and deliberate misinformation. The most common reasons for spreading misinformation are political and financial gain, as well as attention. The problem has reached a size and impact that caused government bodies like the EU to announce countermeasures. During that process, and due to other influences social media has over its users, many organizations felt the need to hired hordes of moderators who are tasked with keeping the information spread on their platforms as clean and as honest as possible. This still fell short in some instances, such as the dramatic events in Myanmar where Facebook was used as a tool for ethnic cleansing. And these are not the only problems social media are trying to deal with.

propaganda or truth

Malware and communication

Communication is also a vital part of some types of malware, such as backdoors, Trojans, and especially spyware. After all, what use is it to spy on someone if you are unable to get your hands on the gathered information? Traditional malware communication relies on the use of Command and Control (C&C) servers. But since those servers can be taken down or blocked, malware authors have been looking at rotation systems like Domain Generating Algorithms and some other creative ideas, like using social media and other public platforms.

While you may use social media to stay in contact with family and friends, there are many forms of malware that use those same media for different purposes. Botnets are known to use Twitter as an outlet for spam, fraud, and fake news. But they also use it to send commands to Remote Access Trojans (RATs) that wait for code hidden in memes posted by a particular account.

In addition, malware exploits messenger platforms to communicate instructions. There’s the Goodsender malware, for which threat actors used the Telegram messenger platform to communicate with the malware and send HTTPS-protected instructions. Another well-known phenomenon are the Facebook Messenger apps that spread in a worm-like fashion by sending out links to friends in an attempt to trick users into being installed.

Social media countermeasures

While social media is struggling with its public reputation these days, they at least seem ready to take baby steps forward in tightening up security—whether that’s from political pressure or self-awareness. At an event in Brussels, Nick Clegg, Facebook’s head of global public relations, stated:

We are at the start of a discussion which is no longer about whether social media should be regulated, but how it should be regulated. We recognize the value of regulation, and we are committed to working with policymakers to get it right.

Working out the “how” could turn into a long-winded discussion, however. Maybe the rumors about a space laser communications system represent a step in the right direction. In theory, such a system could be used to improve security.

Better communication results in better security

Having all the facts helps us to improve security. Making sure that this information reaches the people that need it is a matter of effective communication strategy. And in some cases, it may be just as important that the information is not communicated so that it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.

The National Intelligence Strategy released in January 2019 by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence states:

Nearly all information, communication networks, and systems will be at risk for years to come.

Therefore, an important part of communication strategy must be to recognize the risk and integrate the proper tools—such as end-to-end encryption or intel on certain platforms known to be used by cybercriminals, for example. The National Intelligence Strategy goes on to say that they’ll be “

harnessing the full talent and tools of the IC [Intelligence Community] by bringing the right information, to the right people, at the right time.”

Cyberattacks on communication infrastructure

A pretty bizarre method of abusing communication happened when a family was scared into believing there was an ongoing nuclear attack, as some prankster accessed their Nest camera to issue realistic warnings about missiles heading to the US from North Korea.

More worrying is the trend for ransomware authors (especially groups using SamSam) to aim their targets at cities and small government bodies with the aim of shutting down infrastructure, including communications. Taking down a city website, as was the case in the city of Atlanta, cripples an important medium of disseminating citizen information, not to mention that the costs related to getting everything back online were absorbed with taxpayer money that could have been better spent on other services.

Information is crucial

Important decisions may be postponed when the person or body that is supposed to make that decision is unable to gather the information necessary. Communications are also a vital part of some malware infections. Perhaps organizations can use some of the ingenious methods malware authors have thought up when looking for ways to make vital lines of communication more robust. Redundancy is a good thing when it allows us to use multiple methods and networks to transmit the same information. On the other hand, it also enlarges the attack surface when it comes to sharing confidential information.

This does have an upside for the quality of free information. Because of all the communication options out there, some regimes are having an increasingly difficult time shielding their population from information they would rather keep under the carpet. This hasn’t stopped some, like China’s Great Firewall, from trying, though.

Communication is everywhere

Communication is truly always available to nearly everyone that wants it in the western world, and this readiness—and the danger that lurks with it—may shape how our generation is viewed far into the future. This may be the era when communication both flourished to its true potential, and reached its limits. After all, pitfalls are inherent when technology develops faster than regulation can keep up.

Maybe the developments we are seeing now are just another step forward for the eventual better regulation of communication, though I’m convinced it will not be the last step regulators need to take. In fact, 5G is already waiting around the corner to add another level in speed and bandwidth to an already connected society. Let’s see how this new technology impacts an already complex tapestry of communication triumphs and failures.


Pieter Arntz

Malware Intelligence Researcher

Was a Microsoft MVP in consumer security for 12 years running. Can speak four languages. Smells of rich mahogany and leather-bound books.