On Wednesday 10th March, Strife Interviewer Ed Stacey sat down with Dr Daniel Moore to discuss the operational side of offensive cyber. For part two of Strife’s Offensive Cyber Series, Dr Moore expands on his thinking about presence-based and event-based offensive cyber operations and discusses related topics such as the emergence of new organisational cyber structures, allied operations on networks and his upcoming book Offensive Cyber Operations: Understanding Intangible Warfare, slated for release in October 2021.
Ed Stacey: Danny, you have written in the past about distinguishing between presence-based and event-based offensive cyber operations. What are the key differences between the two?
Danny Moore: I came up with the distinction between presence-based and event-based operations as a commentary on the lack of distinction in most of the publicly accessible cyber doctrine documentation. Mostly what we see are offensive cyber operations treated as a uniform spectrum of possibilities that have the same considerations, the same set of staff associated with them and the same set of circumstances under which you would want to use them. But that is not the case.
A lot of the literature you see focusses on the technical deployment of offensive cyber operations – the malicious software involved in the process, the intended effect, what it means to pivot within a network – but that really only encompasses a fraction of the activity itself when we are talking about military-scale or even intelligence agency-scale of operations, at least where it counts. So I came up with this distinction to differentiate between what I think are two supercategories of operation that are so different in the circumstance, and so unique in how they would be utilised, that they are worth examining separately because they have distinct sets of advantages and disadvantages.
Presence-based operations are like the classic intelligence operation that has an offensive finisher. So you have everything that you normally would with an intelligence operation, including compromising the adversary’s network, establishing a foothold, pivoting within and gathering relevant information. But then there are additional offensive layers too, such as looking for the appropriate targets within the network that would yield the intended impact and weaponizing your access in a way that would facilitate achieving the objective. For example, would you need dedicated tooling in order to have an effect on the target? Or say you are looking to have a real-world, physical impact or even adversely degrade specific types of software and hardware, which would require significant capabilities. But crucially, the operation is managed over the period of at least many weeks, if not months and sometimes even years. And it can be a strategic set of capabilities that you would use possibly even just once, when needed, because once exposed it is likely to be counteracted, at least in the medium-term.
Event-based operations are completely different in that sense. They are the most robust equivalent that you could have to a proper weapon, in the military sense of the word. It is intended to be something that you can bundle, package up and deploy in multiple circumstances. Imagine – and I think this is the most helpful analogy – it is almost an evolution of electronic warfare, something that you can deploy on a ship or with a squad or even within an existing air defence grid. What it does is, instead of just communicating in electromagnetic signal, it also attempts to facilitate a software attack on the other side. And that sequence involves a completely different set of circumstances. You do not need to have an extended period of intelligence penetration of the network that you are targeting – that contact is likely to be minimal. Instead, what you have is an extensive research and development process where you collect the right technical intelligence in order to understand the target, craft the actual tool and then make it much more robust so that it can be used multiple times against the same or equivalent targets and not be as brittle to detection, so stealth is not really a component.
So that distinction is just a high-level way of saying that the circumstances are different, the types of manpower associated are different, but also that there are unique advantages and disadvantages when using each.
ES: What sort of benefits do states and their militaries and intelligence agencies gain by making this distinction?
DM: If you acknowledge these differences at a strategic and doctrinal level, it facilities much better planning and integration of cyber capabilities into military operations. As you know, there is a constant tension between intelligence agencies and their equivalents in the conventional military around how offensive cyber capabilities are used. The question here is: how close is the relationship between the intelligence agency – which is the natural owner of offensive cyber capabilities, for historical reasons and usually a strong link to signals intelligence – and the military, which wants to incorporate these capabilities and to have a level of predictability, repeatability and dependability from these activities for planning purposes? That tension is always there and it is not going away entirely, but how this distinction helps is to group capabilities in a way that facilitates better planning.
If you have a supercategory of operation that relies heavily on intelligence-led penetration, pivoting and analysis, for example, that comfortably lives with the extreme assistance of an intelligence agency, if not actual ownership – and that will vary between countries. Whereas the more packageable type of capability is easier to hand-off to a military commander or even specific units operating in the field. It is something that you can sign off and say: this will not compromise my capabilities in a significant way if it is used in the field incorrectly, or even correctly, and gets exposed in some way, shape or form. So it is about different levels of sensitivities, it is about facilitating planning and I think it takes the conversation around what offensive cyber operations actually look like to a more realistic place that supports the conversation, rather than limits it.
ES: Focussing on the organisational tensions that you mentioned, new structures like the UK’s National Cyber Force (NCF) are emerging around the world. What are the operational implications of these efforts?
DM: The short answer is that the NCF is an acknowledgement of a process that has been happening for many years. That is, the acknowledgement that you need to build a bridge between the intelligence agency, which is the natural owner of these capabilities, and the military, that wants to use them in a predictable and effective way. So you are seeing outfits like this come up in multiple countries. It allows for more transparent planning and for better doctrinal literature around how cyber capabilities integrate into military planning. That is not to say it will fix everything, but it decouples the almost symbiotic relationship between intelligence agencies and offensive cyber operations.
Intelligence agencies will always play a significant part because, as I said and have written about as well, they have an important role to play in these types of operations. But we have matured enough in our understanding to be able to have a distinct, separate conversation about them that includes other elements in military planning that do not just draw from intelligence agencies. So the NCF and other equivalent entities are an acknowledgement of the distinctness of the field.
ES: This next question is from Dr Tim Stevens, who I spoke to last week for part one of this series. Will NATO allies follow the US’ lead and adopt a posture of persistent engagement in cyberspace? And just to add to that, if they did, what sort of operational challenges and opportunities would they face in doing so?
DM: The conversation around the US’ persistent engagement and defend forward mentality for cyber operations is one that is ambivalent and a little contentious, even within the US itself – whether or not it is working, whether or not it is the best approach and, even, what it is actually trying to achieve. If you read the literature on this, you will find many different interpretations for what it is actually meant to do. So will NATO or specific member states choose to adopt elements of this? Possibly. But it is unlikely to manifest in the same way.
The perception from the US that they are in constant competition with their adversaries in and against networks is accurate. We have increased friction as a result of how the internet is structured and how sensitive networks are structured. You consistently have to fend off adversaries and seek to engage them, ideally outside your own networks – a good concept to have and a good operational model to keep in mind. And I think it is a great way to educate military leaders and planners around the unique circumstances of operating against networks. That said, I do not know if NATO is going to adopt wholesale persistent engagement and defend forward or rather just incorporate elements of that constant friction into their own models, which I think is a necessary by-product of engaging networks.
Some of the countries within NATO are more prolific than others when it comes to such activities – the UK, for example, or even France. Obviously, countries run offensive cyber operations of their own: they consistently need to fend off adversaries from their critical infrastructure and they prefer not to do this by directly mitigating incidents within their own network. So the step of persistent engagement and defend forward does make sense, but I do not know if that is an adoption of the same doctrine or just some of the principles that it looks to embody.
Part II of this interview will be published tomorrow on Friday 11th June 2021.