Often the question of "who used it?" is just as salient as "who made it?" when dealing with attribution of malicious activity. Researchers at the Institute for Internet Security & Privacy are working across several fronts of the attribution problem set -- spanning activities such as cyber espionage, cyberattack, and cyber influence.
For example, pieces of malicious code are often the most common pieces of forensic evidence available to the security research community. However, a standalone binary by itself is not overly useful in driving attribution statements. This is because a standalone binary lacks context: it does not give away who wrote it, by whom it was controlled, who the infected victims were, or what the aim of the operation was that used the binary. A standalone binary does not even confirm in which operation it was used. What is lacking is context.
Georgia Tech researchers are working on large-scale collections of malware samples to posit relationships between binaries. With a sufficient sample size, machine-learning techniques can be applied. Current research builds upon the community’s state-of-the-art approach to attribution, in which code stylometry looks at stylistic features (i.e., white spaces, operators, literals, etc.) and author-created attributes (i.e., average number of characters per word, character count, use of special characters, punctuation, etc.). Our aim is produce credible links between a binary and a given set of binaries from the same cyber threat actor in a measurable way. We focus on the following domains to derive attribution inferences, and require multiple positive correlations between domains to produce results:
- String constants;
- Implementation traits;
- Custom features, and
Another emerging research area is the attribution -- not just of cyber espionage or cyber attack, in which information theft or damage to a network or physical environment is the goal -- of the growing number of cyber-based information operations. Trolls are undertaking sophisticated operations to sway popular opinion, curb dissent, stir unrest, and instill fear. Regardless of what this type of activity is called – information operations, influence campaigns, cyber manipulation, "fake news," or irregular warfare – this asymmetric and increasingly dangerous activity is on the rise. Researchers at Georgia Tech are looking at ways to attribute this activity using Internet metadata and other fact-based log analysis techniques.
Research Updates & News
Sept. 27, 2017
The 15th Annual Georgia Tech Cyber Security dedicated a full day to the topic of attribution, featuring presentations by Manos Antonakakis, Peter Swire, Panos Kintis, David Formby, and discussions with guests from Microsoft Corp., the Council on Foreign Relations, FBI, and more.
June 4, 2017
Milton Mueller, professor in the School of Public Policy, examines a proposal by RAND Corporation (funded by Microsoft) to create a Global Cyber Attribution Consortium for purposes of facilitating a formalized approach to attribution investigation.
May 22, 2017
By analyzing network traffic going to suspicious domains, security administrators could detect malware infections weeks or even months before they're able to capture a sample of the invading malware, a new study suggests. The findings by Manos Antonakakis point toward the need for new malware-independent detection strategies that will give network defenders the ability to identify network security breaches in a more timely manner.
May 1, 2017
Georgia Tech hosts "Cyber May Day" -- an informative, community discussion between security professionals and Congressional leaders about the risks or benefits of proposed legislation that could allow individuals to "hack back" into networks not their own. [Video]
Feb. 17, 2017
Georgia Tech announces the 15th Annual Georgia Tech Cyber Security Summit -- a full day dedicated to the latest advancements in the science of cyber attribution -- that will be held Sept. 27, 2017.
Nov. 29, 2016
News Release: $17 Million Contract Will Help Establish Science of Attribution
Georgia Tech was awarded a $17.3-million contract from the U.S. Department of Defense to develop a system that will quickly identify actors behind cyberattacks. Work is led by Michael Farrell, associate director of attribution and chief research scientist at GTRI's Cyber Technology & Information Security Laboratory, and Manos Antonakakis, assistant professor at the School of Electrical & Computer Engineering.