Bad guys, White Hat networks, and the Nuclear Switch

Welcome to Graph City (a random, connected, undirected graph), home of the Nuclear Switch (a distinguished node). Each one of Graph City's lawful citizens belongs to one of ten groups, characterized by their own stochastic movement patterns on the city. What they all have in common is that they never walk into the Nuclear Switch node.

This is because they are lawful, of course, and also because there's a White Hat network of government cameras monitoring some of the nodes in Graph City. They can't read citizen's thoughts (yet), but they know whether a citizen observed on a node is the same citizen that was observed on a different node a while ago, and with this information Graph City's government can build an statistical model of the movement of lawful citizens (as observed through the specific network of cameras).

This is what happens when random-walking, untrained bad guys (you know they are bad guys because they are capable of entering the Nuclear Switch node) start roaming the city (click to expand):

Attempts by untrained bad guys

Between half and twenty percent of the intrusion attempts succeed, depending on the total coverage of the White Hat Network (a coverage of 1.0 meaning that every node in the city has a camera linked to the system). This isn't acceptable performance in any real-life application, but this being a toy model with unrealistically small and simplified parameters, absolute performance numbers are rather meaningless.

Let's switch sides for a moment now, and advise the bad guys (after all, one person's Nuclear Switch is another's High Target Value, Market Influential, etc). An interesting first approach for bad guys would be to build a Black Hat Network, create their own model of lawful citizen's movements, and then use that systematically look for routes to the Nuclear Switch that won't trigger an alarm. The idea being, any person who looks innocent to the Black Hat Network's statistical model, will also pass unnoticed under the White Hat's.

This is what happens with bad guys trained using Black Hat Networks of different sizes are sent after the Nuclear Switch:

Attempts by bad guys trained on the BHN

Ouch. Some of the bad guys get to the Nuclear Switch on every try, but most of them are captured. A good metaphor for what's going on here could be that the White Hat Network and the Black Hat Network's filters are projections on orthogonal planes of a very high dimensional set of features. The set of possible behaviors for good and bad guys is very complex, so, unless your training set is comprehensive (something generally unfeasible), you can not have a filter that works very well on your training data and very poorly on a new observation — this is the bane of every overenthusiastic data analyst with a computer &mndash; but you can train two filters to detect the same subset of observations using the same training set, and have them be practically uncorrelated when it comes to new observations.

In our case, this is good news for Graph City's defenders, as even a huge Black Hat Network, and very well trained bad guys, are still vulnerable to the White Hat Network's statistical filter. It goes without saying, of course, that if the bad guys get even read-only access to the White Hat Network, Graph City is doomed.

Attempts by bad guys trained on the WHN

At one level, this is a trivial observation: if you have a good enough simulation of the target system, you can throw brute force at the simulation until you crack it, and then apply the solution to the real system with near total impunity (a caveat, though: in the real world, "good enough" simulations seldom are).

But, and this is something defenders tend to forget, bad guys don't need to hack into the White Hat Network. They can use Graph City as a model of itself (that's what the code I used above does), send dummy attackers, observe where they are captured, and keep refining their strategy. This is something already known to security analysts. Cf., e.g., Bruce Schneier — mass profiling doesn't work against a rational adversary, because it's too easy to adapt against. A White Hat Network could be (for the sake of argument) hack-proof, but it will still leak all critical information simply by the patter of alarms it raises. Security Through Alarms is hard!

As an aside, "Graph City" and the "Nuclear Switch" are merely narratively convenient labels. Consider graphs of financial transactions, drug traffic paths, information leakage channels, etc, and consider how many of our current enforcement strategies (or even laws) are predicated on the effectiveness of passive interdiction filters against rational coordinated adversaries...