Cyberattacks Are Here: Security Lessons from Jon Snow, White Walkers & Others from Game of Thrones
An analysis of Game of Thrones characters as cyber threats to your enterprise.
As most of you have probably seen, we recently announced our new human point brand campaign. Put simply, we are leading the way in making security not just a technology issue, but a human-centric one. In light of this, I thought it would be fun to personify threats to the enterprise with one of my favorite shows - Game of Thrones. Surprisingly, there are a lot of lessons that can be learned from GoT in the context of security.
Before we start, I’d like to provide a few disclaimers:
- This is meant to be tongue in cheek, not literal, so take off your troll hat for the sake of some interesting analogies.
- This is not comprehensive. Honestly, I could have written another 5,000 words around ALL the characters that could be related to threats.
- This is based off of the Game of Thrones television series, not the books.
- And finally, spoilers people. There are spoilers if you are not fully caught up through Season 6. You’ve been warned :)
Now, let's dive in, lords and ladies…
What makes this Game of Thrones analysis so interesting is that these characters, depending on external forces, can change drastically from season to season. Therefore, our favorite character could represent a myriad of threats during a given season or the series overall. This concept relates to what we call 'The Cyber Continuum of Intent' which places insiders in your organization on a continuum which can move fluidly from accidental to malicious given their intent and motivations. There are also many instances where a character is a personification of a cyber threat or attack method.
Let’s start with one of the most devious characters – Petyr Baelish aka Littlefinger. Littlefinger is a good example of an advanced evasion technique (AET) that maneuvers throughout your network delivering an exploit or malicious content into a vulnerable target so that the traffic looks normal and security devices will pass it through. As Master of Coin and a wealthy business owner, he operates in the innermost circle of King’s Landing, while secretly undermining those close to him to raise his standing within Westeros. He succeeds, in fact, by marrying Lady Tulley to ultimately become the Protector of the Vale with great influence over its heir – Robyn Arryn of the Vale. Looking at his character from another angle, Littlefinger could also be considered a privileged user within a global government organization or enterprise. He is trusted by Ned Stark with Ned’s plans to expose the Lannister’s lineage and other misdoings, but he ultimately uses that information and knowledge for personal gain – causing Ned’s demise. And let’s not forget that Littlefinger also betrays Sansa Stark’s confidence and trust, marrying her to Ramsay Snow.
Varys and his ‘little birds’ equate to bots, and collectively, a botnet. Botnets are connected devices in a given network that can be controlled via an owner with command and control software. Of course, Varys (aptly also known as the Spider) commands and controls his little birds through his power, influence and also money. When it comes to security, botnets are used to penetrate a given organization’s systems – often through DDoS attacks, sending spam, and so forth. This example is similar to Turkish hackers who actually gamified DDoS attacks, offering money and rewards to carry out cybercrime.
Theon Greyjoy begins the series as a loyal ward to Eddard Stark and friend to Robb and Jon, but through his own greed and hunger for power becomes a true malicious insider. He also is motivated by loyalty to his family and home that he has so long been away from. He overtook The North with his fellow Ironborns, fundamentally betraying the Starks.
Theon Greyjoy and Ramsay Bolton (formerly Snow) are no strangers to one another, and play out a horrific captor/captive scenario through Seasons 4 and 5. Ramsay is similar to Ransomware as it usually coerces its victims to pay a ransom through fear. In the enterprise, this means a ransom is demanded in Bitcoin for the return of business critical data or IP. Additionally, Ramsay Snow holds RIckon Stark as a hostage in Season 6. He agrees to return Rickon to Jon Snow and Sansa Stark, but has his men kill Rickon right as the siblings reunite. This is often the case in Ransomware that infiltrates the enterprise – often, even if Ransom is paid, data is not returned.
Gregor Clegane, also known as The Mountain, uses sheer brute force to cause mayhem within Westeros, which would be similar to brute force cracking. This is a trial and error method used to decode encrypted data, through exhaustive effort. The Mountain is used for his strength and training as a combat warrior, defeating a knight in a duel in Season 1, and in Season 4 defeating Prince Oberyn Martell in trial by combat - in a most brutal way. He could also be compared to a nation state hacker, with fierce loyalty to the crown -- particularly the Lannister family. He is also a reminder that physical security can be as important as virtual for enterprises.
Depending on the season or the episode, this can fluctuate, but 99% of the time I think we can agree that Cersei Lannister is a good example of a malicious insider and more specifically a rogue insider. She is keen to keep her family in power and will do whatever it takes to maintain control over their destiny. My favorite part about Cersei is though she is extremely easy to loathe, throughout the entire series it is clear she loves her children and would do anything for them. After the last of her children dies, she quickly evolves from grief to rage. As the adage says, sad people harm themselves but mad people harm others. Cersei can be related to a disgruntled employee who intends to steal critical data with malicious intent that is facing challenges from within or outside of the workplace.
If we take a look at Seasons 4 and 5, and the fall of Jon Snow, many of the Night’s Watch members are good examples of insiders. Olly, for example, starts out as a loyal brother among the Night’s Watch. If he happened to leak any intel that could harm Jon Snow’s leadership or well-being, it would have been accidental. This could be compared to an employee within an organization who is doing their best, but accidentally clicks on a malicious link. However, as Snow builds his relationships with the wildlings, Olly cannot help but foster disdain and distrust toward Snow for allying with the people that harmed his family. Conversely, Alliser Thorne was always on the malicious side of the continuum, having it out for Snow especially after losing the election to be the 998th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. Ultimately, Thorne’s rallying of the Night’s Watch to his side led to Snow’s demise (even if it was only temporary).
Sons of the Harpy mirror a hacktivist group fighting the rule of Daenerys Targaryen over Meereen. They wreak havoc on Daenerys’s Unsullied elite soldiers and are backed by the leaders who Daenerys overthrew - the ‘Masters’ of Meereen - in the name of restoring the ‘tradition’ of slavery in their city. They seek to overthrow Daenerys and use any means necessary to ensure there is turmoil and anarchy. Hacktivists are often politically motivated. If the hacktivist group is successful, it can take the form of a compromised user on the Continuum – through impersonation. After all, the most pervasive malware acts much like a human being.
Let’s not forget about the adversaries that live beyond The Wall – The White Walkers. The White Walkers represent a group of malicious actors seeking to cause harm in the Seven Kingdoms, or for this analogy, your network. What is interesting about these White Walkers is that they are a threat that has been viewed as a legend or folklore except for those that have actually seen them. However, we know that this season they become very real. Secondly, what makes the White Walkers so remarkable is that we do not know their intentions or motivations, they cannot be understood like most of these characters seeking power or revenge. I argue that this makes them the most dangerous and hardest threat to predict. And lastly, if we think about how the White Walkers came to be, we know that they were initially created to help defend the Children of the Forest against the First Men. But, we now know that they have grown exponentially in number and begun to take on a life (pun intended) of their own. This is equated to the use of AI in the technology space which some fear will overtake us humans.
In my mind The Wall itself could be considered a character, and therefore a firewall of sorts. Its purpose is to keep infiltration out; however, as we learned at the end of Season 6, this wall is penetrable. This leads me to the main takeaway – enterprises and agencies face a myriad of threats and should not rely on traditional perimeter defenses, but have multi-layered security solutions in place.
With all of these parallels, it becomes clear that people are the true constant complexity in security. It is known that enterprises must have people-centric, intelligent solutions to combat the greatest threats like those faced in Westeros.