Theyd never do that

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2005-05-31 Print this article Print

!"> With all this, its easy to see how a competent and unscrupulous programmer could make a decent living writing custom malware. The raw materials, based on widely available public malware, are not hard to find.

And in case you find yourself saying, "Theyd never do that," dont assume that its actually the other company performing the espionage.
All it takes is one person with a big commission or incentive plan at stake, and the last thing they may want is for their company to know that theyre hacking the competition. (Of course, if the other company does find out, they may decide the best thing is to cover it up, but thats another matter.)

The other ingredient, besides malware, is social engineering. This, too, is disturbingly well understood, and there are even legit companies who do it for testing purposes. The bottom line is finding a way to trick someone with access to the information into installing a program you supply. This is too easy.

In fact, if someone from the competition is involved the social engineering aspects become all the easier, because they will know how to represent themselves (or, more likely, train a third party to represent themselves) as being a person who might be trustworthy. They might, for example, get you to load a CD they send you. They might get in the building for a meeting and hack your wireless network. They might call up and pretend to be a contractor or client. Competitors know enough about you to be useful for such an attack.

The ultimate answer, as a matter of defense, is not as simple as updating your security products more frequently (although that might be helpful). It is in, more generally, locking down PCs and networks, and in education. I shudder when I advocate education, because stories like this always underscore how far we have to go. Note that the Israeli attack was discovered by what sounds like a sophisticated user who determined that an attack had taken place. But you dont want to assume that someone will be smart enough to notice a compromise that your software missed, so lock down your network and throw away the key.

It is possible to get added protection from better use of software, for instance through products that claim to detect threats heuristically—some dont like that term, but the basic idea is threat detection without needing a signature for the specific threat. Everyone seems to be getting better at this, and I hear especially good things about Panda TruPrevent, but Ive never seen a solution close enough to 100 percent to make me trust it completely, and I dont think the vendors of these programs would tell you to trust them completely. Its much safer to mandate that executable programs, including scripts, should be off-limits to users unless they are on a whitelist.

But whatever you do, proceed under the assumption that someone is trying to break in and steal your information for reasons you dont approve. Its possible, and there are people out there who want to do it, so you have to assume its being done.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983. Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest security news, reviews and analysis. And for insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at Security Center Editor Larry Seltzers Weblog.

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

Submit a Comment

Loading Comments...
Manage your Newsletters: Login   Register My Newsletters

Rocket Fuel