The Chinese e-Wars: Reports from the Front

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2008-04-14 Print this article Print

Opinion: Those who commit espionage over the Internet have plenty of weapons to choose from. There's no reason to make things easy for them.

Reports continue about the sort of espionage I discussed recently in "The Secret China-US Hacking War." This Wired Report mentions how pro-Tibet groups have been the target of many such attacks, and it goes into more detail on the attacks themselves.

In 2006 and 2007, there were a series of attacks against Microsoft Office users, the kind Microsoft terms as "targeted [and] isolated." We knew at the time that these were espionage of a sort; the use of a new vulnerability against one or two targets indicates a sophisticated, high-value attack.

Click Here to Watch the Latest eWEEK Newsbreak Video.
Microsoft issued a series of patches against the attacks over a period of months. I had reported chatter from the anti-malware community that deficiencies in the old Office formats, in the OLE2SS (OLE2 Structured Storage) generally would make it impossible for Microsoft to patch the problem altogether, but only on a case-by-case basis. Perhaps that wasn't right, but I'm not sure.

This form of attack-an e-mail, either with an attachment or a link-is the bread-and-butter of both everyday and sophisticated attackers. A recent BusinessWeek article details many examples of such attacks and leads with one against Booz Allen. But in the Wired article, F-Secure's Mikko Hypp??énen (speaking at last week's RSA conference) ties the espionage attack wave that occurred one to two years ago to the Microsoft patches for the first time.

What can enterprises and other organizations sensitive to external attack do? I'm a big believer in moving to more secure platforms, and it's hard to argue that Vista and Office 2007 are not more secure than their predecessors. It is possible to do a lot to protect those predecessors, though, such as multilevel security at the gateway and the endpoint, and please-please!-patch disclosed vulnerabilities as soon as possible.

Often it is the case that once the patch is released, hackers reverse-engineer it to see what it is patching, and from that they can construct an attack. So once the patch is out, you are all the more vulnerable if you haven't applied it.

And if you don't patch quickly, consider the mitigation steps that usually accompany the disclosure. For example, it is often possible to set kill bits for an ActiveX control before a patch is available, and this can be done through a registry setting in the login script. And reducing the attack surface is always a good thing, so don't run any software you don't need.

But when it comes to targeted espionage, the kind where a new vulnerability is rolled out in order to conduct an attack, there's nothing like education and good sense of skepticism by the user. Even the best attacks usually look wrong somehow, if you know what to look for. Especially when you execute an attack program you can usually see evidence that something has gone wrong, starting with a program crash.

Some experts might recommend that you use alternative platforms like the Mac or OpenOffice, but these really don't help at all with targeted attacks. If someone's rolling out a new vulnerability for a targeted attack, it's just as easy for them to do it on OpenOffice and the Mac, which have numerous vulnerabilities, as for Windows. In fact, it's easier and cheaper for them to do it on the alternatives, where the price for a new, unpatched vulnerability is probably much cheaper than for Windows.

If someone is capable enough or well-funded enough and is out to get you, they can probably get an effective attack to you, but there's no point in making things easy for them. Good security configuration and up-to-date patches reduce the attack surface and raise the cost of an effective attack.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.

For insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer's blog Cheap Hack.

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