Fighting 21st Century Cyber-Threats

By Fahmida Y. Rashid  |  Posted 2011-09-06

Fighting 21st Century Cyber-Threats

In the 10 years since hijackers flew two passenger jets into the World Trade Center in New York City and a third one into the Pentagon, federal, state and local governments have struggled to secure transportation systems and physical infrastructure from terrorist attacks.

However, the damage was done. The attacks ended-probably forever-Americans' belief that we were immune from the terrorist attacks that had plagued the Middle East, Europe and the Asia-Pacific regions for years.

Since then, Americans and technology-savvy people around the world have had to deal with another source of unease: insecurity about whether the computer systems people and institutions rely on are safe from theft, corruption and destruction by advanced cyber-threats.

In 2001, the closest thing we had to social media was, and cyber-threats mostly involved stalling Website operations, compromising PC performance and occasionally destroying database files.

However, in the past 10 years, cyber-threats have evolved into sophisticated attacks that can cripple large enterprises, steal credit card numbers and personal identities, empty bank accounts, and probe the depths of enterprise and government networks before draining databases full of sensitive documents or trade secrets.

Ten years ago, viruses were still primarily the work of amateurs, said Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer at F-Secure. "People weren't writing keyloggers and viruses to make money," he added. The most common way of getting infected was via a malicious executable file attached to an email message. That kind of attack would no longer work, as those emails would now be blocked.

It was easy to tell when a user was infected back then, as malware would produce an effect, such as crashing the computer. Now, sophisticated malware lurks silently on infected systems and harvests data. It's nearly impossible to tell if a user has been infected, Hypponen said. Cyber-threats now come from criminals intent on stealing money, extremists out to make a point and nation-states engaged in espionage.

Shortly after the United States Navy SEAL operation killed Osama bin Laden in his compound in Pakistan, there was an increase in probing attacks on defense systems in an attempt to access information about the operation, Charles Dodd, a government consultant for cyber-defense, told eWEEK. Intruders were after classified information on whom the United States talked to and worked with, as well as the information collected, he said.

Criminals are increasingly relying on the latest technologies to plan and execute attacks on the Internet-including the use of social networking to push out scams-and they are focusing on developing mobile malware. In fact, Canadian and United States law enforcement organizations have complained about criminals relying on BlackBerry's encrypted communications to hide their activities.

Defenses Havent Changed


While many things have changed in the post-9/11 world, defenses against cyber-terrorism haven't. Many organizations are still relying on the same defenses developed in the mid-to-late 1990s, said Anup Ghosh, founder and chief scientist of Invincea. "We are defending against 21st century attacks with 20th century technology," he said.

The Defense Department and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) focus on fighting terrorism inhibited innovation in information security, according to Ghosh. Foreign cyber-attackers began penetrating U.S. networks, but instead of publicizing evolving threats and tactics, the government classified the details.

"The market hasn't innovated with the adversary because it hasn't been privy to the exploits or advances in technology," he said. The security industry is still largely reactive as it focuses on defenses that look for known signatures and patterns of attack when it needs new techniques to defend against cutting-edge cyber-attacks, he added.

A few years ago, attacking critical infrastructure was just another "movie idea"-something no one thought would really happen-but last year's Stuxnet Trojan attack was a "wake-up call," F-Secure's Hypponen said. Until Stuxnet was discovered, no one realized these kinds of infrastructure attacks were already happening.

"Look at Die Hard," said Hypponen. As everything has become connected to the Internet and computers have become more ubiquitous, the film's plot has become reality, he said.

But the security situation isn't completely bleak. We have made some progress, especially in the areas of information sharing and interagency cooperation.

The private sector has done a good job communicating with the government about protecting the critical infrastructure, Todd Davis, CEO of LifeLock, told eWEEK at a training summit for law enforcement officials at the New York Stock Exchange. The goal was to bring together "front-line" law enforcement and specialized agencies to share information on what techniques criminals are using and what tools are available for the good guys.

The Defense Industrial Base Cyber Pilot is an example of how industry is working with the Department of Defense to share classified and sensitive data about cyber-attacks. The data collected in a three-month pilot program with 20 companies helped stop "hundreds of attempted intrusions" by identifying malware signatures, said Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn. The pilot will be expanded to the rest of the industry and key areas of critical infrastructure.

"We are in a so much better space than we used to be," LifeLock's Davis said, adding that now is "one of the best times for collaboration."

In addition, advances in technology have made it much easier and faster for law enforcement and business to identify potential problems. Organizations can deploy forensics and monitoring tools to detect anomalous activity in near-real-time, while police officers have access to more information about drivers during routine traffic stops, Davis said.

The goal of these efforts? To use technology to help stop cyber-attacks.

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