An Israeli industrial espionage scandal that erupted over the weekend really shouldnt be surprising, tempting as surprise might be. In fact, while its impossible to know how much of this sort of thing is going on, its safe and responsible to assume its common.
Executives at several large companies were arrested, as well as private detectives at large agencies, on suspicion of using Trojan horse programs to spy on competitors computers. Not just technology companies were involved, but auto importers.
Israelis and Israeli companies are probably more savvy about computer security, either at the attacker or victim end, than people in other Western countries, although perhaps this indicates a surprising level of sophistication and interest on the part of the police.
I have to wonder why we dont get cases like this in the U.S., because I have to assume the same stuff is going on.
The scandal coalesces a number of trends that had already been widely identified:
The change of motivation for malware authoring from vandalism to crime-for-profit; the wide distribution of malware writing skills and free availability of worm and Trojan code; and inadequacy of many security solutions to unidentified threats.
The early mail worms were just experiments, partly to see how successful they could be and partly as practice for some more serious goal.
It wasnt long before the function of these worms, the bread and butter of malware for a long time, was to install a back door so that the computer could be controlled as part of a network to perform tasks for criminals, including spammers.
Creating these “bot armies” is the main function of most of the malware we read about, both the mail worms and the Trojan horses that are set up for download.
Most of it is not targeted, but thrown up on the wall to see what sticks. In other words, its blasted out to the Internet generally, and if it spreads, it spreads.
Most readers dont know it, but there are a lot more of these worms and Trojans than they know.
I follow threat monitoring services that report on them and there are several new versions of such threats every day.
Theyre all extremely dangerous, but like random mutations in DNA, most of them die quickly.
Ive wondered for a while why there are so many new versions, and I think it may have to do with the motivation of experimentation.
Its rare these days for new families of attacks to come out. Most variants come from sites and IRC channels where source code is freely exchanged, and some malware comes with its own source code embedded.
Step 1 is to make some small variation and distribute it. But just because you make a useful variation doesnt mean you have to distribute it.
Theyd never do that
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 eWEEK.com Security Center Editor Larry Seltzers Weblog.