The Chinese e-Wars: Reports from the Front

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.

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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.