Is organized crime moving into cybersphere?

FBI agent appeals to IT executives to work with authorities to nail cybercriminals

As if FBI special agent Tim O'Brien and his cybercrime fighting comrades don't already have their hands full with bot herders, virus writers and other loosely-aligned crooks, now people are wondering when more traditional organized crime will grab a piece of the action.

Following his presentation at CIO Forum, O'Brien was asked by one technology pro about whether the real-life Tony Sopranos of the organized crime world have caught the cybercrime bug.

"I don't think traditional organized crime in this country is involved the cybersphere yet, but that's certainly a possibility," he says. "A lot of it's benign goes under the radar and most people don't know anything about it. It's not murder, it's not racketeering, it's stuff that's not going to make a headline. The chances of making a tremendous amount of money off that without getting caught are much higher than going out and murdering your enemies."

More common are loosely organized criminals from other parts of the world where job prospects aren't so good. These various specialists -- some expert at developing malware, others at distributing it via botnet and others with the ability to sell stolen data -- scheme to infiltrate computers and networks and commit fraud, says O'Brien, who refers to the malware used to perpetrate such crimes as "crimeware".

"America is the target. We have the assets and systems here and we have a lot of people who are looking to profit off that," O'Brien says. He and a handful of other FBI agents from New York City joined 300-plus CIOs at the CIO Forum event aboard the Norwegian Dawn cruise ship in hopes of getting the tech executives to open up about their security concerns and to encourage their participation in information sharing programs such as InfraGard.

Citing recent statistics from surveys conducted by the FBI and vendors such as Symantec, O'Brien says the findings are scary: More companies are being targeted; malware writers are pumping out their programs faster than ever; and all indications are that intruders increasingly are looking to turn a profit. "Half of what people are reporting are just trojans, not worms or viruses so much," O'Brien says. "That indicates the actual mindset of what's going on out there, that people are looking to place something on the system to prepare a beachhead for later exploitation."

Compromised routers (access to Cisco systems that can be used for denial-of-service attacks can be had for $US2) and host computers have become commodities, constantly swapped online by cybercrooks for stolen credit card and Social Security numbers, O'Brien says.

And the stakes are only getting higher. New self-defending malware is even being created that purges protections such as anti-rootkit software and that squelches other malware so that compromised systems can't be shared by other thieves, O'Brien says. Some malware is smart enough to recognize if it's in a VMware or other virtualized environment and can unload itself so it can't be debugged, he says. Other malware can avoid detection by changing its signature via a new filename and increasingly modular malware can be distributed across a network to avoid a single point of failure.

Other trends are increased exploitation of Web applications, though good old e-mail attachments are still being used as well, O'Brien says. The FBI is finding it tougher to track botnets these days, as they increasingly are being connected over encrypted channels rather than via channels such as IRC. They're also being distributed via peer-to-peer technologies, making botnets more resilient, he says.

The FBI and other law enforcement bodies have been able to tap into some of the interaction among cybercriminals on IRC and other chat systems, though the bad guys are even getting smarter on that front by starting to use encryption.

Help us help you

O'Brien wound up his presentation with a plea for IT executives to work with authorities to nail cybercriminals, including those who operate outside the United States.

"Compared to when I started doing computer crimes four or five years ago the bureau today is very well positioned to run an investigation that involves botnets and foreign nexus. We have agents in over 50 embassies now around the world from countries as diverse as the United Kingdom and Yemen...[Our agents] work with foreign law enforcement."

IT executives can help the FBI crack cases by reporting incidents as soon as possible and by sharing network and other logs, as well as IP addresses involved, O'Brien says.

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Bob Brown

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