Interop: Cyberwar test runs yield information about defenses

Cyber warfare strategy is getting so sophisticated that network attacks suitable for major assaults are being used instead as trial runs meant solely to probe enemies with the aim of figuring out what their defenses are, an audience at an Interop security talk was told.

A distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack against South Korea earlier this year was delivered from a multilayered botnet that persisted for 10 days then halted with command and control servers flushing the bot software out of the zombie machines, according to Brian Contos, director of global security strategy for McAfee.

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The attack -- McAfee called it 10 Days of Rain -- came from a difficult to take down, multi-tiered botnet set up by North Korea, he says. Then the botnet suddenly stopped its attack and deleted itself from the systems it had taken over.

The sophistication of the botnet far outstripped the damage it attempted to inflict. "It was like bringing a Lamborghini to a go-kart race," he says.

The real purpose, he believes, was to see how quickly South Korea discovered, analyzed and responded to the attack and in what way. It was a fact-finding exercise by the North Koreans. "They wanted to see how fast they could respond," he says. Perhaps someday the knowledge gained will be used for something more destructive, he says.

10 Days of Rain is just a recent example of malware getting more and more complex. Contos pointed to Stuxnet, the worm that infiltrated Iranian nuclear plants and set back its nuclear weapons program two years, as being of this breed. Stuxnet snuck into Iranian networks via infected thumb drives then worked its way into program logic controls to damage centrifuges essential to refining nuclear fuels.

Stuxnet was a costly, one-time attack targeted at Iran, Contos says, but attack tools suitable for compromising less well defended entities are getting better, primarily through automation. Someone with hopes to become a hacker can get instructions and tools via search engines. The malware is complex, often cleaning up an infected system of other malware and patching against it, while at the same time blocking anti-malware updates so it cannot be removed.

Attacks outpace preparedness, he says. With personal devices accessing corporate data, mobile devices and storage, social networking and its associated malware and poorly written applications are just some of the dangers, he says.

A major problem is employees who carry out attacks from within. The threat from insiders is easy to understand, Contos says, because they already have network access so it's much easier for them to gain access to systems that contain valuable data. And for the criminal who hires the insider to do the dirty work, it's also much simpler. "Why hack when you can recruit?" he says. "Insiders are the easiest way in."

The volume of what attackers can steal is astounding, he says. He cited the case of DuPont research chemist Gary Min who downloaded and exfiltrated intellectual property he was authorized to access, but that he planned to use at his new job with another company. He took the data in such large volumes -- 15 times what others accessed -- that his activity was flagged. The value of what he got away with was $400 million.

Read more about wide area network in Network World's Wide Area Network section.

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