Cyberterrorists sharpening their tools for online warfare
Melhacker, a computer virus programmer, warned late last year that he would release a potent new rogue program to the
Internet if the United States invaded Iraq. He is a Malaysian Muslim who has been linked to a half-dozen viruses,
including two that appeared last year: Nedal (Laden backwards) and VBS.Melhack.B., which arrived in e-mail
messages bearing the subject line Osama Bin Laden Comes Back! and attempted to destroy files on the victim's
In an e-mail exchange about his plans, he wrote, When I saw in television or Internet news that an U.S. want to attacked Iraq, I feel angry.
Although his past viruses have not had a major effect on the world's computers, he said that he had created a more effective weapon in his new Scezda program, which he developed and tested with the help of hackers and virus writers in Pakistan and the Middle East.Whether or not Melhacker makes good on his threat, cyberskirmishes have already begun. On Monday, a military computer was hacked via a security hole in Microsoft's World Wide Web server software that had not previously been detected.
Although no apparent damage was done, it was a sign for computer security researchers that hackers and virus writers have plenty of surprises ready and that the increasingly politicized online community will be targeting the United States for its attack on Iraq.
There's bound to be a whole range of efforts by groups all over the world to show their displeasure with the United States, said James Lewis, head of the technology program for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. It will include hacking and virus writing, he said.The secretary of homeland security, Tom Ridge, announced Tuesday that his department would be monitoring the Internet for state-sponsored information warfare.
Security experts have warned for several years that cyberterrorism presents a potent threat to the United States, which has become increasingly dependent on computers and the Internet. Early on, they sounded urgent alarms: Richard Clarke, the former cyber advisor to the president, even warned of a coming digital Pearl Harbor.
Some in the field, however say the degree of fretting has lessened over time and note that guns and bombs are still the preferred tool of terrorists. They tend to see future cyber attacks being used to cause disruption in conjunction with physical attacks.
So-called cyberterrorists do not yet have the know-how to do significant damage, and businesses and individuals who take security seriously can protect themselves fairly well against the threats of viruses and hacking, Lewis said. It's going to be irritating, he said, but it's not going to be the end of the world.
But those who worry most about cyberterrorism say that such skepticism is wrong. When talented programmers who want to do great damage team up with terrorists, the result could be devastating, said Michael Vatis, head of the Institute for Security Technology Studies at Dartmouth College. There is still a big gap in our actual knowledge of our actual vulnerabilities to a serious attack, he said.
New vulnerabilities are being discovered all the time. In an annual report on cyberattacks released last month, Symantec, a leading security company, said the average number of cyberattacks and probes found in the monitoring of the computer systems of 400 companies during the second half of 2002 was 30 attacks per company a week, 20 percent higher than the number recorded during the same six-month period in the previous year. Still, Symantec said that the attacks appeared to be simple hacking and that they had detected no verifiable cases of cyberterrorist attacks during the past six months.
Now that high technology has spread to every part of the world, so too has virus writing, which in recent years has become the province of a generation of young script kiddies who can cobble together malicious programs from online tips. The I Love You virus, for example, written by a college student in the Philippines in 2000, had a worldwide impact.
In 2001 came the explicitly political Code Red, a potent network worm that was programmed to take control of thousands of computers, force them to block access to the White House Web site and flood government servers with data.
Many security experts believe that the program was developed in China as an expression of anger over the international dispute concerning a downed U.S. spy plane in that country. Once the worm was detected, a quick tweak to the numeric online address for the whitehouse.gov site prevented disruption.The creation of programs like Code Red moves online political activism - and the global nature of rogue software - to the forefront, said Roger Thompson, the director of malicious code research at TruSecure, a computer security company. Instead of doing it to be jerks and show off to their buddies, they're doing it to make a statement, he said.
Still, there are as many motivations as there were coders. Dan Verton, a computer journalist and author of The Hacker Diaries/Confessions of Teenage Hackers,said that virus writers around the world do not fit any one stereotype.
Seth Pack, a former virus writer who lives in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and works in the computer security field, said he stopped writing destructive programs after a visit from law enforcement agents when he was 14. He said he had a hidden agenda in writing viruses as a teenager to acquire fame in the underworld.
Still other virus creators say that they are blending computer science and art. A Spanish programmer who goes by the online name Jtag said by e-mail that he finds in viruses some kind of 'artistic' beauty (because I have a very very artistic thoughts, i was musician).
Chris Wraight, a technology consultant with Sophos, a security company, said a more apt comparison is with a sprayer of graffiti. Instead of defacing a wall, he said, they spread a message that could potentially reach millions of computers. Little wonder, then, that he expects the trend toward political hactivism to continue. The whole notion of trying to use the world stage for political views is going to grow over time, he said.
And the attacks will grow more potent, predicted Vatis, who was the first director of the National Infrastructure Protection Center in the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He noted that the U.S. military, with the blessing of the Bush administration, has recently begun preparing weapons for waging cyberwar.
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