The paranoia that paid off
but increased online security will benefit us all
The war in Iraq was supposed to dramatically raise the likelihood of a major cyberterrorist attack against the US and its allies. Some even predicted a "digital Pearl Harbor", an electronic assault that could have shut down power plants, crippled the banking system, or disabled the air traffic control network.
DK Matai, chairman and chief executive officer of the internet security firm mi2g, predicted that it was highly likely that "the launch of a physical attack on Iraq will see counterattacks from disgruntled Arab, Islamic fundamentalist, and anti-American groups".
Now with the war winding down, fears that Iraq, al-Qaida or even sympathetic hackers in Russia and China would open up a second front in cyberspace have turned out to be completely unfounded, with little or no evidence that either they or anyone else engaged in cyberterrorism. What happened?
Quite simply, the expected attacks just never materialised. According to Tim Madden, a spokesman for Joint Task Force-Computer Network Operations (JTF-CNO), created by the US Strategic Command to handle network defence and attack, there has been no significant increase in attempts to infiltrate US military computers since the war began.
Internet security firms confirm that since mid-March, the level of activity has been almost normal. "We are seeing the same number of attacks today as we were seeing two months ago," says Vincent Weafer, senior director of Symantec Security Response. "We just haven't seen much evidence of any targeted attacks."
The same cannot be said of US activities. It is widely assumed that JTF-CNO engaged in hacking and electronic warfare against Iraq's telecommunications and information infrastructure, although the Department of Defense refuses to provide any specific details due to the classification of the operations.
There were some instances of war-related hacking over the past few weeks, but nothing that would be considered cyberterrorism rather than cybervandalism. Most of what has been seen, apart from a few opportunistically timed worms and viruses, is a large number of website defacements, the online equivalent of graffiti. Mikko Hypponen, the manager of anti-virus research at internet security firm F-Secure, estimates that altogether, there have been approximately 20,000 website defacements, both pro- and anti-war, since mid-March, with the vast majority taking place within the first few days.
Website defacements occur frequently, regardless of whether there is a war going on, and generally do not result in the sort of disruption or economic damage that can be caused by a virus or worm.
Brian Martin, a security expert with Attrition.org, believes that many would have been done anyway: "There is absolutely no way to say if it is up or down, or if these are just targets of opportunity and [hackers are finding] a different justification for their activity than the day before."
The Unix Security Guards, a pro-Islamic group with members in Egypt, Morocco, Kuwait and Indonesia, are thought to be responsible for hacking hundreds of US government and commercial websites, inserting into many of them the message that the group was part of the "New Era of Cyber War We Promised". And despite the FBI cautioning pro-US hackers against engaging in "patriotic hacking," a group calling itself the Patriot, Freedom Cyber Force Militia hacked the website of the Arabic satellite news channel al-Jazeera.
There's curiously little proof that al-Qaida or other terrorist groups are engaging in cyberterrorism. Robert Andrews, a congressional representative from the state of New Jersey and a member of the House select committee on homeland security, concedes that there is "no evidence on the public record" that any terrorist group has ever launched an attack on the information infrastructure of the US.
It turns out that the vast majority of network intrusions and hacking attempts against US computers aren't the work of terrorists hiding out in caves along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border, or hackers in Russia or China, but originate within the US. One security firm estimates that 86% of all "security events" can be traced back to the US. A crippling hacker attack against America is more likely to be the work of bored high-school students than al-Qaida.
For example, in 1998, while the US was preparing to launch air strikes against Iraq in Operation Desert Fox, the Pentagon discovered that its computer networks had been compromised by an attack that appeared at first to be the work of either several governments in the Middle East working together or perhaps even Iraq itself. An investigation by the FBI revealed the culprits to be two teenagers in California.
Some security experts wonder whether it makes sense to emphasise cyberterrorism when there is a more immediate danger from cybercrime and other online maliciousness. The SQL Slammer worm, which struck computers earlier this year, causing considerable damage, is not believed to be the work of either terrorists or a hostile government.
"Our networks really are insecure, and there is lots and lots of crime: that is our biggest problem," says Bruce Schneier, founder and chief technical officer of Counterpane Internet Security. His hope is that companies strengthening their security in response to the perceived risk of cyber terrorism will have the net effect of reducing what he sees as the real danger -the rising level of criminal activity online.
There is even a chance that what Schneier hoped for came to pass during these past few weeks and that the real reason there were no successful attacks is not because none were attempted, but because security was adequately strengthened beforehand.
In anticipation of the war, many companies began paying more attention to the threat of hacker attacks, and beefed up security. Madden says that because the Department of Defense is forced to "defend its computer networks against intrusions every day, we had to do very little to prepare our networks for possible conflict beyond taking extra precautions to ensure we properly configured our networks and properly patched our software".
Even if the risk of cyberterrorism during the war was overstated, the threat of a serious attack by a rogue nation or a terrorist group remains very real, according to US government agencies.
Recent reports by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have outlined the continuing danger of terrorist groups turning to the internet. One particular concern is that cyberterrorism might be timed to coincide with a physical terrorist attack, such as bombing a building while simultaneously disabling the emergency response system, to ensure that the maximum number of lives were lost.
Marcus Corbin, an analyst with the Center for Defense Information, speculates that given the recent show of American military superiority in Iraq, cyberterrorism might prove attractive to extremist groups looking for a more level playing field on which to fight.
"The wish, after Iraq, to hurt us will be stronger, so interest in attacking us through electronic means will grow greatly," he says. "Whether those attacks will succeed will depend on how well we can defend our systems."
Congress Andrews predicts that if the US does not find a way to make its critical infrastructure more secure, there will be a "significant cyberattack within the next five years, whether it is on the 911 emergency response system, the power grid, the banking system or the air traffic control system".
Counterpane's Schneier contends that these kinds of attacks are harder to execute than simply hacking a server, since most of the computers critical to running power plants and air-traffic control systems are usually not connected to the internet.
Disrupting the internet with worms or denial-of-service attacks is not particularly attractive to terrorist groups since they lack the impact of a bombing or hijacking. "Not being able to access the internet does not induce terror or fear in people. Terrorists are out to cause fear, not inconvenience," he says.
And even should a cyberterrorist attack prevail and shut down the power grid or disrupt the emergency response system, "these sorts of outages and problems tend to happen by accident already, so we have workarounds for them", Schneier argues. "What we don't have workarounds for are people flying planes into buildings or blowing up embassies."
Source: Guardian Unlimited
Cybercrime News Archive
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