Entries Tagged "cyberwar"

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North Korean Cyberattacks

To hear the media tell it, the United States suffered a major cyberattack last week. Stories were everywhere. "Cyber Blitz hits U.S., Korea" was the headline in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal. North Korea was blamed.

Where were you when North Korea attacked America? Did you feel the fury of North Korea’s armies? Were you fearful for your country? Or did your resolve strengthen, knowing that we would defend our homeland bravely and valiantly?

My guess is that you didn’t even notice, that—if you didn’t open a newspaper or read a news website—you had no idea anything was happening. Sure, a few government websites were knocked out, but that’s not alarming or even uncommon. Other government websites were attacked but defended themselves, the sort of thing that happens all the time. If this is what an international cyberattack looks like, it hardly seems worth worrying about at all.

Politically motivated cyber attacks are nothing new. We’ve seen UK vs. Ireland. Israel vs. the Arab states. Russia vs. several former Soviet Republics. India vs. Pakistan, especially after the nuclear bomb tests in 1998. China vs. the United States, especially in 2001 when a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet. And so on and so on.

The big one happened in 2007, when the government of Estonia was attacked in cyberspace following a diplomatic incident with Russia about the relocation of a Soviet World War II memorial. The networks of many Estonian organizations, including the Estonian parliament, banks, ministries, newspapers and broadcasters, were attacked and—in many cases—shut down. Estonia was quick to blame Russia, which was equally quick to deny any involvement.

It was hyped as the first cyberwar, but after two years there is still no evidence that the Russian government was involved. Though Russian hackers were indisputably the major instigators of the attack, the only individuals positively identified have been young ethnic Russians living inside Estonia, who were angry over the statue incident.

Poke at any of these international incidents, and what you find are kids playing politics. Last Wednesday, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service admitted that it didn’t actually know that North Korea was behind the attacks: "North Korea or North Korean sympathizers in the South" was what it said. Once again, it’ll be kids playing politics.

This isn’t to say that cyberattacks by governments aren’t an issue, or that cyberwar is something to be ignored. The constant attacks by Chinese nationals against U.S. networks may not be government-sponsored, but it’s pretty clear that they’re tacitly government-approved. Criminals, from lone hackers to organized crime syndicates, attack networks all the time. And war expands to fill every possible theater: land, sea, air, space, and now cyberspace. But cyberterrorism is nothing more than a media invention designed to scare people. And for there to be a cyberwar, there first needs to be a war.

Israel is currently considering attacking Iran in cyberspace, for example. If it tries, it’ll discover that attacking computer networks is an inconvenience to the nuclear facilities it’s targeting, but doesn’t begin to substitute for bombing them.

In May, President Obama gave a major speech on cybersecurity. He was right when he said that cybersecurity is a national security issue, and that the government needs to step up and do more to prevent cyberattacks. But he couldn’t resist hyping the threat with scare stories: "In one of the most serious cyber incidents to date against our military networks, several thousand computers were infected last year by malicious software—malware," he said. What he didn’t add was that those infections occurred because the Air Force couldn’t be bothered to keep its patches up to date.

This is the face of cyberwar: easily preventable attacks that, even when they succeed, only a few people notice. Even this current incident is turning out to be a sloppily modified five-year-old worm that no modern network should still be vulnerable to.

Securing our networks doesn’t require some secret advanced NSA technology. It’s the boring network security administration stuff we already know how to do: keep your patches up to date, install good anti-malware software, correctly configure your firewalls and intrusion-detection systems, monitor your networks. And while some government and corporate networks do a pretty good job at this, others fail again and again.

Enough of the hype and the bluster. The news isn’t the attacks, but that some networks had security lousy enough to be vulnerable to them.

This essay originally appeared on the Minnesota Public Radio website.

Posted on July 13, 2009 at 11:45 AMView Comments

Kylin: New Chinese Operating System

Interesting:

China has developed more secure operating software for its tens of millions of computers and is already installing it on government and military systems, hoping to make Beijing’s networks impenetrable to U.S. military and intelligence agencies.

The secure operating system, known as Kylin, was disclosed to Congress during recent hearings that provided new details on how China’s government is preparing to wage cyberwarfare with the United States.

“We are in the early stages of a cyber arms race and need to respond accordingly,” said Kevin G. Coleman, a private security specialist who advises the government on cybersecurity. He discussed Kylin during a hearing of the U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission on April 30.

The deployment of Kylin is significant, Mr. Coleman said, because the system has “hardened” key Chinese servers. U.S. offensive cyberwar capabilities have been focused on getting into Chinese government and military computers outfitted with less secure operating systems like those made by Microsoft Corp.

“This action also made our offensive cybercapabilities ineffective against them, given the cyberweapons were designed to be used against Linux, UNIX and Windows,” he said.

Is this real, or yet more cybersecurity hype pushed by agencies looking for funding and power? My guess is the latter. Anyone know?

Posted on May 18, 2009 at 6:06 AMView Comments

Yet Another New York Times Cyberwar Article

It’s the season, I guess:

The United States has no clear military policy about how the nation might respond to a cyberattack on its communications, financial or power networks, a panel of scientists and policy advisers warned Wednesday, and the country needs to clarify both its offensive capabilities and how it would respond to such attacks.

The report, based on a three-year study by a panel assembled by the National Academy of Sciences, is the first major effort to look at the military use of computer technologies as weapons. The potential use of such technologies offensively has been widely discussed in recent years, and disruptions of communications systems and Web sites have become a standard occurrence in both political and military conflicts since 2000.

Here’s the report summary, which I have not read yet.

I was particularly disturbed by the last paragraph of the newspaper article:

Introducing the possibility of a nuclear response to a catastrophic cyberattack would be expected to serve the same purpose.

Nuclear war is not a suitable response to a cyberattack.

Posted on May 1, 2009 at 10:46 AMView Comments

Preparing for Cyberwar

Interesting article from The New York Times.

Because so many aspects of the American effort to develop cyberweapons and define their proper use remain classified, many of those officials declined to speak on the record. The White House declined several requests for interviews or to say whether Mr. Obama as a matter of policy supports or opposes the use of American cyberweapons.

The most exotic innovations under consideration would enable a Pentagon programmer to surreptitiously enter a computer server in Russia or China, for example, and destroy a “botnet”—a potentially destructive program that commandeers infected machines into a vast network that can be clandestinely controlled—before it could be unleashed in the United States.

Or American intelligence agencies could activate malicious code that is secretly embedded on computer chips when they are manufactured, enabling the United States to take command of an enemy’s computers by remote control over the Internet. That, of course, is exactly the kind of attack officials fear could be launched on American targets, often through Chinese-made chips or computer servers.

So far, however, there are no broad authorizations for American forces to engage in cyberwar. The invasion of the Qaeda computer in Iraq several years ago and the covert activity in Iran were each individually authorized by Mr. Bush. When he issued a set of classified presidential orders in January 2008 to organize and improve America’s online defenses, the administration could not agree on how to write the authorization.

I’ve written about cyberwar here.

Posted on April 30, 2009 at 2:18 PMView Comments

How to Write a Scary Cyberterrorism Story

From Foreign Policy:

8. If you are still having trouble working the Chinese or the Russian governments into your story, why not throw in some geopolitical kerfuffle that involves a country located in between? Not only would it implicate both governments, it would also make cyberspace seem relevant to geopolitics. I suggest you settle on Kyrgyzstan, as it would also help to make a connection to the US military bases; there is no better story than having Russian and Chinese hackers oust the US from Kyrgyzstan via cyber-attacks. Bonus points for mentioning Azerbaijan and the importance of cyberwarfare to the politics of the Caspian oil; in the worst case, Kazakhstan would do as well. Never mention any connectivity statistics for the countries you are writing about: you don’t want readers to start doubting that someone might be interested in launching a cyberwar on countries that couldn’t care less about the Internet.

Posted on April 15, 2009 at 6:17 AMView Comments

U.S. Power Grid Hacked, Everyone Panic!

Yesterday I talked to at least a dozen reporters about this breathless Wall Street Journal story:

Cyberspies have penetrated the U.S. electrical grid and left behind software programs that could be used to disrupt the system, according to current and former national-security officials.

The spies came from China, Russia and other countries, these officials said, and were believed to be on a mission to navigate the U.S. electrical system and its controls. The intruders haven’t sought to damage the power grid or other key infrastructure, but officials warned they could try during a crisis or war.

“The Chinese have attempted to map our infrastructure, such as the electrical grid,” said a senior intelligence official. “So have the Russians.”

[…]

Authorities investigating the intrusions have found software tools left behind that could be used to destroy infrastructure components, the senior intelligence official said. He added, “If we go to war with them, they will try to turn them on.”

Officials said water, sewage and other infrastructure systems also were at risk.

“Over the past several years, we have seen cyberattacks against critical infrastructures abroad, and many of our own infrastructures are as vulnerable as their foreign counterparts,” Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair recently told lawmakers. “A number of nations, including Russia and China, can disrupt elements of the U.S. information infrastructure.”

Read the whole story; there aren’t really any facts in it. I don’t know what’s going on; maybe it’s just budget season and someone is jockeying for a bigger slice.

Honestly, I am much more worried about random errors and undirected worms in the computers running our infrastructure than I am about the Chinese military. I am much more worried about criminal hackers than I am about government hackers. I wrote about the risks to our infrastructure here, and about Chinese hacking here.

And I wrote about last year’s reports of international hacking of our SCADA control systems here.

Posted on April 9, 2009 at 12:02 PMView Comments

Cyberattack Against Georgia Preceded Real Attack

This is interesting:

Exactly who was behind the cyberattack is not known. The Georgian government blamed Russia for the attacks, but the Russian government said it was not involved. In the end, Georgia, with a population of just 4.6 million and a relative latecomer to the Internet, saw little effect beyond inaccessibility to many of its government Web sites, which limited the government’s ability to spread its message online and to connect with sympathizers around the world during the fighting with Russia.

[…]

In Georgia, media, communications and transportation companies were also attacked, according to security researchers. Shadowserver saw the attack against Georgia spread to computers throughout the government after Russian troops entered the Georgian province of South Ossetia. The National Bank of Georgia’s Web site was defaced at one point. Images of 20th-century dictators as well as an image of Georgia’s president, Mr. Saakashvili, were placed on the site. “Could this somehow be indirect Russian action? Yes, but considering Russia is past playing nice and uses real bombs, they could have attacked more strategic targets or eliminated the infrastructure kinetically,” said Gadi Evron, an Israeli network security expert. “The nature of what’s going on isn’t clear,” he said.

[…]

In addition to D.D.O.S. attacks that crippled Georgia’s limited Internet infrastructure, researchers said there was evidence of redirection of Internet traffic through Russian telecommunications firms beginning last weekend. The attacks continued on Tuesday, controlled by software programs that were located in hosting centers controlled by a Russian telecommunications firms. A Russian-language Web site, stopgeorgia.ru, also continued to operate and offer software for download used for D.D.O.S. attacks.

Welcome to 21st century warfare.

“It costs about 4 cents per machine,” Mr. Woodcock said. “You could fund an entire cyberwarfare campaign for the cost of replacing a tank tread, so you would be foolish not to.”

Posted on August 18, 2008 at 1:11 PMView Comments

Did the Chinese PLA Attack the U.S. Power Grid?

This article claims that the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army was behind, among other things, the August 2003 blackout:

Computer hackers in China, including those working on behalf of the Chinese government and military, have penetrated deeply into the information systems of U.S. companies and government agencies, stolen proprietary information from American executives in advance of their business meetings in China, and, in a few cases, gained access to electric power plants in the United States, possibly triggering two recent and widespread blackouts in Florida and the Northeast, according to U.S. government officials and computer-security experts.

One prominent expert told National Journal he believes that China’s People’s Liberation Army played a role in the power outages. Tim Bennett, the former president of the Cyber Security Industry Alliance, a leading trade group, said that U.S. intelligence officials have told him that the PLA in 2003 gained access to a network that controlled electric power systems serving the northeastern United States. The intelligence officials said that forensic analysis had confirmed the source, Bennett said. “They said that, with confidence, it had been traced back to the PLA.” These officials believe that the intrusion may have precipitated the largest blackout in North American history, which occurred in August of that year. A 9,300-square-mile area, touching Michigan, Ohio, New York, and parts of Canada, lost power; an estimated 50 million people were affected.

This is all so much nonsense I don’t even know where to begin.

I wrote about this blackout already: the computer failures were caused by Blaster.

The “Interim Report: Causes of the August 14th Blackout in the United States and Canada,” published in November and based on detailed research by a panel of government and industry officials, blames the blackout on an unlucky series of failures that allowed a small problem to cascade into an enormous failure.

The Blaster worm affected more than a million computers running Windows during the days after Aug. 11. The computers controlling power generation and delivery were insulated from the Internet, and they were unaffected by Blaster. But critical to the blackout were a series of alarm failures at FirstEnergy, a power company in Ohio. The report explains that the computer hosting the control room’s “alarm and logging software” failed, along with the backup computer and several remote-control consoles. Because of these failures, FirstEnergy operators did not realize what was happening and were unable to contain the problem in time.

Simultaneously, another status computer, this one at the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator, a regional agency that oversees power distribution, failed. According to the report, a technician tried to repair it and forgot to turn it back on when he went to lunch.

To be fair, the report does not blame Blaster for the blackout. I’m less convinced. The failure of computer after computer within the FirstEnergy network certainly could be a coincidence, but it looks to me like a malicious worm.

The rest of the National Journal article is filled with hysterics and hyperbole about Chinese hackers. I have already written an essay about this—it’ll be the next point/counterpoint between Marcus Ranum and me for Information Security—and I’ll publish it here after they publish it.

EDITED TO ADD (6/2): Wired debunked this claim pretty thoroughly:

This time, though, they’ve attached their tale to the most thoroughly investigated power incident in U.S. history.” and “It traced the root cause of the outage to the utility company FirstEnergy’s failure to trim back trees encroaching on high-voltage power lines in Ohio. When the power lines were ensnared by the trees, they tripped.

[…]

So China…using the most devious malware ever devised, arranged for trees to grow up into exactly the right power lines at precisely the right time to trigger the cascade.

Large-scale power outages are never one thing. They’re a small problem that cascades into series of ever-bigger problems. But the triggering problem were those power lines.

Posted on June 2, 2008 at 6:37 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.