Cyberwarfare now menacing the enterprise, Kaspersky Lab says

Stuxnet, Flame, Gauss and other state-sponsored cyberwarfare malware is increasingly disrupting operations in organizations

Enterprise security managers have yet another worry to add to their list: cyberwarfare attacks.

Now, in addition to guarding against targeted attacks from cybercriminals and activists, enterprise security managers must increasingly guard against potential damage from nation-state cyberwarfare as well, according to the head of research from Kaspersky Labs.

"There are actually a lot of cyber weapons [out there now], but they are very hard to discover," said Costin Raiu, Kaspersky Lab's director of global research, who spoke at the Kaspersky Cyber-Security Summit of 2013 Wednesday.

Raiu pointed to how Red October, software that Kaspersky discovered last year, was surreptitiously monitoring computers for at least five years before it was discovered. "This is really shocking for us. We never expected to live in such a stealthy world where we simply don't know how many other similar attacks are out there," Raiu said.

Malicious software from profit-minded cybercriminals still accounts for the majority of malware in circulation today, but malware developed by the military, military contractors or other government agencies is becoming increasingly prevalent as well. Cyberwarfare takes place when one nation deploys malware to disrupt the activities of another nation. Also related is cyberespionage, where malware is planted on computers to spy on governments, corporations and important people.

While an antivirus vendor's warnings about emerging threats can appear to be self-serving, Kaspersky Lab has had a lot of success in the past few years discovering and helping to understand malware supposedly created by governments for purposes of spying and attacking network infrastructure. And Raiu's remarks have already proved to be timely. On Thursday, the New York Times reported that malicious Chinese hackers, using techniques developed by the Chinese military, had infiltrated its computers.

Raiu pointed to recently discovered malware such as Flame, Gauss, Red October and Stuxnet as examples of cyberwarfare malware.

Such cyberwarfare malware can be better-funded, better written and much more difficult to detect and decode than typical malware. "We are now discovering malware that has been active for [as long as] 10 years," Raiu said. "The malware that comes from the nation-state is completely different from what is produced by cybercriminals," he added.

When Kaspersky first unearthed Flame, which it classified as cyberespionage malware, Raiu estimated that, despite the fact it was only 20MB in size, that it would take up to 10 years to truly understand how it works. "No anti-virus company has figured out how Flame works," Raiu said. "There is so much code, so many subroutines, so much obfuscation and encryption that you need a lot of super highly talented people ... to understand what it does."

Gauss is another allegedly state sponsored piece of sophisticated malicious software. Again, this software has been difficult for researchers to decipher. "The true purpose of the Gauss malware remains unknown," Raiu said. Buried in Gaus is a "warhead," or a block of code that has been encrypted multiple times, Raiu said. "Nobody has been able to decrypt it to know what it actually does," Raiu said.

Kaspersky's most recent find was Red October. "Red October was extremely targeted," Raiu said. Raiu said that the software targeted government diplomatic institutions, which is not the normal target for profit minded malware writers. It also specifically targeted governments, energy companies, military contractors and aerospace companies.

Red October is also more sophisticated than the average profit-driven malware. It is a modular system. It "looks at what you have on your computer and depending on what you have, and what you do with your computer, [it] will send you dedicated modules for different purposes," Raiu said. One module, for instance, steals data from mobile phones. Another module can retrieve deleted data from USB memory sticks.

The rise of nation state malware is bad news for enterprises in a number of ways, Raiu said.

Cyberwarfare "has a lot of hidden dangers," Raiu said. Weaponized exploits developed by governments can be reused by cyber criminals for profit. Another danger is unintended proliferation. "Cyberweapons, which have the ability to multiply by themselves, can simply get out of control," Raiu said.

In either case, organizations and individuals can suffer from damage from this software, either intentionally or accidentally.

For instance, in January 2010, Google -- rather than a U.S. government agency -- alerted the world about the Aurora malware attack that took place against Google and other large IT companies, charging that the Chinese government was behind the attacks.

Aurora brought about "the first general acceptance of the fact that nation-states were actively developing cyberweapons and fighting against each other," Raiu said. "And the targets weren't necessarily other nation-states, but rather companies from the states."

Even when companies are not the targets, they can still suffer collateral damage, Raiu warned.

For instance, U.S. oil company Chevron reported that its systems were hampered by the Stuxnet virus. It's widely believed in the security community that U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies created Stuxnet to spy on and disrupt Iran's nuclear operations, though official sources have never confirmed the allegations.

Duqu, widely considered the successor to Stuxnet, has also been inflicting damage on bystanders. This malware is currently spreading across PCs at an alarming rate. In a single day last month, Kaspersky saw a jump of 23 percent in the number of new copies of Duqu that infected PCs Kaspersky monitored, from 31,159 to 38,375.

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

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