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After Stuxnet: The new rules of cyberwar

November 5, 2012 06:00 AM ET

Spear phishing attacks, sometimes called advanced targeted threats or advanced persistent threats, are efforts to break into an organization's systems by targeting specific people and trying, for example, to get them to open infected email messages that look like they were sent by friends. Such attacks have been particularly difficult to defend against.

Then there's the issue of zero-day attacks. While software and systems vendors have released thousands of vulnerability patches over the past 10 years, Amoroso says, "I wouldn't be surprised if there are thousands of zero-day vulnerabilities that go unreported." And while hacktivists may brag about uncovering vulnerabilities, criminal organizations and foreign governments prefer to keep that information to themselves. "The nation-state-sponsored attack includes not only the intellectual property piece but the ability to pre-position something when you want to be disruptive during a conflict," Schmidt says.

Usually in espionage it's much easier to steal intelligence than it is to do physical harm. That's not true in the cyber domain, says Hayden. "If you penetrate a network for espionage purposes, you've already got everything you'll want for destruction," he says.

On the other hand, while it's impossible for a private company to defend itself from physical warfare, that's not true when it comes to cyberattacks. Every attack exploits a weakness. "By closing that vulnerability, you stop the teenage kid, the criminal and the cyberwarrior," says Pescatore.

Control Anxiety

Computerized control systems are a potential problem area because the same systems are in use across many different types of critical infrastructure. "Where you used to turn dials or throw a switch, all of that is done electronically now," Schmidt says.

In addition, many industrial control systems that used to be "air-gapped" from the Internet are now connected to corporate networks for business reasons. "We've seen spreadsheets with thousands of control system components that are directly connected to the Internet. Some of those components contain known vulnerabilities that are readily exploitable without much sophistication," says Marty Edwards, director of control systems security at the Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT) at the DHS. The organization, with a staff that's grown tenfold to 400 in the past four years, offers control system security standards, shares threat data with critical infrastructure providers and has a rapid response team of "cyberninjas," high-level control systems engineers and cybersecurity analysts who can be deployed at a moment's notice.

Last year, ICS-CERT issued 5,200 alerts and advisories to private industry and government. "[Edwards] had teams fly out seven times last year to help businesses respond to events that either took them offline or severely impacted operations," says Weatherford, who declined to provide details on the nature of those events.

Control systems also suffer from another major weakness: They're usually relatively old and can't easily be patched. "A lot of them were never designed to operate in a network environment, and they aren't designed to take upgrades," Schmidt says. "Its firmware is soldered onto the device, and the only way to fix it is to replace it." Since the systems were designed to last 10 to 20 years, organizations need to build protections around them until they can be replaced. In other cases, updates can be made, but operators have to wait for the service providers who maintain the equipment to do the patching.

So where should the industry go from here?

The place to start is with better standards and best practices, real-time detection and containment, and faster and more detailed information sharing both among critical infrastructure providers and with all branches of government.

Internet at Risk

Telecoms Deal With Escalating DDoS Threat

Electric grid operators worry about compromised computerized industrial control systems taking them offline. Telecommunications companies worry that a large-scale distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack will take out another type of critical infrastructure: the Internet.

Until 2009 or so, AT&T might have seen one major DDoS attack a year, says Edward Amoroso, chief security officer and a senior vice president at the telecommunications giant. Today, Tier 1 Internet service providers find themselves fending off a few dozen attacks at any given moment. "It used to be two guys bailing out the ship. Now we have 40, 50 or 60 people dumping the water out all the time," he says. In fact, attacks have been scaling up to the point where Amoroso says he worries they could potentially flood backbone networks, taking portions of the Internet offline.

It would take just 64,000 PCs infected with a virus similar to Conficker to spew out about 10Gbps of traffic, he says. "Multiply that by four, and you've got 40Gbps, which is the size of most backbones," says Amoroso.

AT&T hasn't yet seen an attack generate enough traffic to flood a backbone, but it may just be a matter of time. "So far no one has pushed that button," he says. "But we need to be prepared."

Telecommunications providers must constantly scramble and innovate to keep ahead. They devise new defense techniques, then those techniques become popular and adversaries figure out new ways to defeat them. "We're going to have to change the mechanisms we now use to stop DDoS [attacks]," he says.

Robert L. Mitchell

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