Tech apocalypse: Five doomsday scenarios for IT

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How to avoid this fate: To avoid getting nailed by rogue apps, companies need greater visibility into their networks to expose any apps that are running and what ports they are using, and to map all of their other dependencies as well, says Steve Cotton, CEO of FireScope, a developer of IT service management solutions.

To avoid being compromised by insiders, companies should get real-time notifications of the activities of privileged users, block specific unauthorized activities, and split the responsibility for monitoring among multiple users, says Slavik Markovich, CTO at database security firm Sentrigo.

"This last point is critical, as the very privileges needed to properly manage the systems and databases makes it very easy for malicious users to defeat whatever controls may be in place, or to cover their tracks," he says. "There is a dramatic difference in the likelihood of a breach when it can be accomplished by a single rogue insider, as compared to one that requires co-conspirators across multiple functions."

Tech doomsday scenario No. 4: The Net goes downNews flash: The Internet melted down today as millions of Web surfers found themselves redirected to the wrong sites, thanks to problems with the domain name server system.

Can the Internet be taken offline? Many experts scoff at the idea, citing too many diverse communications channels, too many redundancies, and an architecture designed to route around failures.

"I think it would be very difficult to take down the whole Internet, unless you had a worldwide EMP event that takes everything else down as well," says Dr. Ken Calvert, chair of the University of Kentucky's Department of Computer Science. "At all levels you have diversity of technology carrying the bits, whether it's satellite, fiber, or wireless. There's a lot of redundancy there."

Yet even if the Net can't be entirely shut off, short of an act of God (see Tech doomsday scenario No. 5), attackers can create havoc by attacking it at one of its weakest points: the domain name system. By hijacking traffic meant for different domains, attackers can drive unsuspecting surfers to malicious sites, effectively take down any site by flooding it with traffic, or simply send everyone looking for Google.com or Yahoo.com into the ether -- making the Net largely useless for a great many people.

"Everybody trusts the DNS, but it's not really trustworthy," says Rod Rasmussen, president and CTO for anti-phishing services firm Internet Identity. "The system itself isn't well protected. And all you need are a name and a password to take out a DNS server or a particular domain."

Attackers don't even need to attack DNS servers or poison their caches; they can achieve the same effects by taking over large domain registrars. A successful infiltration of Network Solutions, for example, could put attackers in charge of more than half the domains for all U.S. financial institutions, says Rasmussen. From there, attackers could redirect surfers to bogus sites and later use their credentials to log in and drain their accounts. Or they could simply target large domains with huge amounts of traffic, or create havoc by messing with the Net's time servers.

What could happen: The Internet appears to be down, even though it's not. Millions of Web surfers can't reach the sites they need, or worse, they're misdirected to malicious sites that steal their credentials or their identities. Attackers reset the servers that keep time on the Net, bringing billions of financial transactions that rely on accurate timestamps to a screeching halt.

How long would it take to recover: Two days or longer, in most cases, says Rasmussen.

"Because this is the DNS, it's not hard to undo anything," he says. "The problem is how long the bad guys tell the DNS system to maintain the records; 48 hours is pretty typical."

The other option: After you discover your domain's been hijacked, get on the speed dial with major ISPs and tell them to update their records. Even then, you'll still miss smaller ISPs or large enterprises that maintain their own DNS tables.

"It usually takes a pretty big disaster to get people to respond," says Rasmussen. "That's the problem with a distributed system; when it goes bad it stays bad for a while."

Likelihood: More likely than you think. This has already happened several times on a smaller scale. In December 2008, Ukranian-based attackers used a phishing attack to gain log-on credentials for Checkfree, an online bill payment system used by more than 70 percent of U.S. banks. In April 2009, an SQL injection exploit at registrar Domainz.net allowed Turkish attackers to take over the New Zealand sites for Microsoft, Sony, Coca-Cola, HSBC, and Xerox, among others. The same hackers also took over all of Puerto Rico's domains. This past January the domain for Baidu, the largest Chinese search site, was taken over by a group calling itself the "Iranian Cyber Army." In that case, Baidu filed suit against its U.S. registrar, Register.com, claiming it was slow to respond to the site's plea for help.

How to avoid this fate: "Eternal vigilance?" asks Rasmussen. "You want to monitor the hell out of what you and other people are doing with your domains and theirs, so you can turn off the system and anything that connects to it if you or someone you trust has a problem."

Some registrars are hardening their defenses against hijacking and making it tougher to change DNS records, but mostly it's up to domain owners themselves to police their own records and respond quickly when they've been compromised.

Tech doomsday scenario No. 5: God strikes backNews flash: This report is being brought to you via word of mouth, because nothing else is working. Scientists believe an enormous solar flare has struck the earth's atmosphere, causing a worldwide failure of the electrical power grid and communications systems. We are also receiving scattered reports of earthquakes, typhoons, and swarms of locusts, though they cannot be verified at this time.

Think of it as the mother of all power surges. The sun spits out an enormous cloud of superheated plasma several times larger than the earth, which slams into our atmosphere. Supercharged particles travel through the earth's crust, frying all the power transformers it touches -- instant worldwide blackout.

Sound like a cheesy Hollywood plot? This precise thing happened on a smaller scale in Quebec in 1989, when a solar storm caused 6 million people to lose power.

"The chances of the Internet totally crashing are slim to none, but if anything could cause the Net to go down it would be a solar flare," says security consultant Robert Siciliano. "A plasma ball hitting the earth's magnetic fields that it can't deal with. The step-up and step-down transformers that manage our power grid would fry. It would literally be the perfect storm of cataclysmic power surges that knock out the power grid and the Internet at the same time."

Also: We predict this will occur just as the Chicago Cubs are about to win the World Series.

What could happen: Everything that would happen in the previous four scenarios, and then some. Forget clean water. Forget health care. Wipe out the last 20 years of recorded history, because most of it was stored digitally.

"We'd feel it first in the economy and our financial institutions, where everything is digital. Markets will collapse," says Siciliano. "Where's everything backed up -- in a filing cabinet? The economy would collapse, the banks would lock their doors and keep whatever money they had in the vault, because the rest has evaporated into thin air. Once the money's gone, we're resetting the clock."

How long to recover: Unknown. According to a January 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences, the effects of a severe geomagnetic storm would be felt for years, most acutely in societies that are the most dependent on technology. The U.S. could take from four to 10 years to bounce back, according to the NAS -- if it bounces back at all.

"It will take a tremendous amount of manpower to clean up the mess," adds Siciliano. "Something that catastrophic, the gas pumps won't be operating, so a guy who's supposed to take a part to repair a facility can't get there because he has no gas. It could literally throw us back to 1840. Suddenly we're a third-world country again."

How likely is this to occur: Lord only knows. But consider this, says Irv Schlanger, an assistant professor in Drexel University's Computing and Security Technology program.

"We are all familiar with the 11-year solar flare cycle," says Schlanger. "What most people are not aware of is the 110-year solar flare cycle. The 110-year cycle is massive when compared to the 11-year cycle. The affects of the 110-year cycle would be very similar to that of a nuclear EMP. We are currently due for the 110-year solar flare."

How to avoid this fate: Silent prayer to the deity of your choice.

"Manmade terrorist activity is bad, but as we've seen lately, Mother Nature is a bitch," says Siciliano. "She doesn't give a damn about you or me."

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This story, "Tech apocalypse: Five doomsday scenarios for IT," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Keep up with everyday tech calamities and comedies with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Fields blog at InfoWorld.com.

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This story, "Tech apocalypse: Five doomsday scenarios for IT" was originally published by InfoWorld.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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