Cyber Threats and Security

Mar 15, 2012

View PDF

In April 2009, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported that computer hackers thought to be Chinese or Russian had breached a key computer network of U.K. defence giant BAE Systems in 2007 and 2008 and stolen several terabytes of data related to the United States' F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). BAE has been a major industrial partner on the $382-billion aerospace program during the past eight years. Not surprisingly, U.S. officials downplayed the story.

On March 11, 2012, The Sunday Times, a British newspaper, reported: "Details of the [cyber] attack on BAE have been a closely guarded secret within Britain's intelligence community since it was first uncovered nearly three years ago. But they were disclosed by a senior BAE executive during a private dinner in London for cyber security experts late last year." According to the report, the executive confirmed that the Chinese had electronically penetrated BAE's network and stolen plans for the F-35's stealthy design, electronics, and other systems.

In late 2010, China unveiled its Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter-attack jet. Photographs reveal JSF-like housings for electro-optical sensors and all-moving tailfins. With the WSJ report and photographic evidence, military aviation experts think the J-20 is probably equipped with Chinese versions of the American fighter jet's electro-optical distributed aperture system, digital fly-by-wire interface, sophisticated AESA radar, colour liquid crystal cockpit monitors and holographic head-up display, and other 21st-century war-fighting innovations.

Cyber attacks against diverse organizations
Hardly a week goes by without a news report of a prominent organization being cyber-assaulted. "Hackers attack Vatican website 2nd time in days" was the FOX News headline in mid-March. Authorities believe the notorious Internet hacker group Anonymous was behind the onslaught. Four weeks earlier, Information Week (IW) reported that Anonymous had taken down a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency website via a distributed denial of service (DDoS) blitz. "Anonymous and other hacktivists also left their marks on the U.S. Census Bureau, Interpol, and Mexico, as well as law enforcement websites in Alabama and Texas," wrote IW in February.

The following month, the U.S. Office of the Inspector General released a report confirming that Chinese hackers had gained control over NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in November, which gave them the ability to delete sensitive files, add user accounts to mission-critical systems, upload hacking tools, and more.

Paul Martin, NASA's inspector general, told U.S. lawmakers: "The attackers had full functional control over these [computer] networks." His report said that in 2010 and 2011, "NASA reported 5,408 computer security incidents that resulted in the installation of malicious software on or unauthorized access to its systems. These incidents spanned a wide continuum from individuals testing their skill to break into NASA systems, to well-organized criminal enterprises hacking for profit." Some of the incidents "may have been sponsored by foreign intelligence services seeking to further their countries objectives."

The Chengdu J-20 on a test flight

Using the code name OpPiggyBank, a hacking collective called CabinCr3w attacked the Los Angeles Police Department website in February and obtained email addresses, passwords, names, and physical addresses of more than 1,000 officers. They also copied 15,000 police warrants; hundreds of thousands of court summons; more than 40,000 Social Security numbers; and thousands of police reports.

Threat sources 
According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), there are five main sources of threats to computer networks or other types of linked electronic control systems: governments, terrorists, industrial spies and organized crime groups, hacktivists, and hackers.

Governments: Various state players have developed cyber resources that pose a significant threat to systems and programs deemed important to national security and economic stability. For example, in 2010 a new computer "worm" dubbed Stuxnet infiltrated Iranian computer networks and accessed control systems of the country's nuclear program. Reportedly, about 1,000 centrifuges used to enrich uranium were secretly ordered to spin so fast that they destroyed themselves, setting the program back by months.

The Stuxnet malware (malicious software) also fed erroneous indications to technicians in the control facility, making it appear that the centrifuges were running normally. The U.S. and Israeli governments are widely believed to have been behind the operation. In a September 2010 statement, computer security firm Kaspersky Labs described the worm as a "fearsome prototype of a cyber-weapon that will lead to the creation of a new arms race in the world." The company is convinced that the malware could only have been created with "nation-state support."

Terrorists: In early March, FBI Director Robert Mueller warned a House appropriations subcommittee that violent extremists may try to carry out cyber attacks on the U.S., and advised government to be prepared. "To date, terrorists have not used the Internet to launch a full-scale cyber attack, but we cannot underestimate their intent," he warned. "They may seek to train their own recruits or hire outsiders, with an eye toward pursuing cyber attacks. As our nation's national security and criminal adversaries constantly adapt and evolve, so must the FBI be able to respond with new or revised strategies and operations to counter these threats."

Industrial Spies and Organized Crime Groups: These individuals and collectives pose a medium-level threat because of their ability to conduct industrial espionage as well as large-scale monetary theft. They typically have the resources to hire or develop hacking expertise. Their motivation is money and their methods include attacks on infrastructure for profit, stealing trade secrets, and acquiring potentially embarrassing information that can be used to blackmail key officials.

F-35 Lightning II

Hacktivists: Nuisance hackers, like those in Anonymous, target organizations in furtherance of a political agenda. Their isolated-yet-damaging assaults, pose a medium-level threat to organizations, says the DHS. Most hacktivist groups have focused on carrying out irritating attacks rather than damaging important infrastructure. Achieving notoriety for their cause is part of their motivation.

Hackers: The large majority of hackers do not have the requisite knowledge or experience to threaten difficult targets such as critical computer networks or systems directed by programmable logic controllers (nuclear enrichment centrifuges for example). However, the electronic penetration of BAE Systems, NASA, and other high-tech and sensitive organizations (including government departments, banks and law firms) proves that some hackers are very good at their craft.

Emerging threats
According to cyber security experts, threats are constantly evolving. Georgia Tech's Emerging Cyber Threats Report 2012 warns about the Mobile Threat Vector and Botnets. The latter is a collection of compromised computers, each known as a 'bot', which are set up to forward transmissions such as spam or viruses via the Internet. Often, when a computer is penetrated by a hacker, code within the introduced malware commands the device to become part of a botnet. The "botmaster" or "bot-herder" controls compromised computers via standards-based network protocols such as IRC and http. The following are highlights of Georgia Tech's report:

Mobile Threat Vector
Mobile applications, such as those on smartphones, increasingly rely on a browser, presenting unique challenges to security in terms of usability and scale.

Expect compound threats targeting mobile devices that use SMS, e-mail and the mobile Web browsers, then silently recording and stealing data.

USB flash drives have long been recognized for their ability to spread malware, but mobile phones are becoming a new vector that could introduce attacks on otherwise-protected systems.

The good news is: encapsulation and encryption of sensitive portions on a mobile device can strengthen security.

Botnet controllers build massive information profiles on their compromised users and sell the data to the highest bidder.

Adversaries query botnet operators in search of already compromised machines belonging to their attack targets.

Criminals will borrow techniques from Black Hat SEO (search engine optimization) to deceive current botnet defences like dynamic reputation systems that compute "reputation" scores of domain names.

What CAN be done? 
Robert Freeman of IBM recommends the following steps to better secure a network:

  • Perform regular third party external and internal security audits.
  • Control your endpoints.
  • Segment sensitive systems and information.
  • Protect your network.
  • Audit your web applications.
  • Train end users about phishing and spear phishing.
  • Search for bad passwords.
  • Integrate security into every
  • project plan.
  • Examine business partners' policies.
  • Have a solid incident response plan.

"Keep malicious activity out of an enterprise network by keeping up with vulnerability patches and detecting attacks at the perimeter can be a significant challenge," says Robert Freeman, a manager at IBM's X-Force Research, "and the threat landscape appears to be getting only more complicated." 

Blair Watson is a contributing editor at FrontLine Magazine.
© FrontLine Security 2012