Over the past two months, there has been a tremendous amount of chatter in the security community about the term ‘cyberwar’ and whether or not the US is engaged in a cyberwar. Mike McConnell (former Director of National Intelligence) wrote a pointed op-ed for The Washington Post claiming that, “The United States is fighting a cyber-war today, and we are losing.” His opinions are consistent with the current Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, whose February testimony to the US Senate stated, “Malicious cyber activity is occurring on an unprecedented scale with extraordinary sophistication. While both the threats and technologies associated with cyberspace are dynamic, the existing balance in network technology favors malicious actors, and is likely to continue to do so for the foreseeable future.”
These statements spurred an excoriating response from the pages of Wired that, “The biggest threat to the open internet is not Chinese government hackers or greedy anti-net-neutrality ISPs, it’s Michael McConnell, the former director of national intelligence.” At the annual RSA security conference Howard Schmidt, the newly appointed White House Cyber-Security Coordinator stated unequivocally that, “There is no cyberwar.” Nonetheless in a Washington Post article on March 19th 2010 Ellen Nakashima dramatically points out the need for clearer cyberwar policies by pointing to US cyber operations already executed and that cyber actions are underway.
Various cyberwar definitions are hotly contested, even more nuance-laden and have a very material impact on the dramatic claims one might make. Below are several observations about cyberspace upon which all well-informed parties agree:
While the world took pause to consider the implications of Operation Aurora, and Google lent considerable voice to the concept of Advanced and Persistent Threats (APT), we can ill-afford to believe even for a moment that they are alone in their sophistication or capability. According to the FBI more than 100 nations have offensive cyber operations as part of their intelligence or national security fabric. And the same attributes that make the Internet ideal for covert intelligence gathering make it attractive for corporate espionage and organized criminal activity. The IT security industry commonly refers to the online activities of Eastern European and Asian organized crime as “cyber criminals” or “gangs”, which in many ways only serves to minimize the attention they deserve. In truth the online operations of some organized crime syndicates are every bit as sophisticated, advanced and persistent as their nation-state counterparts. They are truly expert at gaining footholds and siphoning off critical information. And they are FAR more pervasive than Operation Aurora.
The sheer volume of information gathered and has forced us to reconsider the common belief that this very successful botnet is simply “financial services” related. In fact, this particular botnet was much more concerned with culling account and network access credentials, as well as collecting as much detail about victim identities as possible. In effect, they were less concerned with accessing any particular account, than being able to access ALL accounts related to a victim.
As we began analyzing victim information, we rapidly formed a picture of thousands of corporate compromises around the globe. As with Aurora, many of the largest most technology savvy companies had internal compromised hosts, which had culled various corporate user level and administrative credentials.
We may attempt to broadly classify threats in the security industry, in hopes that we can make the complex more digestible to management. However, classifying threats like this as “banking trojans” may do a large disservice to the victim companies. Indeed, there are many that broadly dismiss threats such as these as “unsophisticated”, or less advanced than a pinpoint attack like Operation Aurora. Rest assured, these adversaries could not care less how we classify their work. They are well organized, have demonstrated technical sophistication on par with many intelligence services and do not forgo the opportunity for financial gain with the the information they collect. If they are collecting network credentials, it means they are using or selling them in an active underground economy – which may include sponsoring foreign intelligence services. What is easier? Designing a campaign like Operation Aurora, or simply purchasing access to your target companies?
We are working with federal law enforcement, and continue in our efforts to notify victim organizations. Please feel free to download our white paper and I am confident we will discuss great detail in future blog posts.