Firm shows how to fend off e-dangers

The Internet has become a riskier place for businesses since the fall of 2001 and doesn’t look to be any more secure in the near future, according to security firm Internet Security Systems Inc., which released in April its security incident figures for the first quarter of 2002.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. have not prompted any obvious cyber attacks, ISS concluded.

Overall Internet security has been hampered by a steady tide of denial of service (DoS) attacks, as well as the rise of hybrid attacks — attack tools that spread through multiple means, such as the Web, e-mail, file sharing and instant messaging, ISS wrote. Worms such as Code Red and Nimda are leading examples of hybrid threats, though there have since been a number of others.

“Internet risk will continue to increase as long as fundamental Internet risk factors are not lessened in some way,” ISS wrote. “Attacks are now global in scope and round-the-clock in incidence.”

“There’s no such thing as a low threat (level) on the Internet,” said Dennis Treece, director of the X-Force Special Operations Group at ISS in Atlanta. “If you’re going to connect to it, you better have a suit of armour.”

The company compiled its data from more than 350 high-volume intrusion detection sensors managed by the company around the world.

One major risk factor that will be difficult to address is the way the majority of attacks are being perpetrated. The vast majority of attacks in the first quarter of 2002, nearly 70 per cent, were launched on server port 80, the same port that Web traffic flows on, ISS said. This poses a particular problem because curtailing access to port 80 would also negatively affect Web traffic, the company wrote.

However, companies can take steps to reduce their vulnerabilities over port 80, including turning off unused services, such as Web server software on a file server, ISS wrote. Port 80 is the default Internet protocol port number used by Web servers for Web (HTTP) transactions.

“Since almost 70 per cent of malicious activity occurs as a result of entry through port 80, it is obvious and imperative that firewalls should be augmented with additional intrusion and defence technology, since firewalls cannot prevent this form of unauthorized access in their own right,” the company wrote.

Further underscoring the danger lurking on port 80, DoS attacks, hybrid threats and port scans, all usually conducted over port 80, made up more than 80 per cent of all attacks in the quarter, ISS wrote. DoS attacks are those in which applications or servers are flooded with traffic in order to deny access to legitimate users and are growing in number, though their growth rate has been dwarfed by that of hybrid threats and port scans, ISS said.

Port scanning is a common activity engaged in by attackers before an attack is launched and is designed to discover details and vulnerabilities about networks.

The volume of attacks against port 80 is “troubling because it’s the wide-open door,” Treece said. Many businesses that lack IT expertise have seen firewalls as silver bullets in the past because of their ability to block traffic, but as most firewalls allow connections on port 80, this data shows that firewalls are being marginalized, he said.

The Nimda worm, which infected hundreds of thousands of computers in September 2001, is still widespread on the Internet, ISS wrote, despite there being a patch available from Microsoft to block it. Nimda is “a dominant, expensive and enduring threat,” ISS concluded.

Despite multiple warnings on the potential for cyber terrorist attacks after Sept. 11, ISS did not see any indications of such attacks.

“The events of 9/11 had no apparent effect on malicious Internet activity, but interest in security was up. Thus far, there have been no cyber attacks that we can relate directly to the physical attacks of 9/11,” the company wrote.

The Internet has not been attacked by terrorists because they “want to make use of the Internet, they don’t want to hurt it,” Treece said.

ISS also counted 537 new security vulnerabilities in software for the quarter. Security vulnerabilities, and slowness to apply patches to fix those holes, have resulted in a number of serious security incidents, including the Code Red and Nimda worms.

“The software community, including developers, vendors and users, is beginning to raise the profile of security within the development process. Improvements, however, will take time,” ISS said. “As a result, the medium- and long-term risk assessment for the Internet remains significantly less than optimistic, with hybrid threats continuing as the most dangerous form of attack.”

ISS’s full report can be found online at