War against cyber attacks heats up

This New Year will offer weary network administrators little respite from a new generation of Internet worms, viruses and targeted hacks that appeared in 2003, according to security experts.

In 2004, malicious hackers will continue to take advantage of security weaknesses in popular communications protocols such as Remote Procedure Call (RPC), while improvements in hacker tools will shorten the time that technology vendors and their customers have to respond to new vulnerabilities, according to comments by leading security researchers and corporate security experts at the InfoSecurity 2003 Conference and Exhibition in New York City in December.

Attacks that take advantage of holes in RPC will continue next year, according to Gerhard Eschelbeck of security company Qualys Inc. RPC vulnerabilities in Microsoft Corp.’s products were behind recent worms such as Blaster and Welchia, which spread worldwide in August.

While many of those attacks will target Microsoft operating systems, malicious hackers may also look for ways to exploit RPC security holes in Unix and Linux, he said.

“RPC is a fundamental component of client-server computing. Next year we expect a multitude of vulnerabilities in (RPC), and those could lead to targets and attacks that are not homogenous, with a sudden shift to target different operating systems,” Eschelbeck said.

With Microsoft planning security improvements to prevent Blaster-style attacks with the release of Windows XP Service Pack 2, hackers are also shifting their attention to areas not covered by Redmond, Wash., according to panel member Jeff Moss, president and chief executive officer (CEO) of BlackHat Inc.

In particular, hackers are exploring ways to attack memory “heaps,” or areas of computer memory that are created dynamically when programs run. Such attacks would sidestep protections Microsoft is building into Windows XP to protect against memory stack overflows, which Blaster caused, he said.

Improvements in the quality of software programs that hackers can use to develop code that exploits security vulnerabilities may result in more zero day exploits. At the same time, better “rootkits,” that allow hackers to surreptitiously control hacked computers, will make identifying compromised machines even more difficult, Ross said.

Corporate security experts recommended a variety of strategies for protecting networks and mitigating damage.

Online auction company eBay Inc. uses layered security, including two-factor authentication and VPN (virtual private network) technology for remote users, automated patch management and reporting software, access control lists, gateway and desktop antivirus software, as well as desktop firewalls for remote users, according to Howard Schmidt, the company’s chief security officer.

David Mortman, director of Global Security at Siebel Systems Inc., also swears by his company’s patch management software, saying it has saved him from more than one ugly outbreak. After an infection by Slammer hobbled parts of Siebel’s corporate network, the company became more aggressive about distributing software patches to affected systems, he said.

Siebel distributes most patches to users within 36 hours and no longer performs exhaustive tests on patches to make sure they don’t break key software applications before deploying them, Mortman said.

“After Slammer, we realized (testing patches against applications) is not worth the cost of getting infected,” he said.