From cybermischief to cybercrime

In the good old days – like June 2002 – IT security professionals were worried about vandalism. OCIPEP, the federal government’s Office of Critical Infrastructure Protection and Emergency Preparedness, was advising departments to secure their web servers, due to an increase in web site defacements with anti-G8 messages.

But it was not long before online cybermischief was taking second place to escalating cybercrime, and the RCMP was issuing a warning about phishing or “brand spoofing,” described as “the act of sending an e-mail to a user falsely claiming to be a legitimate enterprise in an attempt to scam the user into disclosing private information.

“Government, financial institutions and online auctions/pay services are common targets of brand spoofing,” the RCMP noted.

Both kinds of activity are undoubtedly criminal, and can undermine public confidence in online institutions, including governments. But the latest trend in attacks is aimed at governments themselves. Around the world, the Internet has become an inexpensive and accessible vehicle for every kind of overt propaganda and covert communication in support of combat operations. The Internet, in short, has become a weapon.

The spectrum ranges from civil unrest to all-out war. Youthful rioters in France have used web sites and blogs to incite a mood of rebellion against the government and text messaging to coordinate attacks against particular targets. As the French government moved to block specific information about the violence in an effort to cool things down, the Internet became an unofficial but universal channel for information to keep the fires burning.

In 2002, when terrorists videotaped the murder of Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, many mainstream media outlets refused to broadcast the footage. It slowly became available on the Internet, but limited broadband connectivity and inefficient distribution blunted its impact. By contrast, the May 2004 murder in Iraq of Nicholas Berg was flashed around the world in a variety of formats from a network of web sites.

Today on the Internet, there are Web sites with detailed instructions on how to build bombs or set up a roadside ambush. Some analysts even suspect that some combat actions against U.S. and government forces in Iraq are staged simply because they can be videotaped and posted on the Internet for their propaganda value.

Attackers do not need to hunt for potential targets on the Internet. Governments themselves are constantly broadcasting their vulnerabilities. Here in Canada, the Auditor-General’s 2005 IT Security Report was full of clues for hackers: “. . . we found that most departments are not complying fully with the [Government Security] Policy, and major inconsistencies in compliance exist.” Elsewhere, the report stated, “we found that many departments and agencies did not have secure controls in place. In many cases, the devices were not configured to consistently prevent unauthorized access to the systems on their networks.” For more detailed guidance, “vulnerability assessments … revealed significant weaknesses that could be exploited …. There were also vulnerabilities that had existed for some time in the older versions of products. In such cases, the vulnerabilities cannot be rectified, and the products must be upgraded to ensure adequate protection.”

In other words, the Auditor General was advising lazy hackers to just keep checking MERX and press releases about IT contract awards for the latest news about particularly vulnerable systems.

In the United States, the Government Accountability Office recently said that country’s air navigation system was vulnerable to cyberattack, particularly from people with knowledge of the system.

In September, Time magazine wrote about Titan Rain, a series of attacks against U.S. government computer systems. Quoting anonymous officials and unnamed documents, the report described a pattern of highly professional, well-coordinated and often successful attempts over several years to penetrate both open and secure systems. According to one researcher working on his own, the source of the attacks appeared to be about 10 operators working through one network in China.

The skill level of the attackers was described as extremely high. In less than half an hour, they could enter a system, take everything they wanted and move on without leaving a trace of evidence that they had ever been there. These probes may be just a highly advanced form of industrial espionage, but it is a short step from there to overt hostilities.

Even the suspicion of official involvement in attacks against computer systems should be enough to sound an alarm within national governments. In 10 years, crime on the Internet has gone from prank to profit to a weapon for guerrilla warfare. Perhaps it’s time to think about placing the ultimate responsibility for Internet security with the Department of National Defence.

Richard Bray ([email protected]) is a freelance journalist in Ottawa specializing in high technology and security issues.

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