There has been a lot of news recently about the potential for the coming Cyber Pearl Harbor. A cyber attack that would mirror the devastation that hit the naval base in Pearl Harbor during the beginning of WWII. According to an article in CSO Magazine on October 18, 2012, the United States is concerned of a coming cyber attack. The concept of comparing the attack to Pearl Harbor has been around for several years. It wasn’t until a recent a speech by U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Penetta in New York that this has become more of a topic.
The article states the following:
The results of cyberttacks by a hostile nation-state on critical infrastructure like transportation, water supply or the electric grid “could be a cyber Pearl Harbor — an attack that would cause physical destruction and the loss of life,” Panetta said. “In fact, it would paralyze and shock the nation and create a new, profound sense of vulnerability.”
Panetta also invoked the image of a cyberattack on the level of 9/11. “Before September 11, 2001, the warning signs were there. We weren’t organized. We weren’t ready and we suffered terribly for that lack of attention. We cannot let that happen again. This is a pre-9/11 moment,” he said.
In a follow-up article in CSO Magazine November 7th, the opposing viewpoint was brought forth. Many in the security industry feel that the concept and description of a Cyber Pearl Harbor is nothing more than hot air. Experts including Bruce Schneier have chimed in. Bruce has reduced the extent to which he believes the concept to be exaggerated but according to he article:
Critics argue argue that not only is the threat of a catastrophic cyberattack greatly exaggerated, but that the best way to guard against the multiple risks they agree exist is not with better firewalls or offensive strikes against potential attacks, but to “build security in” to the control systems that run the nation’s critical infrastructure.
Bruce Schneier, author, Chief Technology Security Officer at BT and frequently described as a security “guru,” has not backed off of his contention made at a debate two years ago that the cyber war threat “has been greatly exaggerated.” He said that while a major attack would be disruptive, it would not even be close to an existential threat to the U.S.
“This [damage] is at the margins,” he said, adding that even using the term “war” is just a, “neat way of phrasing it to get people’s attention. The threats and vulnerabilities are real, but they are not war threats.”
The reality is that it is probably somewhere in the middle of the two viewpoints. It can be likened to the Y2K issue a little over a decade ago. The world was going to come to an end and the dark ages would re-emerge. The reality was that preparation help minimize what little impact there may have been. Security is a risk decision, but most risk decisions are defensive in nature. The other decision of a preemptive cyber capability is another aspect of the decision-making that needs to be addressed. Should the U.S. begin cyber strikes on perceived threats? What is the impact of doing this on the long-term? The world has already seen a small view of what can be done with Stuxtnet and will these type of state-sponsored cyber attacks the new nuclear deterrent…that is yet to be seen.
Regardless of the direction that gets taken, business needs to look at potential cyber attacks/hacks as a real potential threat and determine what risk is willing to be accepted and what will need to be mitigated. Whether the issue is the size of a country or your home computer, measure twice, cut once is still the best direction.
Research from Symantec has been published in ACM on October 16. The research, which was also referenced in articles in SC Magazine and Dark Reading, looks at the amount and duration of zero-day attacks. Specifically:
A zero-day attack is characterized by a vulnerability that is exploited in the wild before it is disclosed, i.e., t0 > te. Similarly, a zero-day vulnerability is a vulnerability employed in azero-day attack. Our goals in this paper are to measure the prevalence and duration of zero-day attacks and to compare the impact of zero-day vulnerabilities before and after t0.
The research within the paper has some important considerations to business and the need for effective patching and defense-in-depth within the enterprise. Specifically, the paper found the following conclusion:
Zero-day attacks have been discussed for decades, but nostudy has yet measured the duration and prevalence of these attacks in the real world, before the disclosure of the corresponding vulnerabilities. We take a ﬁrst step in this direction by analyzing ﬁeld data collected on 11 million Windows hosts over a period of 4 years. The key idea in our studyis to identify executable ﬁles that are linked to exploits of known vulnerabilities. By searching for these ﬁles in a dataset with historical records of ﬁles downloaded on end-hosts around the world, we systematically identify zero-day attacks and we analyze their evolution in time.We identify 18 vulnerabilities exploited in the wild before their disclosure, of which 11 were not previously known to have been employed in zero-day attacks. Zero-day attacks last on average 312 days, and up to 30 months, and they typically aﬀect few hosts. However, there are some exceptions for high proﬁle attacks such as Conﬁcker and Stuxnet, which we respectively detected on hundreds of thousands and millions of the hosts in our study, before the vulnerability disclosure. After the disclosure of zero-day vulnerabilities, the volume of attacks exploiting them increases by up to 5 orders of magnitude. These ﬁndings have important implications for future security technologies and for public policy.
Based on these findings, it will be interesting to see if the various technology vendors, programmers, and business will take this to heart and work harder in getting less vulnerable software and systems to market. Follow on research from this paper could be to evaluate the cost impact associated with zero-day attacks or vulnerabilities that were left unpatched. The reality is that security is about risk acceptance and in some cases the cost may be deemed an acceptable risk by some businesses.
According to a CSO Online article, Prolexic Technologies identified the distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks against several online banking institutions including Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank, PNC Bank, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase as a toolkit called itsoknoproblembro. The attackers who identified themselves Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Cyber Fighters, claim to be muslim hacktivists angry over the YouTube video that has recently sparked controversy regarding its portrayal of Muhammad.
According to Prolexic:
The “itsoknoproblembro” toolkit is capable of simultaneously attacking components of a website’s infrastructure and application layers, flooding the targets with sustained traffic peaking at 70 gigabits per second. In addition, Prolexic found that traffic signatures were unusually complex and therefore difficult to reroute away from the targets.
The vendor, which declined to name the banks whose sites it tracked, said the attackers likely spent months probing the sites for the components most susceptible to a DDoS assault. They also were knowledgeable in the technology used to mitigate such attacks.
“From a DDoS perspective, they are on the level of a Stuxnet type of attack,” said Scott Hammack, chief executive of Prolexic.
This recent hack should drive home that attacks against business will become more complex over time and that it is necessary to re-evaluate risk levels and the associated mitigation/defense strategies deployed. Security is a life-cycle that needs to be re-evaluated on a regular basis to adapt to the shifting landscape.