NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, December 2007
FBI Asks “How Aware Are You of the Dangers of the ‘Net?”
By Ira Wilsker, APCUG Director;
Columnist, The Examiner, Beaumont, TX; Radio & TV Show Host

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This is not the column that I had originally prepared for publication this week. As regular readers may know, I frequently lecture on computer security topics, and have written numerous columns on security topics over the years. While many of us surf the net oblivious to the online threats that face us, many others are aware of the threats, and sadly, many have learned of the threats the hard way. The online threats that we face on a regular basis have not been lost on our federal government leadership.

FBI Director Mueller recently gave a speech at Penn State University where he warned about the cyber threats that we all face. He started his speech talking about the recent World Series, where the tickets for the Rockies’ home games were initially unavailable online because some hacker had made the website inaccessible. He referenced the cyber attack against the country of Estonia last spring, where a coordinated attack from computers around the world, “… shut down banks and emergency phone lines, gas stations and grocery stores, newspapers and television stations, even the prime minister’s office.” Director Mueller went on to explain the effect of a similar attack here in the United States, “If we lose the Internet, we do not simply lose the ability to e-mail or to surf the web. We lose access to our data. We lose our connectivity. We lose our intellectual property. We lose our security. What happens when the so-called ‘Invisible Man’ locks us out of our own homes, our offices, and our information?” This brings up the question, “…given the growing presence of the web in our personal and professional lives, how aware are you of the risks of attack via the Internet?”

In his speech, Director Mueller was poignant in describing the situation that is facing us online. There were several key points in his speech that require some additional discussion. One point he made was, “The growing intersection of terror and the web.” He described the case of Younis Tsouli, who went by the screen name “Terrorist 007”, who was an al Qaeda webmaster. Taking advantage of most of the contemporary online threats that we all face, Tsouli broke into servers to get the data bandwidth he needed to carry out his nefarious schemes, and used “phishing” (authentic appearing but counterfeit websites to steal personal information), to steal credit card and personal information. With these purloined credit card numbers and personal information, he managed to purchase over $3 million worth of deadly supplies and equipment for terrorists. Tsouli also created a website “You bomb it” patterned after the popular “YouTube”, which he hoped would become a centralized website for terrorists to exchange information. Director Mueller explained that local internet service providers could unknowingly run a server that is helping terrorists, and that we, as the innocent victims of identity theft, could end up financing terrorist activities.

Another threat facing us, according to Director Mueller, is “The rise of bots”, where networks of computers are unknowingly taken over for nefarious purposes. One of the most common ways of taking over a computer is to plant a type of Trojan on the computer referred to as a “zombie”, which effectively makes the infected computer a zombie under the control of persons unknown. According to recent security statements, some “bots” consist of over a million infected computers. It is well known in cyber security circles that the many variants of the Storm Worm, which is still spreading to infect countless computers, mostly through email attachments, has created millions of zombies. While many of these bots are currently being used to spread spam email, generating riches for the “bot masters” or “bot herders” who sell their purloined capacity, there are more dangerous uses of bots. It is important to note that owners of zombie infected computers are unaware that their computers are infected, and are a component of an illicit bot spreading spam and chaos to other computers. Director Mueller stated, “Once under their thumbs, these networks can wreak all kinds of havoc, from shutting down a power grid to flooding an emergency call center with millions of spam messages.”

“Hackers are using sophisticated techniques to steal sensitive intelligence, scientific research, and communications data.” This is what the Director is calling “the invisible man” where an unknown cyber intruder oversees everything on a network, including what people are typing, and reading any files stored on a computer or on a network. Since most cyber intruders will never leave any indication that they have viewed your files, stolen your passwords, and copied your critical and confidential data, you will never even know that you have been victimized and your data has been compromised. Once victimized in this manner, you will never know how much damage has been done, maybe until it is too late.

The federal government is actively fighting international cyber terrorists, and contemporary news accounts are rife with stories about criminal and espionage cyber attacks from China, Russia, Iran, Iraq, and other unfriendly countries. Despite governmental attempts to secure our computer infrastructure, much of the responsibility falls upon us individually. We must accept responsibility for the safety and security of our own computers. As has been appealed many times in this column before, we absolutely must have updated defenses in play on our personal computers. Antivirus, anti-spyware, and firewall software are imperative on our computers; after all, it is the personal computer that is the target of the zombie Trojan, and it is millions of personal computers like your and mine that make up these huge bots that can wreak such havoc.

For those who would be interested in seeing what a cyber attack warning might look like, an unofficial Israeli website that disseminates anti-terrorism information, the “DEBKAfile”, has recently posted such a warning about a massive upcoming cyber attack on the US (http://www.debka.com/headline.php?hid=4723). I am typing this prior to the date of this next alleged “cyber jihad” attack on the United States (November 11, Veterans’ Day) and you will certainly be reading this column after that date. I hope that this warning, as have many other such warnings, turned out to be false. In fact, several security authorities such as McAfee, and Computerworld magazine, have argued that the DEBKAfile warning is a hoax, and that the information presented is unreliable. Another publication, Government Computer News, also belittled the warning, but the column that said that had the subtitle, “Don’t cancel your day off yet” (http://www.gcn.com/online/vol1_no1/45386-1.html). This cyber attack warning is but one example of what Director Mueller is warning about.

Since the antivirus and anti-spyware on our computers can be compromised or neutralized by a zombie that slips through our defenses, it is a good idea to perform a free online security scan from one of the many available. My two personal favorites are Trend Micro’s Housecall (housecall.antivirus.com), and Microsoft’s online OneCare at safety.live.com (click on the shield in the middle of the window). A successful scan by either or both of these services will likely indicate that your computer is clean of viruses, worms, Trojans, spyware, and zombies. Make sure your firewall is installed and updated. As I complete most of my security presentations, I close with the expression, “Practice safe HEX.”

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