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Risk

1/3/2009
12:06 AM
George V. Hulme
George V. Hulme
Commentary
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Are Web Site Defacements Really Cyber War?

Almost every time there's a physical conflict, online "attacks" follow. And the recent spate of Palestinian Web site defacements are no exception. This sort of reaction on the Internet is certainly not new. In fact, we can only expect them to escalate.

Almost every time there's a physical conflict, online "attacks" follow. And the recent spate of Palestinian Web site defacements are no exception. This sort of reaction on the Internet is certainly not new. In fact, we can only expect them to escalate.In 2000, we covered increased online tensions that followed a flare-up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at that time. Then, it appeared that attackers were targeting AT&T. Then, in 2001, a flurry of attacks occurred in early May and then again in August following the death of Chinese pilot Wang Wei when his fighter jet collided with a U.S. spy plane.

Earlier this year, Estonia convicted a student for organizing the cyberattacks (specifically a distributed denial-of-service attack) that temporarily devastated that country's Internet access.

So it should come as no surprise that, a week into the ending of the Gaza cease-fire, there are reports that Israeli-operated Web sites have been defaced, as well as other reports regarding attackers from Iran getting involved in the cyberskirmish.

I wouldn't classify Web site defacements, or even ad hoc groups launching denial-of-service attacks, as cyberwar. These actions are more akin to protest demonstrations or "hacktivism."

Unfortunately, in the future we can expect these types of incidents to evolve from hacktivism to state-sponsored cyberwar events.

And these events will escalate, not only in the quantity of attacks, but in the tactical quality of them as well. For instance, more of the systems used to manage critical infrastructure, such as SCADA systems, are now connected to the Internet for remote monitoring and management capabilities. This obviously makes them easier targets for attack. While most every one of these systems used to be completely air-gapped from the Internet, this, my reporting is telling me, is no longer always the case. More plants are relying on logical separation of these critical infrastructure networks from the public Internet. When it comes to critical infrastructure management, I don't think we should rely on firewall or vLAN segmentation.

Then there's the risk from old-fashioned physical attacks to the underlying digital infrastructure: cut communication lines, a downed power grid, denial-of-service attacks levied against the financial network, and so on.

What's concerning is that these critical infrastructures are where many adversarial organizations are increasingly placing their attention. Earlier this year I wrote about how Western intelligence agencies are growing concerned about Hezbollah's hacking capabilities. Agencies estimate that the organization has moderate capabilities to exploit software vulnerabilities, as well as key infrastructure systems that include utilities, banking, media/TV systems, telecommunications, and air traffic control systems.

That should be a sobering notion for any Westerner, as the United States and other Western countries are the most technologically dependent nations, and the costs to wage cyberwar are incredibly low.

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