1/26/2010
11:57 PM
Bob Evans
Bob Evans
Commentary

Global CIO: After Google Cyber Attack, CIOs Must Find The Body

The Aurora attacks from China are incredibly advanced and malicious, says McAfee's CTO: "Where's the body?"



Saying that "the world has changed" since the Chinese began their cyberattacks under the name Operation Aurora, McAfee CTO George Kurtz said CIOs need to adapt their threat models "to the new reality of these persistent threats." But these latest attacks are making it hard for CIOs to make their case to the CEO because the post-Aurora threats are almost undetectable. They leave no evidence. They leave no body.

Writing on McAfee's "Security Insights Blog," Kurtz described this latest challenge for CIOs in chilling terms in a post called "Where's The Body?":

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I know many of the technical teams are working around the clock to figure out what happened. While one might believe that it should be a relatively straightforward exercise of forensically examining the infected systems and correlating any activity with the associated firewall log files, it isn't that easy.

You may ask, "Why is that?" Well, there are three key questions that upper management, namely the CEO and CIO, ask before they rate this incident above "media hype."

1. Did we have a breach?

2. Was data stolen?

3. If so, what data was taken and by whom?

The problem, Kurtz says, is that today's cyberattacks are so sophisticated that they do great damage without leaving a trace, which leads to "one major problem that seems to be a common theme. There is no body to be found."

And without that body—the data—the CEO and CIO won't necessarily believe there's an urgent issue because in the past, all serious security threats came with a very obvious body included at no extra charge, Kurtz says.

The new challenge: "While a sophisticated attacker will leverage insidious malware, don't expect them to drive a truck through your network and leave a calling card on the way out," Kurtz writes. "Instead, expect low and slow movements of data that 'blend' into the massive amount of traffic flow that happens on a daily basis on your network."

In another recent blog post, Kurtz had described the threats and, again, painted a scary picture. And while I realize he's a high-level executive at a company that would love to sell you some security products and services to stave off such attacks, Kurtz's writing has always impressed me as straightforward and honest. So here's more of his description of the Aurora threat from a recent post called "Google Attack Is Tip Of Iceberg":

Targeted attacks happen all the time, but this is the highest profile attack of its kind that we have seen in recent memory. In these types of attacks the goal is typically to gain access to high value intellectual property such as company secrets. In the case of Google that would most likely be source code.

These attacks are called "targeted" attacks because the intruders typically gain access to an organization by sending a tailored attack to one or a few targeted individuals in an organization. Often these attacks will look like they come from a trusted source, leading the target to fall for the trap and exposing their credentials or installing malicious software on a system, giving the attackers a way in.

And once in, these malicious intruders cause a staggering amount of damage, Kurtz says: each year, intellectual property valued at more than $1 trillion is stolen from businesses around the world, according to the McAfee Unsecured Economies Report.

And it's getting worse, he says, noting that "last November we talked about the age of cyberwar with countries arming themselves for cyberwarfare."

And while this has all been depressing enough, there's more. If anyone out there thinks this is just some abstract thing involving somebody else, please check out this report from the Christian Science Monitor:

"At least three US oil companies were the target of a series of previously undisclosed cyberattacks that may have originated in China and that experts say highlight a new level of sophistication in the growing global war of Internet espionage," the Monitor reports.

"The oil and gas industry breaches, the mere existence of which has been a closely guarded secret of oil companies and federal authorities, were focused on one of the crown jewels of the industry: valuable 'bid data' detailing the quantity, value, and location of oil discoveries worldwide." The three oil companies are Marathon Oil, ExxonMobil, and ConocoPhillips.

Alright, folks, just when you thought it was safe to go back into the let's-grow-the-business water, along comes another issue to deal with. But unfortunately, this one's not some simple distraction or some abstract coincidence that can only happen to others but never to you. As McAfee CTO Kurtz said in closing out his post about the Aurora attacks on Google:

"All I can say is wow. The world has changed. Everyone’s threat model now needs to be adapted to the new reality of these advanced persistent threats. In addition to worrying about Eastern European cybercriminals trying to siphon off credit card databases, you have to focus on protecting all of your core intellectual property, private nonfinancial customer information and anything else of intangible value."

RECOMMENDED READING:

Global CIO: The Top 10 CIO Issues For 2010

Global CIO: Cloud Computing's Deadly Vulnerability—And How To Avoid It

Global CIO: Oracle CEO Larry Ellison's Top 10 Reasons For Buying Sun

GlobalCIO Bob Evans is senior VP and director of InformationWeek's Global CIO unit.

To find out more about Bob Evans, please visit his page.

For more Global CIO perspectives, check out Global CIO,
or write to Bob at [email protected].

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