Never Understimate The Power Of A Botnet

A deputy director at the Office of Cyber Security in the Cabinet Office in the U.K. said in a recent Home Affairs Committee meeting that botnets are not a big risk for debilitating attacks against the government's networks, but are more likely to be used as a tool to extort money.
A deputy director at the Office of Cyber Security in the Cabinet Office in the U.K. said in a recent Home Affairs Committee meeting that botnets are not a big risk for debilitating attacks against the government's networks, but are more likely to be used as a tool to extort money.In the article in IT Pro, Dr. Steve Marsh said, "the main focus of botnets would be to target and extort money from private companies, rather than bring down public sector networks."

It may not have been his intention, but what policy-makers may glean from this is that large-scale botnet attacks are not a major threat to government networks and to the critical infrastructure of the U.K. While botnets do prefer more lucrative targets, they can, they have, and they will attack government networks and critical infrastructure, worldwide. His words guess intent and are factually wrong and misleading.

Further, the article tells us:

However, he warned: "Of course, there is the possibility some group with different intentions might try to exploit those mechanisms."

Marsh was speaking at a meeting discussing EU policy on protecting Europe from cyber attack.

I agree, botnets are more likely to be used to steal information and perform other tasks any single Trojan horse may perform, such as infiltrate a network or extort the owners. In fact, making money is what botnets are generally built for. But much like the computers they control, botnets are multipurpose, and most are built for fighting as well -- among thieves, if nothing else -- and many are available for hire, whatever the purpose.

And indeed, quite accurately Dr. Marsh describes how there is a risk of botnets being taken over by other groups with other interests, such as attacking. I realize these are not his words, but rather his quoted words (and I have been misquoted before numerous times), but there is a logical flaw in this reasoning.

If groups exist with interest to use botnets for attacking, then why would they just take over other people's botnets and not create their own? Or even hire them from the underground market as often happens?

The underlying assumption here is that an opponent is rational. Many cyber criminals are very organized, and indeed, very rational. They simply don't follow the same rules. What's rational for them would be considered ludicrous by many of us, and they are quite willing to try and destroy the Internet.

As many of them are either former Eastern-block and or Russian in origins, their strategic thinking includes the concept of Scorched Earth: "If I can't have it, I will make sure you can't, either."

Thinking that others won't do something just because we won't is delusional. The culture is different, the business practices are different, and more importantly -- criminal psychology is different from the psychology of a regular person.

Cyber criminals have shown us time and time again that while the Internet is the lifeline of their business, we will pay the consequences if we stand up to them.

The large DNS infrastructure attack from 2002 and the attacks against Blue Security are just two well-publicized examples of large-scale attacks which hurt the global Internet infrastructure. This goes without mentioning the hundreds and thousands of other attacks happening daily.

Cyber criminals are not just capable of causing major harm to the Internet, they already do.

We have no control over their actions and they pose a dire threat to our way of life as we get more and more reliant on the Internet. They actively hold power over us by being able to harm us this way, so it may make us feel better to think they won't. Certainly, the 2007 attacks against Estonia -- which I had personal experience with writing the post-mortem analysis for the Estonian CERT -- have shown us at least that. Not to mention that business botnets can be used for political purposes.

This is the type of thinking that enables the criminals, and at the same time prevents the problem from becoming large enough in the public's eye to get the funding to actually make a difference. It is a big enough problem, it's just behind the scenes. Even when one out of every three people in the US alone suffered from just identity theft crime, we still suffer from a general denial.

What do you do with a problem you don't know how to solve? You spread propaganda -- even unintentionally -- that everything is fine. But to do it in front of a committee that discusses EU policy on protecting Europe from cyber attacks is irresponsible. I certainly do hope I am right and Dr. Marsh was misquoted.

The problem is this general misguided belief in the criminals' priorities. And should we base our security on criminal priorities, anyway?

Dr. Marsh is also quoted saying the UK government networks are relatively safer from botnets due to network architecture. I don't doubt they are doing a good job at the UK government. In fact, knowing some of the people who work on the issue over there, I am sure of it. But it does paint what he said with an agenda of testifying to micro-level security, while the ramifications are on the macro scale. The damage in policymaking as a possible result of what he is quoted of saying is inexcusable.

This is an anecdotal example of the flawed thinking that is misleading policymakers worldwide on cyber defense. These kinds of proclamations as to the criminals' intent are exactly the same as when security experts used to cry wolf by spreading FUD to instill fear. We are better than this.

The Internet is not going to die tomorrow and I apologize if you are alarmed by this. But you should be. The risks are real, and my hope is that this post shows that we do have something real to be worried about.

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Gadi Evron is an independent security strategist based in Israel. Special to Dark Reading.