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04:22 PM

Next-Generation Threats: The Inside Story

Cutting-edge attacks like Stuxnet and Zeus will be the everyday security challenges of tomorrow. Here's what you need to know.

Wicked Innovation

When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced in November that the nation's nuclear program had been hit by a software attack, he confirmed what many security researchers suspected: that Stuxnet had struck, modifying key systems that controlled the motors of the centrifuges used to process uranium.

Ahmadinejad downplayed the attack's impact, but security researchers think the damage is far more extensive than he let on. A steady increase in Iranian traffic to Web sites dealing with securing industrial control systems indicates that the country's IT experts are searching for an answer to a persistent threat, says Eric Byres, CTO and co-founder of Tofino Industrial Solutions, which secures manufacturing and control systems.

There's no way that the Iranians cleaned it up, says Byres. Wiping Stuxnet from one machine is easy, he says, but "on a network, it's a living hell, because it's aggressive and it spreads in so many different ways."

Stuxnet, which was first identified in July, exploits four previously unknown vulnerabilities, spreading via USB memory sticks and network shares. It infects Windows systems used to manage industrial control systems, overwriting embedded controllers to sabotage those systems.

Welcome to the future of network security, where today's most sophisticated and successful attacks will be everyday challenges. Cybercriminals are likely to try to duplicate Stuxnet's ability to persist in a network and hide in embedded devices. And it's inevitable that they'll try to copy techniques used in other attacks--Zeus' skill at manipulating browser sessions and Conficker's resistance to being shut down, for example.

Attackers also are changing how they operate, adopting new ways to develop and disseminate attacks. Cyberespionage operations increasingly leverage social networks to find easy targets. With Operation Aurora, for instance, attackers suspected of being from China used social networks to identify employees at Google and other companies and then sent them targeted e-mails aimed at infecting key computers at those companies.

In addition, software developer communities are supporting sophisticated plug-and-play malware like the Zeus banking Trojan. Dynamically generated domains, à la Conficker, will make it even more difficult to take down botnet command-and-control networks.

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