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US Firms Brace for Cyber War

Last year's cyber attack on Estonia was the shape of things to come, warns expert

By James Rogers, March 20, 2008, 5:50 PM

A new breed of large-scale cyber attack threatens to wreak havoc on U.S. businesses and government organizations, according to Rutgers professor Michael Lesk.

The academic used the example of last April's cyber mayhem in Estonia to illustrate this point during his keynote at yesterday's Business Continuity and Corporate Security show in New York.

"What happened in Estonia last year was the first example of cyber war -- a cyber attack directed against a whole country," he said.

The Denial of Service (DOS) attack against the Baltic state, which followed the government's decision to move a Soviet-era war memorial, also underlined the ease with which critical systems can be brought down.

"That attack was really cheap, and yet it forced the whole country to break its connections with the Internet," he said, estimating that the DOS attack cost the attackers around $100,000. "There's a lot of people in the world who would be willing to spend that money to inconvenience their competitors or retaliate for some perceived slight."

Although no one died in the Estonian attack, Lesk warned his audience of IT managers and CIOs that other hackers may attempt a similar assault on America.

"I am worried about significant public disruption -- there's an awful lot of systems that are under control that you would worry about," he said. "Could you imagine somebody deciding for fun that they could turn all the traffic lights in New York to red?"

"What you worry about is that somebody might decide that this is a good way to break into hospital computers to shut down patient monitors."

For a business such as Amazon an extensive DOS attack could cause many millions in lost revenue, according to Lesk, who warned that this type of cyber-attack could also be used for online blackmail.

"If you're an Internet bookmaker, you can't afford to be down for the 24 hours of the British Derby," he said.

In addition to traditional perimeter security technologies such as firewalls, Lesk urged users to think about how their storage systems can withstand this type of attack.

"I believe that there are systems to improve reliability -- there are more elaborate versions of RAID technology," he said, using the example of NEC, which built a distributed file system capable of repairing itself in the event of a systems problem.

Another option for users is working closely with their ISPs in the event of a major DOS attack, but this approach has its drawbacks.

"There are not a lot of good techniques for dealing with DOS attacks," said Lesk, explaining that users can get their ISPs to 'throttle back' the total amount of traffic they receive to a more manageable level. "But [this approach] will turn a lot of people who want to get to your site to buy tickets from another vendor."

A business continuity exec from the manufacturing sector, who asked not to be named, told Byte and Switch that large-scale cyber attacks pose the biggest challenge for SMBs.

"My guess is that the smaller businesses don't have the time to concentrate on this," he said. "Until somebody attacks them, it's on the back-burner."

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