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Hackers use DDoS as a rising method to cover their tracks

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February 15, 2014

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According to an industry warning from systems integrator Accuvant, more and more today, sophisticated hackers and well organized cybercriminals are increasingly carrying out DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks as a complex method in cover up their criminal activities, while trying to hide their ugly tracks. And the situation is starting to be really alarming says Accuvant, an internet security firm that researches advanced threats, methods and IT architectures.

Increasingly available automated DDoS attack toolkits provide cybercriminals an easy way to tie up system resources and often disrupt busy IT teams who are dispatched to remedy the issue and then get critical applications back online.

Attackers are increasingly using DDoS as a cover up, warned Craig Treubig, managing principal consultant at Accuvant. "These events cost organizations large sums of money in the form of service-level agreements, service interruptions, and credit protection for clients affected by an attack against the enterprise," Treubig wrote in his recent analysis of the threats.

And those attacks can be very costly to unprepared businesses, Treubig added. Expenses for an initial attack begins at $100,000 and the costs add up per hour during mitigation until the attack is fully resolved, he said.

Experts have documented the largest distributed denial of service attack ever seen earlier this week, with the volume coming in at 400 Gbps at its peak. Matthew Prince of website hosting provider CloudFlare said the attack was reported Monday and involved more than 4,500 servers in what is called a Network Time Protocol (NTP) server amplification attack.

It is one in a series of high-profile DDoS attacks conducted against U.S. banks and a large 300-Gbps attack last year against Spamhaus, a nonprofit antispam blacklist provider. The alleged attacker in the Spamhaus DDoS campaign has since been apprehended by authorities.

Prince said he is optimistic that network operators will address the infected NTP servers used in the latest attack. Worse, he clearly warned that the latest attack technique could theoretically be amplified to greater peak volume.

Accuvant's Treubig said that government agencies, businesses in the oil and gas industry, manufacturers, health-care organizations and higher education may be at increased risk for more-complex blended denial of service attacks. The industries are often pursued for their intellectual property or research information, Treubig said.

Solution providers say that they have been working with clients on ways to ensure they are prepared for denial of service attacks. Appliances such as firewalls often are not properly configured to handle a DDoS attack, despite having capabilities to filter out malicious traffic, the said.

Additionally, most clients are concerned about system availability, not an underlying cyberattack associated with the denial of service activity. But in 2013, Dell Secureworks published a report documenting ACH fraud at some banks and credit unions tied to DDoS attacks. In one attack, cybercriminals fraudulently transferred $2.1 million from a bank account. The transfers often go to banks located in Russia, Cyprus and China.

In a recent interview, researchers at Burlington, Mass.-based DDoS protection vendor Arbor Networks said they were tracking the rising number of sophisticated application-layer DDoS attacks. Some businesses rely on their upstream ISPs for protection, but that can often result in some disruption, they said.

The company issued recommendations to network operators this week to help reduce the threat posed by amplification attacks. "Network operators, including the various categories of ISPs as well as enterprise network operators, should routinely scan their IP address space for insecurely configured services that can be abused by attackers, and then work to notify the operators of such services and remediate them," the company said about the latest high-profile attack.

"In general, anti-spoofing technologies deployed at customer aggregation edges and/or access edges of wireline and wireless broadband access networks, hosting/co-location Internet data center networks, and enterprise networks would prevent attackers from launching spoofed attacks of any kind," he added.

In other internet security news

According to some reports, unnamed officials told The New York Times that Edward Snowden used a common web crawler program to scrape NSA's systems and steal secret and classified documents.

It's a revelation that raises even more questions about the efficiency of the agency's internal security measures. The software in question was not named by the officials, but it's apparently similar to Googlebot, the program the search giant created several years ago to index new Web pages.

Snowden also used a program called "wget" which Chelsea Manning used to download the batches of secret files that were published by WikiLeaks several years back.

The crawler can be programmed with various search phrases. It then travels automatically from web page to web page, following links, and going ever deeper in search of relevant and secret documents.

"One of the many questions I have is, while people can access individual messages related to their specific job, shouldn't this system have caught someone downloading 500,000 messages and asked him, 'What are you doing?'" said Senator-Elect Mark Kirk (R-Ill.).

Similar questions are currently being asked of the NSA's overall systems as well. And it's a weighty issue given that, as the Times notes, the NSA is also charged with maintaining U.S. cybersecurity against foreign adversaries that are supposedly using far more sophisticated methods than Snowden apparently did.

A presidential directive made in response to the 2010 Manning/WikiLeaks incident required U.S. government facilities to install updated anti-leak software.

But the facility in Hawaii where Snowden worked as an NSA contractor reportedly hadn't updated the "insider threat" program simply because the outpost's network didn't yet have enough power to run it properly.

Today's Times story says it's not known if Snowden got lucky in landing at the Hawaii facility, or if he sought it out. NSA officials told the Times that Snowden would've been caught if he'd been working at the agency's headquarters in Fort Meade, Md.

Agency culture was a factor as well, the Times reports. "Once you are inside, the assumption is that you are supposed to be there, like in most organizations," Richard Bejtlich, chief security strategist for Silicon Valley computer security firm FireEye, told the paper.

"But that doesn't explain why they weren't more vigilant about excessive activity in the system," he added. The Times said, "The NSA declined to comment on its investigation or the security changes it has made since the Snowden disclosures. Other intelligence officials familiar with the findings of the investigations under way -- there are at least four -- were granted anonymity to discuss the investigations."

And Snowden told the paper in a statement-- "It's ironic that officials are giving classified information to journalists in an effort to discredit me for giving classified information to journalists. The difference is that I did so to inform the public about the government's actions, and they're doing so to misinform the public about mine."

The Times reported earlier that the CIA suspected Snowden of trying to get his hands on classified files when he worked for the agency in 2009, but Snowden says that report was inaccurate.

In other internet security news

Ask any good network manager or IT system admin that fully understand the risks of their business and they will tell you that one of the best ways of opening up the proverbial 'can of worms' is to first publish an innocuous app that works well, and then push out an update with something major changed with the app's initial permissions, says Ryan Smith.

And Smith should know-- he's the lead internet security and threat engineer at Mojave Networks, a company that provides advanced mobile security for customers around the globe ranging from medium-size enterprises to Fortune 500 companies and the U.S. Army.

To protect against the sort of threat mentioned above, system admins need to look more closely at the permissions set on mobile app updates. "It makes sense if you are not comfortable with the permissions to simply uninstall the app, added Smith."

In today's modern world, laptops, smartphones and tablets have become really ubiquitous and so convenient that users often download apps and automatically approve permissions without giving them any thought.

Such routine behavior exposes personal and other sensitive data that users store on their prized devices to increasing risk.

Such a blind trust is just what app makers count on. Android users, especially, are complacent about synchronizing apps on multiple devices.

Even worse is the practice of linking bank and social networking accounts with cloud storage so that a conduit is always open that connects our data to phones, tablets and computers.

Personal and sensititive corporate information can leak from mobile phones and tablets through the apps we install. Many of the apps we use mine our contact lists, locations and personal information that the app makers sell or use for marketing campaigns.

"For some mobile app developers, gathering and selling user information is half of the business model," says Rick Sizemore, Director of the cloud computing practice at Alsbridge, a benchmarking firm that analyzes complex enterprise IT systems.

The potential for hacking sensitive and corporate information is much, much higher when portable devices such as iPhones, Blackberries and tablets are used in enterprise settings.

Overall, encrypting the data is helpful, but many workplaces lack adequate IT support to make smartphones and tablets more secure, according to Sizemore.

In any case, "those measures will not prevent individual apps from collecting personal information and sending it to the vendors' server. That situation is what we call the Wild, Wild West of mobile devices. With Google Android devices, it's even more of a Wild West situation," he added.

Users need to realize and fully understand that with many of the apps on their devices, all the information they store on the devices, including every place they go is collected and sent by more than one app, warned Sizemore.

That is often the real motivation in offering free aps that otherwise have no money stream as a payout. The app designers gather all that information and then sell it to the highest bidders and marketing list wholesalers across the globe.

And one big difference between Android and other mobile operating systems is the trust factor with installed applications. Android trusts users to accept what they install. It is up to the user to decide which permissions to give to each application, explained Ryan Smith at Mojave Networks.

"Android also gives users the option of downloading from a third-party site. Unlike Apple, Google is not being the arbiter in deciding what applications you can or cannot install the way Apple has done," Smith said, and that's a potential security issue.

This isn't necessarily a security vulnerability in Android, but it is something that the user has to be aware of and look out for, he added.

Depending on the mobile apps that users download, the risks of malware and virus attacks can run the whole spectrum. There is some Android malware, but it tends to be more prevalent in regions outside the U.S. and Europe, Smith said.

The security issues are more isolated within China and other parts of Asia and Russia. Attacks are not exclusive to those regions, but Android malware is not prevalent in other areas, Smith explained.

Similar to attacks on computer systems, some mobile operating systems pose more complex targets than others. This brings into play the popularity factor.

To be sure, Android is a popular target in the mobile world, just like Microsoft is an easy target in the PC world. They both are the predominant operating systems in their categories, according to Jack Walsh, mobility program manager at ICSA Labs, an independent division of Verizon Wireless.

"The malware writers are going to spend most of their time where they can get the best returns. Attackers are going to be able to exploit any mobile operating system. It's just that right now, they are concentrating more on Android," Walsh said.

With Microsoft being the latest platform entry for mobile users, the jury is still out on whether Windows apps that run on that platform will be safer or more prone to attacks, offered Smith.

Apple is better at carefully analyzing its app files in its popular Apple App store. It is easier to fool the system with an Android APK (application package file), Sizemore added.

With smartphones and tablets, even more risk comes from insecure apps than vulnerabilities in the mobile operating system itself. In the case of Android, its granular permission structure puts each application into a sandbox. This keeps every app separate from all other running apps in terms of privileges, explained Smith.

"In some newer versions, some mobile apps provide encryption, so they provide somewhat better security. It simply boils down to trusting the applications you want to install," he said.

The majority of attacks on mobile devices are fraudulent banking apps. Once they get slipped into app stores, you can not tell them apart from the real apps, according to Walsh, and that's a real security concern.

"The ultimate goal is to get these apps into consumers' hands. When the user inputs account information, instead of being transmitted to the proper bank, they go to fraudulent servers located in foreigh countries such as China, Russia and Brazil", he said.

Then beyond malware, there are additional security risks that fall into the gray area zone. These risks do not result from bad intentions or from apps being written by bad people, Smith added.

"But nevertheless, those app weaknesses do pose a level of risk to the businesses, however. This may not be as great of a risk as malware, but it still poses a risk, and system admins need to look out for them", he said.

And adware is becoming really a lot more prevalent with mobile devices due to the information that apps collect every day. This can include the location of the user, the phone the person is using, and some of the information on the phone about the user, warned Smith.

And it's important to mention that the overzealous mining of users' data is a matter of vendor ethics. Legitimate vendors are less likely to broker mined personal information inappropriately, noted Smith.

One tool mobile device users can employ is a first-rate security scanner application, suggested Mojave Networks's Smith, who recommended looking around for a security app that would provide a fine granular approach to classifying threats, especially in the case of Android devices.

"You need more than a security app that just says that the scan showed no malware. You need one that categorizes the level of the risks and where it lies on the device," he said.

At the end of the day, when it comes to security, due diligence goes a very long way when selecting a mobile application, added ICSA Labs' Walsh.

You need to be certain that the app developer is legitimate, trustworthy and has a good history of quality app development, he urged.

Another good pro-active and prevention step would be to check if the mobile app developer follows testing and certification industry best practices. This is particularly critical when an employer deploys mobile devices to a workforce.

Perhaps one of the most significant word of advice for mobile device users is to not download apps from lesser known app stores, added Walsh. Measure the risks and decide if you want to take that level of risk.

"I'm not trying to say that every single source is disreputable. I'm just saying that it is probably in your best interest to just look on Amazon or Google. But even when you do that, be aware of what you are downloading," he cautioned.

Making it harder on the bad guys is also a critical self-protection step. For example, use a PIN number of more than six digits. Having a PIN is better than not having a PIN at all, obviously.

Even better is having a drawn figure or pattern, added Sizemore. "Users should encrypt their data so a password is needed to decrypt it," he said. "And whatever you do, do *not* use the same decryption code for every instance," he added.

If you need reliability when it comes to SMTP servers, get the best, get Port 587.

Get a powerful Linux Dual-Core dedicated server for less than $2.67 a day!

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Source: Accuvant Internet Security LLC.

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