Cisco warns firms to be on guard against ‘insider’ hacking

15 Jul 2009

The global recession has caused many job losses. As a result, insider threats are an increasing concern for businesses in the months ahead, global networking giant Cisco has warned.

Insiders who commit fraud can be contractors or other third parties, as well as current and former employees.

The report also advises heightened vigilance against some ‘old school’ approaches that are just as sophisticated and prevalent as newer threats.

Compromising legitimate websites for the purpose of propagating malware remains a highly effective technique for criminals. Eircom’s internet service outage in recent days is an example of this. Two denial of service attacks one week after another left users frustrated because the traffic caused congestion and Eircom’s DNS servers were unable to cope.

It is understood that among hackers Web 2.0 applications are prized for their ease of use and flexibility and have become lures for criminals.

Criminals are also targeting people who use online banking with well-designed, localised text-message scams – and they’re leaving virtually no trail.

“Securing the internet has long been a moving target, as criminals develop increasingly sophisticated ways to breach corporate networks and obtain valuable personal data,” explained Patrick Peterson, Cisco fellow and chief security researcher.

“What is striking in our latest findings is how, in addition to using their technical skills to cast a wide net and avoid detection, these criminals are also demonstrating some strong business acumen. They are collaborating with each other, preying on individuals’ greatest fears and interests, and increasingly making use of legitimate internet tools such as search engines and the software-as-a-service model.

“Some also continue to succeed using well-documented methods that in recent years have been downplayed as threats, given the preponderance of new tactics. With criminals being so quick to identify weaknesses both in online networks and in consumers’ psyches, businesses need to adopt ever more advanced ways to fight cybercrime and remain vigilant across all attack vectors,” Petersen warned.

The Conficker worm, which began infecting computer systems late last year by exploiting a Windows operating system vulnerability, continues to spread. Several million computer systems were under Conficker’s control as of June 2009.

According to the Cisco report, online criminals are well up on current events and are making the most of them. After the outbreak of Swine flu in April, cybercriminals quickly blanketed the web with spam that advertised preventive drugs and linked to fake pharmacies. Cybercriminals will often seize on major news events to launch this type of attack. While many spammers continue to operate with extremely high volumes, some are opting for lower-volume but more frequent attacks in an effort to remain under the radar.

US president Barack Obama has made strengthening US cyber security a high priority for his administration, and looks to work with the international community and the private sector to leverage technology innovations to reduce cybercrime.

Among the specific threats Cisco has warned businesses to watch out for are:

Botnets:These networks of compromised computers serve as efficient means of launching an attack. Increasingly, botnet owners are renting out these networks to fellow criminals, effectively using these compromised resources to deliver spam and malware via the SaaS model.

Spam:One of the most established ways to reach millions of computers with legitimate sales pitches or links to malicious websites, spam remains a major vehicle for spreading worms and malware, as well as for clogging internet traffic. A staggering 180 billion spam messages are sent each day, representing about 90pc of the world’s email traffic.

Worms:The rise of social networking has made it easier to launch worm attacks. People engaging in these online communities are more likely to click links and download content they believe were sent by people they know and trust.

Spamdexing:Many types of businesses use search-engine optimisation to be listed more prominently in searches conducted on Google and other sites. Spamdexing, which packs a website with relevant keywords or search terms, is increasingly being used by cybercriminals seeking to disguise malware as legitimate software. Because so many consumers tend to trust rankings on leading search engines, they may readily download one of the fake software packages.

Text message scams:Since the start of 2009, at least two or three new campaigns have surfaced every week targeting handheld mobile devices. Cisco describes the rapidly growing mobile device audience as a “new frontier for fraud irresistible to criminals”. With some 4.1 billion mobile phone subscriptions worldwide, a criminal may cast an extraordinarily wide net and still walk away with a nice profit, even if the attack yields only a small fraction of victims.

Insiders:The global recession has caused many job losses. As a result, insider threats are an increasing concern for businesses in the months ahead. Insiders who commit fraud can be contractors or other third parties as well as current and former employees.

By John Kennedy