By Bob Brewin
September 17, 2007
Attack of the Chinese Zombies
The wave of cyberprobes or cyberattacks against Pentagon networks and
government computer systems in France, Germany, New Zealand and the
United Kingdom this summer appears to emanate from China, but no one in
authority in the Defense Department or any of the other countries that
have been victimized seems willing to finger the Chinese government or
military as the culprit.
Paul Strassmann -- who served as director of Defense information in the
early 1990s, the acting chief information officer of NASA from 2002 to
2003, and now serves as a Defense senior adviser -- declines to point
fingers, either. He prefers, instead, to focus on one startling fact
about Chinese activity in cyberspace: As of the morning of Sept. 14,
there were exactly (remember, Strassmann is an engineer and likes
precision) 735,598 computers in the United States infested by Chinese
zombies, he said. Zombies are those small programs that infect computers
at the root level and allow the computers to be controlled by remote
"This is a fact that should get everyone's attention," Strassmann said.
Those zombie computers can launch massive denial-of-service attacks,
spewing 1,000 messages a second against target computers, he said.
While at NASA, Strassmann experienced a massive zombie-directed
denial-of-service attack which eventually shut down eight of the
Internet's root servers. The servers help direct traffic globally
through a master directory of domain names.
The zombies infecting U.S. computers today could be used to launch a
massive cyberattack, which Strassmann described as "the cheapest attack
weapon a nation can buy."
I have a hunch that the 735,598 U.S. computers infected by Chinese
zombies did not come about because China is filled with a lot of bored
teenagers with broadband connections who just like to goof around in
Want to monitor the inexorable march of the Chinese zombies on your own?
Strassmann suggests checking out the zombie stats on a Web site
maintained by CipherTrust.
Millions of GIG Scans a Day
Defense experiences millions of cyberscans of the Global Information
Grid every day, according to an internal talking paper it prepared in
response to news reports this month that China had successfully attacked
Pentagon computer systems, including those used by the Office of the
Secretary of Defense.
The paper dances around the subject of Chinese culpability and would
only go as far as to report, "We have seen attempts by a variety of
state- and nonstate-sponsored organizations to gain unauthorized access
to, or otherwise degrade, DoD information systems."
Well, that certainly narrows it down.
The Microsoft Petri Dish
Strassmann said one reason that zombies and other cybernasties succeed
so well is that they can easily hide in the hundreds of millions of
lines of code that make up Microsoft operating systems and applications.
Microsoft-based systems are a "Petri dish" for zombies, he said, adding
that global reliance on MS systems exacerbates the problem.
Since there are no real, inexpensive alternatives to MS today,
Strassmann said users really, really need to be conscious of even
seemingly innocent e-mails that can be used to launch a zombie attack.
It's hard to believe, but evidently there are some folks out there who
have not figured out that e-mails flogging Viagra are scams -- and
potential zombie launchers.
How About Some DeVenCI Code For Zombies?
In a bit of serendipity, the Critical Information Technology Sector
group, part of the Defense Venture Catalyst Initiative (DeVenCI), plans
to hold a network survivability and recovery workshop on Nov. 13. Maybe
out of that workshop will come a new zombie killer?
DeVenCI is looking for innovative companies who do not normally conduct
business with Defense to make short pitches on their network software,
gadgets and gizmos. Anyone interested in the workshop should e-mail an
application (hopefully from a noninfected machine) to email@example.com no
later than Friday, Sept. 28.