By Rachel Williams
November 29 2007
A "cyber cold war" is developing as international web espionage and
cyber-attacks become the biggest threats to internet security, according
to a report.
The computer security firm McAfee said governments and government-allied
groups were engaging in increasingly sophisticated cyber spying, with
many attacks originating from China.
Some 120 countries could be developing the capacity for such activities.
What started as probes to see what was possible have become well-funded
and well-organised operations for political, military, economic and
technical espionage, the report said, with perpetrators aiming to cause
havoc by disrupting critical national infrastructure systems.
Targets include air traffic control, financial markets, government
computer networks and utility providers. In September, the Guardian
reported that Chinese hackers, including some believed to be from the
state military, had been attacking the computer networks of British
government departments, including the Foreign Office. China has spelled
out in a white paper that "informationised armed forces" are part of its
McAfee, whose report was compiled with input from Nato, the FBI, and the
Serious Organised Crime Agency, said that according to Nato insiders,
the wave of cyber attacks that hit Estonia earlier this year, disrupting
government, news and bank servers for weeks, was the tip of the iceberg.
In May, the Baltic state said that at least 1m computers had been used
in the cyber warfare, which saw hundreds of thousands of hits bombarding
Estonian websites to jam them and make them unusable. The method used
was known as distributed denial of service.
The attack coincided with the climax of a dispute between Moscow and
Tallinn over a Soviet second world war memorial in the Estonian capital,
but officials there backed away from accusing the Kremlin directly.
Russian officials have denied any state responsibility.
In the past 12 months there have been reports of cyber attacks against
government targets in the US, Germany, India, New Zealand and Australia.
China has denied any involvement.
"We have seen attempts by a variety of state and non-state-sponsored
organisations to gain unauthorised access to, or otherwise
degrade,department of defence information systems," a Pentagon spokesman
Nato experts said attackers were using trojan horse software to focus on
specific government offices, and 99% of cases were probably still
undetected. "The complexity and coordination seen during the Estonia
attacks was new," a Nato insider said. "There was a series of attacks
with careful timing using different techniques and specific targets. The
attackers stopped deliberately rather than being shut down."
James Mulvenon, an expert on China's military, who is also director of
the Centre for Intelligence and Research in Washington, said the Chinese
were the first to jump "feet first" into 21st-century cyber-warfare
Peter Sommer, a computer crime expert and visiting fellow at the London
School of Economics, who contributed to the report, said: "There are
signs that intelligence agencies around the world are constantly probing
other governments' networks, looking for strengths and weaknesses and
developing new ways to gather intelligence."
Jeff Green, senior vice-president of McAfee Avert Labs, said: "Cyber
crime is now a global issue. It has evolved significantly and is no
longer just a threat to industry and individuals but increasingly to
national security. We're seeing emerging threats from increasingly
sophisticated groups attacking organisations around the world."
The report also highlighted new threats to consumers, with cyber
criminals targeting internet-based telephone networks in what has become
known as "vishing". There is also "phreaking" - or hacking into
telephone networks to make long-distance phone calls - and the problem
of the growing "white market", where software flaws are bought and sold
for tens of thousands of pounds. Users of social networking sites such
as Facebook and MySpace are also vulnerable.
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