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Most Damaging Attacks Rely On Stolen Log-Ins

Security safeguards need to identify not just the user, but also the machine logging in to the network.

More than 8 out of every 10 computer attacks against businesses could be stopped if enterprises checked the identity of not only the user, but also the machine logging onto its network, a report released Monday claimed.

The study, conducted by a California research firm and paid for by BIOS maker Phoenix Technologies, used data from cases prosecuted by federal authorities between 1999 and 2006 to reach its conclusions.

"We wanted to get an honest viewpoint that wasn't opinion- or survey-based," said Dirck Schou, the senior director of security solutions at Phoenix. The problem with acquiring data on computer attacks, including the amount of damage done, is that companies are often hesitant to admit to a breach. "That's the beauty of this [data]," said Schou. "It's only looking at those who have actually suffered an attack."

According to the report, attacks based on logging in with stolen or hijacked credentials cost businesses far more, on average, than the typical worm or virus assault. When a privileged account is penetrated by an unauthorized user, the average damage runs to $1.5 million, the report said. The average cost from a single virus attack was much smaller: under $2,400.

"Cyber criminals who accessed privileged accounts obtained IDs and passwords through many means," the report said. "Network sniffing, use of password cracking programs, and collusion with insiders. It was also common for employees to share their IDs and passwords with coworkers who later left the organization and used that knowledge to gain access."

To bolster that outsider-as-attacker claim, the study also said that nearly 6 in 10 attackers had no relationship with the victim. (Just over a third (36 percent) were current and former employees.) Although the report's data contradicts other surveys that have pegged company insiders as the root of most attacks, the idea that credentials are good for ill-gotten gains isn't new. Earlier this year, for example, IBM predicted that attackers would increase their attacks against employees rather than networks.

"Viruses equal vandalism, but unauthorized log-ons lead to theft," said Schou. However, he acknowledged that the latter can come from the former, with worms and Trojan horses increasingly after information such as usernames and passwords rather than hoping to injure or bring down a network.

Overall, unsanctioned computers -- not among the systems actually expected to access the network -- were used in 84 percent of the attacks. The bulk of the attacks -- 78 percent -- came from at-home personal computers.

Naturally, Phoenix made much of that conclusion. It claimed that 84 percent of the attacks in the survey could have been prevented had the victim been protected by device authentication schemes. Such security identifies not only the user by checking ID and password, but can tell if the hardware has been authorized to connect to the network. Phoenix, for instance, sells a solution dubbed TrustConnector 2, that creates a unique identity for every authorized PC.

"What surprised us was the intensity and preponderance in unauthorized access attacks," said Schou. "We think device authentication is in the right time, right place.

"There are a lot of companies that aren't securing the device."

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