Anonymous Hackers' Helper: IT Security Neglect
Despite successful FBI arrests of members of LulzSec and Anonymous, hacktivist attacks will continue so long as easy-to-exploit weaknesses persist. How much are our security practices to blame?
"The Anonymous attacks hold up a mirror to our neglect."
So said Mandiant VP Grady Summers last week at the RSA conference in San Francisco. He wasn't the only one. The phrase--Summers attributed it to Josh Corman--could be heard in almost any session that touched on enterprise security, hack attacks, and hacktivist groups.
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But is the current state of corporate information security--security neglect, as it were--to blame for the rise of hacktivist groups such as Internet Feds, Anonymous, LulzSec, AntiSec, and their ilk?
First, some perspective: Bank executives don't get blamed for bank robbers attempting to steal millions from their safes. But what if a bank eschewed silent alarms, safes that could only be opened during certain preset time periods, or dye packs for marking stolen cash? These may be Hollywood tropes, but what bank robber wouldn't expect to find them?
Now look at enterprise networks. How many have ultra-precise alarms that sound when something strange happens, databases with explicit instructions about what they can and can't do (and when they can do it), or encryption for all sensitive data--even emails--to make stealing the information less attractive to attackers?
[ A lot of useful information is exchanged when security experts get together. Read 10 Lessons From RSA Security Conference. ]
In 2011, hackers were able to access over 100,000 customer records from Sony PlayStation Network and Sony Pictures. Global intelligence firm Stratfor, meanwhile, saw 5 million internal emails get released. In 2010, 50,000 emails from security firm HBGary were leaked, exposing questionable business practices on the part of at least one employee.
With such hacks in mind, what's the biggest mistake that companies make when it comes to hacktivism? "Taking it too lightly, obviously," said Eric Strom, unit chief for the Cyber Initiative and Resource Fusion Unit at the Cyber Division at the FBI, during a keynote panel discussion at RSA about the rise of hacktivism. "A lot of people think this is just a bunch of kids fooling around, but in reality, it's not. It can destroy your business. You know, market share goes down and you're talking about significant damage to a company."
But many companies, unless they've suffered a direct attack, don't seem to be dealing with the problem, even as the quantity of such attacks continues to increase. "The FBI has put a lot of resources towards this problem," said Strom. "It's not something that we just look at as a small issue. We have a lot of people around the country working this, as well as around the world. So, companies should do the same."
Businesses aren't the only organizations getting caught out by poor security practices. One of the Anonymous and LulzSec-related indictments unsealed Tuesday in federal court recounts how Irish citizen Donncha O'Cearrbhail (aka palladium, amongst other handles) approached LulzSec leader Sabu via chat, using the nickname "anonsacco," and offered information about the Serious Organized Crime Agency (SOCA) in the United Kingdom that was investigating hacktivist groups. "Hey mate," he said. "Would you like a recording of a call between SOCA and the FBI regarding anonymous and lulzsec?"
Unbeknownst to O'Cearrbhail, Sabu--really, 28-year-old Hector Xavier Monsegur, an unemployed former LimeWire employee and foster father of two who lived in New York--had been arrested in June 2011 and agreed to work for the FBI as an informant. Referred to in the indictment as "CW," Sabu lured crucial details from O'Cearrbhail, such as how he'd managed to hack a cross-Atlantic conference call.
"I just got into the iCloud for the head of a national police cybercrime unit," anonsacco said to Sabu on January 9, 2012, via chat. "I have all his contacts and can track his location 24/7." In other words--if his boast was to be believed--he'd owned Ireland's top cyber cop, thanks to the cop having forwarded his work emails to a Gmail account, which he used his iPhone to check.
According to the indictment, O'Cearrbhail's access wasn't minimal: "It appears that in or about January 2012 there were a total of 146 instances in which an individual using the VPN service Perfect Privacy obtained unauthorized access to the Compromised Gmail Accounts." (In response to a question from Sabu about how he disguised his identity, Palladium confirmed that he used Perfect Privacy.)
The Irish cyber crime agent's iPhone misstep echoes an episode--documented in the hacker-turned-journalist Kevin Poulson's 2011 book Kingpin--in which a hacker known as "Ethics" (real name: Nicholas Jacobsen) had obtained details of federal investigations by hacking into a T-Mobile portal to access data stored on the Sidekick PDA of Peter Cavicchia III, a highly respected Secret Service cybercrime agent. But in violation of security policies, Cavicchia was using his Sidekick to store sensitive material. He quietly retired a few months later.
The moral here is simple: Where there are information security weaknesses, expect them to be exploited. While your attackers might be Anonymous, once they steal and release sensitive information, you--and your data--won't be. If that situation sounds disagreeable, take steps to prevent it from happening, by ending security neglect.
The right forensic tools in the right hands are just a start. The new Digital Detectives issue of Dark Reading shows you how to better apply the lessons they teach. (Free registration required.)