Information Warfare: February 15, 2002


The Dark Side's Superhighway- Military attacks, like water, take the path of least resistance. An example of this is one of the more obvious forms of attack on the Internet; the DDOS attack. First seen in 1999, but the end of 2001, there were more than 500 DDOS attacks a day on web sites. The DDOS has become the favorite toy of the script kiddies, as it allows them to sneak into unprotected PCs, leave the zombie programs needed to launch the DDOS attack, then pick some web site they don't like and activate their zombies to launch the DDOS attack and, in effect, shut down the site. The zombies can also be used to muck around on the site the reside in. Commercial sites and anti-virus software companies were quick to address the problem. But this only worked for people who were aware that they had a problem, knew there was a fix and had the time and incentive to protect their servers from zombies. But just as zombie driven DDOS attacks appeared on the scene, so did millions of home PC users with cable modem and DSL connections. These were the perfect hiding places for zombies. While the script kiddies kept score by how many zombies they could plant, and how difficult a site it was to get into, the home PCs with "always on" and fast connections were even better. The commercial and university sites were getting better protection. While it was safe enough to launch the DDOS attack, it was getting more dangerous to plant the zombies. Commercial sites were increasingly equipped with intrusion detectors and people on call who could track down the intruder. The feds were prosecuting. This zombie and DDOS stuff was no fun if you got caught. But home users with cable modems were most likely clueless about what was going on in their PC. They weren't going to catch you, and probably wouldn't even notice the zombie at work until they got home to find their Internet connection gone and a phone message from the cable company to call the tech support line about "disinfecting your computer." Even if a lot of home cable modem users got a fire wall and anti-virus software, that was easier to deal with than a visit from the FBI.

Perhaps more ominously, the home PCs have become a prime launching site for cyberwar attacks. An enemy nation could practice the rapid deployment of military grade zombies on thousands of home PCs with high capacity access to the net. Talk about "the enemy within." Such a force could shut down military and government sites for days, or weeks with DDOS (and similar) attacks, even if the U.S. cut it's Internet connections to the rest of the world. All the attacker would have to do is program the military zombies to shift to "plan B" if they didn't receive any instructions from back home within a certain time. Chasing down all the military zombies could take months, as most of them would be on PCs used by people not well versed in technical matters. Because of the low security of most home PCs, the military zombies could launch virus attacks to install themselves in more home computers. As long as one of them was still active, the attacks would begin again.

The militarized DDOS zombie is the perfect military weapon; relentless, effective, self-replicating, hard to detect and cheap. And vulnerability to attacks from this quarter won't disappear for a few years. Indeed, they will never disappear completely, but everyone has been scrambling since 1999 to develop better forms of protection. That's easy to do, compared to eliminating the attacker. 

Another bit of science fiction come to life. Welcome to the 21st century.


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