Thursday, March 11, 2010

Cyber Warfare: The FBI and the cyber threat

FBI - Terrorists plotting and scheming anonymously online—and posting videos on how to build everything from backpack bombs to bio-weapons.

Spies, hired cyber mercenaries, and criminal syndicates worming their way into government networks, attempting to steal our nation’s most sensitive secrets.

Criminal hackers using seemingly innocuous information about a business and its employees to create highly-realistic yet bogus e-mails that can give them a back door into a company’s network and even a permanent window into everything it does.

Last week, FBI Director Robert Mueller talked about these and other cyber threats—along with how we are working with partners around the globe to tackle them—during a keynote address at the annual RSA computer security conference in San Francisco.

The Director said that our intelligence indicates the threat of cyber terror is “real and rapidly expanding,” including the rise of extremist websites that recruit, radicalize, and incite violence.

Terrorists have yet to launch a full-scale cyber strike, but have “executed numerous denial-of-service attacks” and even defaced the website of the U.S. Congress following President Obama’s recent State of the Union address. The Director told the crowd of cyber professionals that al Qaeda and other extremists “have shown a clear interest in pursuing hacking skills. And they will either train their own recruits or hire outsiders, with an eye toward combining physical attacks with cyber attacks.”

While the threat is evolving, the FBI’s cyber capabilities and range of partnerships and intelligence-driven initiatives continue to grow and mature. According to the Director, today we have:

* Cyber squads in each of our field offices nationwide, with over 1,000 specially trained agents, analysts, and digital forensic examiners who run complex undercover operations, share intelligence with law enforcement and intelligence partners, and provide training to counterparts around the world;
More than 60 overseas offices—called legal attach├ęs—that share information and coordinate joint investigations with their host countries;
Agents embedded with police forces in Romania, Estonia, the Netherlands, and other countries; and
Mobile Cyber Action Teams—highly-trained groups of agents, analysts, and experts in both computer forensics and malicious code who travel the world to respond to fast-moving cyber threats.

There’s also the National Cyber Investigative Joint Task Force—created and led by the FBI—which brings together 17 law enforcement and intelligence agencies to “predict and prevent what is on the horizon and to pursue the enterprises behind these attacks.” The Director indicated that the task force works through “Threat Focus Cells—smaller groups of agents, officers, and analysts from different agencies focused on particular threats.” One cell, for example, targets high-priority botnets that can take over computers and use them to commit all kinds of crimes.

The Director emphasized that our relationship with the private sector is vital and that we count on companies reporting breaches of cyber security. “No one country, company, or agency can stop cyber crime,” he said. “A ‘bar the windows and bolt the doors’ mentality will not ensure our collective safety. … We must start at the source; we must find those responsible.”

Partners in Prevention

Last year, the FBI became aware of an emerging and potentially far-reaching cyber vulnerability involving automated banking transactions. How it played out from there is indicative of how we are using intelligence today to stay ahead of the curve in the fast-moving, infinitely complex world of cyber crime:

… Once they learned of the threat, our cyber experts reached out and shared what they knew with key partners in the financial sector.

… Following numerous discussions, we worked together to draft a joint intelligence bulletin spelling out in detail the nature of the threat and how to shore up security in response. The report was sent to more than 4,000 organizations.

… As a follow-up, several conference calls were held to go over the report and answer any questions.

… In the end, the impacted companies were grateful for the heads up and took steps to mitigate the threat as needed. As the Director said in his speech, this effort “closed the door to countless hackers.” And perhaps opened the door to better relationships with our partners in the future.

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