Ten years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, 21st century cyber-threats are still thwarting 20th century defences, warns Fahmida Rashid
In the 10 years since hijackers flew two passenger jets into the World Trade Centre in New York City and a third one into the Pentagon, federal, state and local governments have struggled to secure transportation systems and physical infrastructure of all kinds from terrorist attacks.
However, the damage was done. The attacks ended — probably forever — Americans’ carefree belief that they were immune from the terrorist attacks that had plagued the Middle East, Europe and the Asia-Pacific regions for years.
Since then, Americans, along with technology-savvy people around the world, have had to deal with another source of unease: a growing sense of insecurity about whether the computer systems people and institutions rely on are safe from theft, corruption and destruction by advanced cyber-threats.
A lot can happen in 10 years
In 2001, the closest thing we had to social media was SixDegrees.com, and cyber-threats mostly involved stalling website operations, compromising PC performance or occasionally destroying database files.
However, in the past 10 years, cyber-threats have evolved into sophisticated attacks that can cripple large enterprises, steal credit card numbers and personal identities, empty bank accounts, and probe the labyrinthine depths of enterprise and government networks before draining databases full of sensitive documents or trade secrets.
Ten years ago, viruses were still primarily the work of amateurs, as online organised crime gangs didn’t yet exist, said Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer at F-Secure. “People weren’t writing keyloggers and viruses to make money,” he added.
The most common way of getting infected was via a malicious executable file attached to an email message. That kind of attack would no longer work, as those emails would now be blocked, or “killed,” by even the most basic spam filters.
It was easy to tell when a user was infected back then, as malware would produce an effect, such as crashing the computer. Now, highly sophisticated malware lurks silently on infected systems and harvests data. It’s nearly impossible to tell if a user has been infected, since attackers don’t want to be detected and lose their source of income, Hypponen said.
The attackers have changed post-9/11, as cyber-threats now come from criminals intent on stealing money, extremists out to make a point and nation-states engaged in espionage, to name just a few.
Shortly after the United States Navy SEAL operation successfully killed Osama bin Laden in his compound in Pakistan, there was an increase in probing attacks on defense systems trying to access information about the operation, Charles Dodd, a government consultant for cyber-defense, told eWEEK. Intruders were after highly classified information on who the United States talked to and worked with, as well as the information collected, he said.
Criminals are increasingly relying on the latest technology to plan and execute attacks on the Internet — including the use of social networking to push out scams — and they are focusing on developing mobile malware. In fact, Canadian and United States law enforcement organisations have complained about criminals relying on BlackBerry’s encrypted communications to hide their activities.
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