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CNTL + ALT + Defeat?!? The anatomy of government hacking

John Serrao | Dec. 11, 2014
A comprehensive look at the scope and rationale behind the surge in hacking afflicting government IT services.

Rationale for the hacks

Reasons for the largest attacks remain locked away in FBI case files for the most part, which prevents government IT staff from learning through other's mistakes. Why these attacks happen is often tied to American foreign policy actions, according to a number of sources [1, 2]. 

Both state and non-state actors are taking part. Kuwaiti Islamist preacher Tareq Al Suwaidan, an active voice on Twitter, goads followers with cyber terrorism platitudes:

I strongly encourage young people to undertake electronic Jihad... I view this as better than 20 Jihad operations

Countries not allied with America also complicate matters with asymmetric attacks and obfuscating responsibility. Sony's massive attack may have come at the hands of the North Koreans, who have been reported to have the third largest cyber terrorism capability in the world. As with most cyber attacks, no one is quite sure during the initial stages and North Korea has denied responsibility. 

Vladimir Putin, President of Russia (Left, Front) and Dmitry Medvedev, Prime Minister of Russia (Ri
Jürg Vollmer. Vladimir Putin, President of Russia (Left, Front) and Dmitry Medvedev, Prime Minister of Russia (Right, Front) are suspected in facilitating the late 2014 White House and State Department breaches. Photo by  (via Flickr)

But political context is key, yet another element that can make preventing these attacks exceedingly difficult for front line government IT staff. The self-annointed "Supreme Leader" of North Korea, Kim Jong-Un, who recently announced that there will be only one Jong-Un in ALL of North Korea henceforth, is also mad that Sony is distributing this new film called The Interview. In the movie, assassins take out his highness (or a likeness of Jong-Un), according to Re/code. It's hard for frontline IT staff, public or private industry, to grok context this detailed while maintaining hybrid clouds or email servers.

Other hackers just want to make money. Syndicate FIN4 was outed publicly last week for trying to game Big Pharma by phishing top executive emails. That phishing was a successful strategy against people who are in charge of multi-billion dollar firms speaks to the difficulty controlling this problem.

nco training usarmy
US Army Cyber mission training at the Grafenwoehr Training Area during the 7th Army NCO Academy Warrior Leaders Course. 

Vigilance in a world of ambiguity

Right now, it's the Wild West in the land of ones and zeros. Government IT pros have been outgunned. Maybe a careless contractor brings some malware on a USB drive or maybe it's a team of 100 black hats delicately prying at your digital doorstep. The attacks are asymmetrical and sometimes, even funny. Recently, The University of Florida's roadside emergency displays were modified to read, "Zombie Attack, Evacuate!!"

 

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