Next-wave malware aims for mayhem, not money

IANS' Phil Gardner on why the recent Shamoon malware attack is a predictor of more targeted, geopolitical cyberattacks to come

To most of our CISO clients, malware is a cost of doing business. It's annoying and ever-present, but for the most part, they have the right toolset in place to identify, block and eradicate it.

As malware has evolved from generic attacks and script kiddies to more targeted, persistent attacks aimed at gaining data and information for financial gain, security organizations have also stepped up their anti-malware game, bolstering signature-based tools, such as antivirus and intrusion-detection and -prevention systems, with more sophisticated software like data-loss prevention (DLP), network-forensics and malware-analysis tools.

Enter the Shamoon virus. On the face of it, last August's attack on Saudi Aramco, the Saudi Arabian national oil and natural gas company, was just another in an endless stream of generic malware.

But Shamoon is something different —and far more pernicious —due to its intent. Instead of gathering and exfiltrating data for economic gain, it aimed to cripple Aramco in a brazen act of geopolitical score-settling. It was the equivalent of an electronic haymaker aimed at knocking down Saudi Arabia's leading oil-production enterprise.

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In fact, at the time of the attack, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the Shamoon virus "was probably the most destructive attack the business sector has seen to date."

Some background on Shamoon: Also known as W32.Disttrack, Shamoon is a variant of the Wiper virus. It reportedly infiltrated Aramcos corporate network via a targeted spear phishing attack and then spread to other networked computers via shared hard drives. The virus compiled a list of files from the infected systems, erased them by overwriting them with garbage text, and then sent information about them back to the attacker. It then overwrote and replaced the master boot record of the infected system with an image of a burning American flag, effectively rendering the system useless.

Luckily, Shamoon missed its intended target: Aramco's process-control equipment was on a separate network and remained up and running. But the consequences were still severe for the company, which saw the virus knock over 30,000 desktops, all of which had to be replaced. It took the firm nearly two weeks to return to normal operations.

A group calling itself the Cutting Sword of Justice claimed responsibility for Shamoon, saying it unleashed the virus on Aramco in response to what it called Saudi "crimes and atrocities" in countries such as Syria and Bahrain.

Shamoon is not just another piece of annoying malware. It's a harbinger of a something far more insidious: destructive, targeted malware sent with the goal of crippling an enterprise to settle a geopolitical score.

At least in the old rules, it was in hackers' best interest to keep their victims in business. They worked to keep their malware hidden so the business would keep running and they could keep exfiltrating data undetected. Shamoon and viruses like it, however, are manufactured and launched with the intent to cripple the business. Consider the consequences if a Shamoon variant hit a bank at the end of a quarter, or a retailer during the holidays. Imagine a trading house that couldn't trade during a market downturn.

Today, most of our defenses are designed to prevent attackers from accessing data or systems from which they could derive a profit. Purely destructive attacks like Shamoon, however, require much deeper defenses. Since they're all about making mayhem, not making money, the attacker shifts to hitting you anywhere it hurts instead of hitting where it benefits them financially.

Assuming Shamoon is the start of something new, CISOs need to adjust their thinking. Are you communicating this higher threat to your senior management? Has your organizations risk profile been fundamentally altered?

Phil Gardner is the co-founder and CEO of IANS, a provider of security insights and decision support delivered through research, community and consulting.

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