North Korea: Culprit in DDoS Attacks?

Some industry experts believe North Korea is behind the recent DDoS attacks against systems in the United States and South Korea. Others have their doubts.

The timing and targets in a recent wave of distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks has some security experts pointing the finger at North Korea. After all, the attacks coincided with the rogue state's firing of missiles during the July 4 Independence Day Weekend and the U.S. and South Korea were the countries in the cyber crosshairs.

But other experts say the attacks are too simplistic and clunky to be part of anything coordinated by a particular government.

See also: How a Bookmaker and a Whiz Kid Took On a DDOS-based Online Extortion Attack

A botnet of some 50,000 hijacked computers has been hitting U.S. government websites and causing additional trouble among private-sector organizations in the U.S. and South Korea. [More on the botnet threat in Botnets: 4 Reasons It's Getting Harder to Find and Fight Them.]

The attack started Saturday and, among other things, crashed the U.S. Federal Trade Commission's (FTC's) website; keeping it offline for parts of Monday and Tuesday. Other targets included the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). [See also: Online attack hits US government Web sites]

For Fortify Co-Founder and Chief Scientist Brian Chess, the signs that this is a North Korean action are almost unmistakable.

"This was an old-school, blunt instrument kind of attack. It looks like everything else North Korea does," he said. "They're trying to promote their agenda not just with missiles, but in cyberspace."

Putting together a medium-sized botnet doesn't take much sophistication and is par for the course for a small rogue country that found a way to build a few atom bombs, he added.

But to Jose Nazario, a senior security researcher at Arbor Networks, the attacks look less like a North Korean military effort and more like a mob hit.

"Based on other attacks we've seen in the past, this is really minimal stuff," Nazario said. "It's getting good attention in the sense that there is a coordinated effort in play to hit US and South Korean sites at once. The timing is auspicious, but none of the data I have suggests North Korea. Some of the research indicates it's coming from inside China."

Whether or not this is the work of North Korea, Amit Yoran, CEO of NetWitness, said more and more state-sponsored attacks are occurring and these types of threats are spreading into the private sector.

"These DoS attacks are based on a large-scale Botnet army attacking multiple targets in the dot-gov and outside," he said. "It is being analyzed by experts in the government and they are in contact with and sharing information with some in the IT security community that are helping to prepare countermeasures."

In the final analysis, he said, the attacks illustrate the necessity of analysis and network forensics. Even sophisticated organizations with a lot of defensive security measures and a good understanding of the threat environment can be hit with these attacks, he said.

"This is another reason why organizations need to be adaptive and able to respond, analyze and address new attack methods as they unfold," he said.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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