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FBI cybersecurity shift draws skepticism from experts

Nov 01, 20123 mins
Critical InfrastructureCybercrimeIT Leadership

Kevin Mitnick, the former hacker turned security consultant, is one who doubts focusing on criminals rather than attacks would slow them

The FBI has changed its cybersecurity strategy to place greater emphasis on identifying the criminals behind attacks, a shift that some experts say won’t make a dent in hacking operations.

In a recent blog post, the bureau said it would dedicate more resources to “who is conducting the attack or the exploitation and what is their motive.”

“In order to get to that, we’ve got to do all the necessary analysis to determine who is at the other end of the keyboard perpetrating these actions,” Special Agent Richard McFeely said in describing the bureau’s Next Generation Cyber Initiative.

The bureau was unavailable for comment Tuesday.

The changes come as the threat from organized criminals and state-sponsored hackers in foreign countries rises. Targets include corporate networks, government agencies and critical infrastructure. 

[See related: Insecure industrial control systems prompt federal warnings]

“Nation-state actors, sophisticated organized crime groups, and hackers-for-hire are stealing trade secrets and valuable research from America’s companies, universities, and government agencies,” FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told a Senate committee last month. “Cyber threats also pose a significant risk to our nation’s critical infrastructure.”

In combating cybercriminals, the FBI has become more aggressive in taking down huge networks of compromised computers used by hackers to distribute malware aimed at cracking corporate and government networks. In April 2011, federal authorities took down the Coreflood botnet, which had operated for nearly a decade and had infected more than 2 million computers worldwide.

Continuing to focus on taking down such botnets is where the bureau should continue directing its efforts, said Marcus Carey, a security researcher at Rapid7. A former serviceman, Carey was responsible for protecting military networks as a member of the U.S. Navy Cryptologic Security Group.

Unless a snitch or spy identifies the criminals, they are “nearly impossible” to find, Carey said. That’s because hackers hide behind a labyrinth of compromised PCs and servers that cannot be traced to the person behind the keyboard.

“Why don’t you stop the attacks first?” Carey said. “Stop millions of machines from being compromised first, and then concentrate on putting the person who did it behind bars.”

Kevin Mitnick, a former hacker turned security consultant, also doubted the effort would slowdown the rising number of attacks. 

“I don’t think it’s going to make a big difference,” he said in an email.

Mitnick discounted the FBI’s plans to build a “cadre of specially trained computer scientists able to extract hackers’ digital signatures from mountains of malicious code.”

“The problem is the malware writers sometimes share and use other malware code bases that are available in the underground,” Mitnick said. “As such, it may be very difficult to attribute the code to a specific person or group.”

Even if the criminals are found, if they operate in countries without extradition treaties with the U.S., it may be difficult to get them here for prosecution. China and Russia, both major sources of cyberattacks, have not signed such pacts.

Therefore, the most effective strategy is to work with Internet service providers to locate botnets and take them down, Carey said.

“The ISPs are the actual critical piece in getting people protected on the Internet — whether it’s private citizens or government agencies,” he said. “Government agencies have the same ISPs that a private citizen has.”