Sentries of the 21st Century

Above: Computer security expert Eric Cole (B.S. '93, M.S. '94), chief scientist and senior fellow at Lockheed Martin Corporation, is working with the U.S. government to help improve cyber defenses.

NYIT alumni and faculty stand ready as cyber attackers unleash weapons of mass disruption.

By David McKay Wilson

Decades ago, computer security experts worried about youthful hackers breaching private networks to prove their technological savvy. If successful, these digital bandits would cause minor disruptions, announce their invasion, glory in their street cred, but ultimately do little to harm the networks they breached. Even Hollywood's earliest depictions of hackers—in films such as Tron and War Games—portrayed them as being perhaps misguided and naïve but ultimately heroic.

Today, there's a whole new breed of hackers whose elusive invasions aren't just for sport anymore. These cyber intruders include organized crime syndicates and foreign intelligence services, disgruntled employees and industrial spies-all with a variety of motivations, including creating havoc and business disruption, stealing information, and gaining financial advantage by snatching private information about a company or its customers.

In the 21st century, concerns about hackers have heightened as our society continues to be transformed by new forms of global communications made possible by the Internet. It is this openness and interconnectedness between computer networks, however, that creates new risks to the world's digital infrastructure.

When it comes to computer security breaches, it is often too late to address the incident once it is detected. In April 2009, a malicious software program called Conficker, thought to be unleashed by a criminal group in Eastern Europe, eluded antivirus programs and infected an estimated 12 million computers, including one system used by the French military.

A glance through the Identity Theft Resource Center's high-profile breach report shows the magnitude of this global problem. In early 2009, for example, hackers broke into a Federal Aviation Administration site that held the names and Social Security numbers of 45,000 employees. And, in one particularly bold attack last year, hackers used stolen credit card information to steal millions from 130 ATM machines in 49 cities around the world.

More recently, alarming cyber attacks crippled the Web sites of several South Korean and American government agencies (including the White House, the State Department, and the Secret Service) for days during and after the July 4, 2009, weekend. "This is not a simple attack by an individual hacker, but appears to be thoroughly planned and executed by a specific organization or on a state level," stated the National Intelligence Service. A total of 26 sites-including some commercial Web sites-were targeted in the attack, which drove a surge of traffic to the sites and caused an overload that resulted in a crash.

"The threat is increasing," says Professor Ayat Jafari, chair of NYIT's Department of Engineering and Computer Science. "Attacks over the Internet are the greatest threat, and those threats can come from anywhere around the globe. The Internet has broken down the walls. But since there are no walls, it has created a different kind of problem. There are malicious programs that target operating systems and their applications wherever they are vulnerable."

Cyber attacks in the 21st century aren't just about commercial espionage or the invasion of one's personal privacy. The cyber attack has emerged as an offensive weapon in wartime. During the 2008 conflict between Georgia and the breakaway Republic of Ossetia, hackers disabled Web sites throughout the region in a distributed "denial of service" attack. The intruders even gained access to Georgian government computers and replaced the image of the nation's president with a likeness of Adolph Hitler.

The U.S. military, according to the New York Times, has gone on the offensive as well, hacking into the computer system of an Al Qaeda cell and providing misleading information that lured members into the hands of American troops.

These incidents-from cyber warfare to identity theft to Internet disruption-are critical issues in today's vast and anonymous world of cyberspace. Defense officials must be on guard 24-7 against hackers, terrorists, or enemy nations that decide to launch a digital attack, as many nations' critical infrastructures, including electric power grids and communications networks, are controlled by computer systems.

Cyber security also erupted as an issue in the last U.S. presidential campaign. After both Barack Obama and John McCain voiced their concern over the issue, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a public policy research institute in Washington, D.C., established a 30-member Commission on Cyber Security in late 2007 to provide recommendations to the incoming administration on how to address cyber security.

"In traditional warfare, the country with the strongest military has the advantage," says Eric Cole, (B.S. '93, M.S. '94), a commission member as well as chief scientist and senior fellow at Lockheed Martin Corporation, one of the nation's largest defense contractors. "In cyber warfare, you are at a disadvantage if you are big. If someone is trying to find one vulnerability, they'd rather try if you have 200,000 systems vs. 2,000."

In fact, some experts are comparing today's computer defenses-firewalls, antivirus programs, and the like-to the French government's seemingly well-fortified Maginot Line during World War I that, once flanked, proved ineffective to halt the advancing German army.

President Obama has outlined his plan to defend the federal government from what he calls "weapons of mass disruption" while pledging to protect the privacy of Americans by barring regular federal surveillance of private networks that carry daily communications. He knows the issue personally, acknowledging that hackers found their way into his files during his presidential campaign, gaining access to position papers and travel itineraries.

Obama's plan is one piece of a $17 billion, five-year federal program approved by Congress in 2008 to build a stronger defense against cyber weaponry in partnership with the private sector. The program, based in part on recommendations from the panel Cole served on, centralized cyber security oversight to the White House. Advisors felt that putting it under White House control would provide better coordination among the myriad agencies involved in the issue-from the Department of Homeland Security to the National Security Agency (NSA). Plans also include setting up a Pentagon cyber command to defend military networks.

Cole says the threats have grown in scope and complexity since he was an NYIT student while working at the Central Intelligence Agency in 1990, a time when security issues mostly involved worrying if there were viruses on 3.5-inch floppy disks.

"The problems are different, but the fundamental issues of securing your assets and reducing risk haven't changed," says Cole. "You have to understand how the adversary operates, understand there will always be some risk, focus on the vulnerabilities, and reduce them to an acceptable level."

Sealing off those vulnerabilities is the job of Cole and tens of thousands of computer security professionals around the world who are part of an industry that is growing to keep pace with the enormity of new challenges that multiply regularly.

For example, hackers who have been stymied by banks' cyber defenses are now experiencing some success in gaining control of clients' computers, which then allow them access to the banks' systems. New technologies such as smartphones and the rapid expansion of social networking sites have created more opportunities for problems, including the fact that many smart devices carry huge amounts of data, which cannot be wiped clean if the device is lost or stolen.

"Most likely, we will be seeing hackers targeting those technologies," says Jafari. "We're going to need security specialists to defend the IT infrastructure from future sophisticated threats."

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Fall 2009 Table of Contents