The New E-spionage ThreatApril 18, 2008 – 10:19 AM
The e-mail message addressed to a Booz Allen Hamilton executive was mundane—a shopping list sent over by the Pentagon of weaponry India wanted to buy. But the missive turned out to be a brilliant fake. Lurking beneath the description of aircraft, engines, and radar equipment was an insidious piece of computer code known as “Poison Ivy” designed to suck sensitive data out of the $4 billion consulting firm’s computer network.
The Pentagon hadn’t sent the e-mail at all. Its origin is unknown, but the message traveled through Korea on its way to Booz Allen. Its authors knew enough about the “sender” and “recipient” to craft a message unlikely to arouse suspicion. Had the Booz Allen executive clicked on the attachment, his every keystroke would have been reported back to a mysterious master at the Internet address cybersyndrome.3322.org, which is registered through an obscure company headquartered on the banks of China’s Yangtze River.
The U.S. government, and its sprawl of defense contractors, have been the victims of an unprecedented rash of similar cyber attacks over the last two years, say current and former U.S. government officials. “It’s espionage on a massive scale,” says Paul B. Kurtz, a former high-ranking national security official. Government agencies reported 12,986 cyber security incidents to the U.S. Homeland Security Dept. last fiscal year, triple the number from two years earlier. Incursions on the military’s networks were up 55% last year, says Lieutenant General Charles E. Croom, head of the Pentagon’s Joint Task Force for Global Network Operations. Private targets like Booz Allen are just as vulnerable and pose just as much potential security risk. “They have our information on their networks. They’re building our weapon systems. You wouldn’t want that in enemy hands,” Croom says. Cyber attackers “are not denying, disrupting, or destroying operations—yet. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have the capability.”