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[infowar.de] NYT, 17.4.03: Cyberattacks With Offline Damagea
Die URLs für die vorangegangenen Artikel:
- "In the Skies Over Iraq, Silent Observers Become Futuristic Weapons":
- "On the Ground in Iraq, the Best Compass Is in the Sky":
Cyberattacks With Offline Damage
By JOHN SCHWARTZ
HAT'S virtual is virtual, and what's real is real. Right?
Most experts think of cyberattack as something that will happen in the
virtual world, with effects on, say, computer networks or access to bank
accounts. Cyberattacks involving the use of online tools against the
offline world would be much harder.
But a recent paper by a computer security researcher at Johns Hopkins
University suggests that there are plenty of gateways that connect the
cyberworld with the more familiar terrain that some call "meatspace." And,
since he is a security researcher, he does it by showing the potential for
a cunning attack that crosses that gateway.
Aviel D. Rubin, the technical director of the Information Security
Institute at Johns Hopkins University, describes in the paper with two
co-authors a real-world attack that uses computers to automate tasks and
the power of the Internet to disseminate information.
Using tools that have been published by search engines like Google that
allow programmers to automate searches on a large scale, Mr. Rubin and his
colleagues described a relatively simple program that could set the victim
up to receive catalogs from hundreds of thousands of Web sites that have
In fact, something like what Mr. Rubin describes has already happened.
Last year, Alan Ralsky, a spam-sending entrepreneur known as the "spam
king," gave an interview to The Detroit Free Press boasting about his
8,000-square-foot house and all the money he made from sending unwanted
e-mail to hundreds of millions of people at a time. Shortly after that
article appeared on Slashdot.org, a major online news source for
technophiles, its readers signed Mr. Ralsky up for thousands of catalogs,
brochures and more. Soon he was getting hundreds of pounds of mail every
That was a spontaneous effort by a large community. But Mr. Rubin's paper
suggests that anyone can get a computer to stand in for the Slashdotters
and bury someone in junk. And Google shows hundreds of thousands of Web
pages from which anyone could request a catalog.
It sounds like a new version of the oldest prank in the book ? the
cyberspace equivalent of the old order-50-pizzas-for-your-enemies trick.
But it's much bigger than that. Mr. Rubin's attack could be enormously
disruptive to the target, and could paralyze the local post office that
has to deal with the onslaught. As the report notes, the exploit could be
used as a diversion to accompany a deadly terrorist act, like mailing an
envelope containing anthrax spores.
Some experts have talked about hypothetical, sophisticated cyberattacks on
real-world facilities that are connected to the Internet, like the power
grid and dams. But the situation described by Mr. Rubin suggests that a
far more low-technology approach could cross the barrier between virtual
and real realms.
Other automated attacks could easily follow, he said in an interview,
including automated orders for hundreds of maintenance requests, package
pick-ups and service calls.
Why risk unleashing such mischief by writing about it? That's always the
question security researchers face, and Mr. Rubin said that he would never
have released the paper if he thought that the attack would not emerge
otherwise, or if there were no way to stop it. But the programming tools
are out there, he said, and sites are vulnerable. It's only a matter of
time before the "script kiddies" who start cyberattacks from code that
others develop and share start trying to bury people in paper. "If we knew
about it and did nothing, and then the attack was launched, we would be
guilty of negligence," he wrote. "It is our judgment that the time has
come to reveal this threat."
In the report, he also describes ways that Web sites can make the process
of filling out forms hard for automated programs to do, in some cases
simply by asking the user to answer an unexpected question or to solve a
simple puzzle before proceeding. One of the fathers of computer science,
Alan Turing, once suggested that artificial intelligence could be tested
by seeing if a program could be good enough to fool a human being into
thinking he was communicating with another person.
A "reverse Turing Test" ? already in wide use in computer security to foil
automated attacks ? would stump a silicon brain while letting people get
the information they need without much fuss, he said.
The paper, which can be found at www.avirubin.com/scripted.attacks.pdf,
has impressed Bruce Schneier, a security expert who has been looking at
these issues. He is writing about it for the latest edition of his widely
read newsletter, Crypto-Gram. "This interstitial area where cyberspace
meets the real world is a ripe area of attack," he said in an interview.
He sees this problem as being the real-world equivalent of a distributed
"denial of service" attack, in which the attacker gets computers around
the world to inundate a target machine with data, messages and other
electronic detritus that make it impossible for legitimate users to get
through to it.
A spokeswoman for the Postal Service, Sue Brennan, said the attack
described by Mr. Rubin might not work in practice. "The concepts in the
document, while compelling, appear to be systematically flawed with regard
to the controls our major mailers would have in place to prevent such an
event from occurring," she said.
"That's good," Mr. Rubin said, but he argued that an attack that ordered
only one catalog from thousands of sources might have serious effects
before it could be detected. "I hope she's right," he said. But he did not
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