Despite the increased frequency and severity of online crime and espionage in 2011, many American corporations and consumers are still not taking the threat seriously, the FBI’s top cyber official said Thursday.
The risk posed by criminal hackers is “existential, meaning it could eliminate whole companies,” said Shawn Henry, the FBI’s executive assistant director. If hackers were able to tamper with critical infrastructure such as the power grid, “it could actually cause death,” Henry said in remarks at the International Conference on Cyber Security in New York.
To highlight the growing threat, Henry cited several recent FBI investigations, such as one involving a smaller company that went out of business after hackers stole $5 million from accounts, another concerning a larger firm that “virtually overnight” lost a decade of research and development worth $1 billion, and still another regarding hackers who encrypted millions of records of a health services company and demanded money for the password.
“We’ve seen the number and sophistication of the attacks by these cyber actors increase dramatically,” Henry said.
“Hundreds of millions of dollars have been stolen, primarily through the financial services sector, just in the last couple years,” he said. An organized crime ring in Eastern Europe, for example, earned about $750,000 per week from cyber theft, he added.
Henry’s warnings came after what some have called the Year of the Hacker. Numerous major organizations, from Sony to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, revealed last year that hackers had infiltrated their networks to steal corporate secrets or leak sensitive customer data.
Many security breaches last year were attributed to the hacker group Anonymous, which claimed responsibility over the holidays for bringing down the servers of global intelligence firm Stratfor and stealing thousands of credit card numbers and other customer information.
But Henry made no mention of the group in his remarks. Instead, he said today’s most dangerous hackers generally fit three profiles: nation states targeting research and development, intellectual property and corporate strategies of American companies; terrorists who have shown a growing interest in using cyber attacks against critical infrastructure; and organized criminals wielding botnets (or networks of zombie computers) to attack corporate computer networks.
The FBI is also noticing more “persistent threats,” hackers who access a company network “for many months, in some cases years” without detection, Henry said.
In one case, Henry said, “the administrator of a network … had no concept or understanding that an adversary had been pilfering data, viewing data and all the transactions within that organizations for a very long time.”
To combat rising cyber-crime, Henry said, the FBI has taken several new measures, such as embedding agents with police departments across Eastern Europe, including Estonia, Romania and Ukraine. Such efforts have paid dividends, he said, citing Operation Ghost Click, a two-year FBI investigation that led to the arrests of six men from Estonia for allegedly running a sophisticated Internet fraud ring that netted more than $14 million in online advertising revenue.
The growing cyber risks threaten not just corporations but also consumers, Henry said. The advent of new technology, particularly smartphones, has opened up new attack vectors for hackers. Many Americans now conduct personal banking by accessing Wi-Fi hot spots on their smartphones, which can lead them directly into traps set by cybercriminals.
“We’ve seen adversaries who set up these Wi-Fi hotspots intentionally to pilfer data,” Henry said.
Hackers working within organizations, or “insider threats” have also become a growing risk, he said. In February an Apple employee was convicted of transmitting confidential information to Asian suppliers of iPhone and iPod accessories in return for more than $1 million dollars in kickbacks, he said.
Yet despite the growing cyber-security threats, many organizations continue to ignore it, Henry said: “Either they don’t recognize it, they don’t understand it or they don’t care.”
Said Henry: “They look at many risks but they don’t see this risk — the loss of all their intellectual property, the loss of all their corporate strategies into the ether.”
Do you have a sexy pic of your girlfriend on your phone? What would she do to you if it ended up on the Internet? This risk is greater than you might think—especially if you own an Android—according to research from North Carolina State University.
Certain Android phones like the EVO 4G and HTC Legend have preset apps that allow access to personal information or exposed phone features without requesting necessary permissions for the actual use, the researchers discovered. The apps are built on top of Google’s baseline Android software and are often used to notify users if they have missed a call or received a text message, explains Xuxian Jiang, Ph.D., an assistant professor of computer science at North Carolina State.
The problem: Hackers then access these backdoor apps and record phone calls, send text messages, and see personal information you send.
Jiang’s team told all of the manufacturers about the risk as soon as they discovered it. But that doesn’t mean you’re entirely safe. A 2011 Juniper Networks Global Threat Center study found in May that malware attacks were up 400 percent since the summer of 2010.
Michael Gregg, cyber expert with Superior Solutions Inc., offers these tips on how to keep the information on your phone secure.
· Turn off apps and services you aren’t using. Hackers wait in WiFi hot spots and look for open apps like a GPS tracker to link into your phone. They gain access to the apps and browsers you use, take information from your personal email, and can even steal your identity.
· Make a great password. The best practice is to use a passphrase. To start, think of a phrase and then turn it into a complex password. As an example, “rock and roll forever” becomes “Rock&roll4ever.” It’s upper case, lower case, special character, and numeric. And as it’s a phrase its much harder for an attacker to guess but easy for the user to remember.
· Encrypt sensitive data. Most BlackBerry, iPhone and Android smartphones have built-in encryption software. For more advanced security a third party like Whisper Systems has downloadable software to make sure that even if someone gets your files, they can’t read them. Do it for any files containing personal information like your address, birthday, or anything that you wouldn’t want anyone else knowing.
· Lock others out of your phone. Apps like The Perfect App Protector (free for Android), Smart Lock ($1.80 for Android), Lock Apps ($2.99 for BlackBerry) and Pic Lock 2.0 (free for iPhone) keep your photos, videos, and files safe by closing them to backdoor applications. Just ask the RNC: A reporter bought a BlackBerry formerly used by a Republican, which just happened to have Gov. Schwarzenegger’s personal cell phone. We’re sure the Governator wasn’t a big fan of the crank calls.
· Be wary of “SMishing”. Hackers have gotten creative and will send texts appearing to be from your bank. Only use official bank websites or apps, and if something looks suspicious always call your bank to verify the sender.
· Install anti-virus software. Many smartphones are now more advanced than computers. Jiang recommends the free NetQin Mobile Security software to all of his friends with Android and BlackBerry phones. For iPhone check out VirusBarrier iOS $2.99.
· Catch the thief yourself. There are two types of apps that are great for getting your phone back if ever stolen. Gregg recommends getting both.
-GPS tracker. If your phone is ever stolen, an app like TekTrak Pro ($4.99 for Android), Mobile Defense (free for Android), Find My Phone ($2.99 for BlackBerry) will show your phone’s current coordinates. The iCloud allows users to track their phone’s coordinates but the free Find my iPhone guarantees people cannot turn off the cloud system.
-The Gotya! Face Trap! App for Android $1.99. This app takes a picture whenever your screen lock is entered incorrectly. After taking the picture, it acquires the location of your device and forms a Google maps link, sending it with the time stamped picture to your email/Facebook helping you and the police track him down.