Cyber Warfare: The next Cold War
Cyber Warfare: The next Cold War

Spying has been around since the dawn of man, Carstensen says. Early tribes snooped on other tribes to learn where they found food. Today's sleuths also are looking for the same competitive advantage over their enemies – and even their allies.

In some countries, such as North Korea, students believed to have a propensity for math or technology are trained at an early age as cyber warriors. These academies provide the students with respectability and good pay. In China, for example, the Communist Party codified cyber warfare in 2010, and President Hu Jintao deemed cyber war a priority. Author and retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. William Hagestad says in an upcoming book that China bases its policies on the Art of War, Sun Tzu's doctrine written around 500 B.C., one of whose tenets is: Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer. Chinese officials, however, regularly deny they are involved in any cyber spying efforts.

In the United States, the military is also shifting its war strategy to further prioritize cyber efforts. The soldiers who pilot military drones over Pakistan and Afghanistan actually sit in control rooms at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. This, Carstensen says, is not unlike cyber attackers who might work out of a hotel to conduct assaults.

However, the level of expertise of foreign cyber attackers varies widely from so-called script-kiddies, who download exploit software that is widely available on the internet, to experienced computer engineers who have either religious or political reasons for staging actions.

Some of these attacks are advanced persistent threats (APTs) that are designed to enter a computer system and perhaps sit dormant for a period of time. The intrusions are designed not to be noticed.

This tactic varies significantly from those of hacktivists, who attack websites with the expressed purpose of drawing attention to the site being breached. Some groups, such as Anonymous and LulzSec, have claimed credit for damage to sites they have compromised.

Unlike hacktivists, cyber spies are so concerned about flying under the radar that once they successfully enter a target system, they actually  install security patches to ensure that other attackers are unable to access the system using the same vulnerability, says Daniel Teal, founder and chief technology officer of Austin, Texas-based CoreTrace and a former officer at the Air Force Information Warfare Center (AFIWC). By installing fixes, he says, the attacker will have the compromised systems all to themselves and will not have to worry about a sloppy rival alerting the IT manager that there has been a breach.

Admins might actually see their network performance improve while the attacker ensures that others are unable to infect the environment, Teal says. Because the attacker does not want to draw attention, they simply can leave a back door open so that the malware payload is not accidentally identified by the target network.

Toney Jennings, CEO of CoreTrace, adds that companies might have the equivalent of a “cyber atomic bomb” in the server that “is not doing anything bad today.” That bomb could be set off by an intruder at a later date, well after the initial breach took place. Additionally, he says companies purchasing mission-critical hardware should spot check the “guts” of the new systems, including all device drivers, for malicious code before putting them into production.

Most hardware and software today is developed outside U.S controls, so ensuring it is safe is a good business practice. “It's a valid bit of paranoia,” Jennings says.

Underscoring this concern, an FBI presentation last year detailed how counterfeit Cisco Systems networking equipment originating in China – including network routers, switches, gigabit interface converters and WAN interface cards – was being sold in the United States. “Operation Cisco Raider” resulted in the recovery of 3,500 pirated network devices valued at $3.5 million, James Finch, assistant director of the FBI's cyber division, has said.

Teal says he once discovered, by accident, a malicious device driver for a keyboard he purchased for his daughter's computer. The driver was sending personal information off his home network. He contacted the system manufacturer, Hewlett-Packard, and discovered that the kernel driver was written by a third party. Further investigations by Teal and HP determined that the manufacturer was sending data off the network simply to ensure an internet connection – a task that easily could have been accomplished by sending random data bits without using personal information.

When Bejtlich was the director of incident response at General Electric, the company had an estimated half-million computers, and no shortage of defensive technologies and staff. Even still, he says, with the full resources of a sophisticated IT team and a corporate leader who recognized the need for IT security, the company still was unable to maintain 100 percent effectiveness against intruders or persistent threats.