I'd like to outline the negative and positive aspects of the story, in my humble point of view.
The negative aspects are as follows:
- I detest the term "infected." Computers in 2009 are not "infected." They are compromised by malware operated by a human with an objective. The malware is a tool; it is not the end goal. In the late 1990s I enjoyed defending networks because the activity I monitored was caused by a human, live on the Internet, whose very keystrokes I could watch. At the beginning of this decade I despaired as human action was drowned in a sea of malware that basically propagated but did little otherwise. Since the middle of the decade we have had the worst of both worlds; when I see malware I know there is a human acting through it for malicious purposes. I detest "infection" because the term implies we can apply some antiseptic to the wound to "clean it." In reality the malware's operator will fight back, resist "cleaning," and maintain persistence.
- Cue the "teenage hacker." I thought we were collectively making progress away from the pasty-faced teenager in the parental basement. It seems the popular consciousness has now moved to the pasty-faced teenager in Russia, courtesy of 14-year-old "Tempest" in the 60 Minutes video. Never mind the organized crime, foreign intelligence, and economic espionage angles. Two other groups are definitely going to be upset by this: Chinese hackers and insider threats. Actually, not hearing a word about the latter makes me feel happy inside.
- "I thought I had a good enough firewall." GROAN. Hearing people talk about their firewalls and anti-virus was disheartening. I almost thought Vint Cerf was going to spill the beans on the easiest way to avoid Conficker when he said the following:
I’ve been on the Net ever since the Net started, and I haven’t had any of the bad problems that you’ve described," Cerf replied...
Because I don't use Windows! Say it Vint! Oh well.
The positive aspects are as follows:
- Hello security awareness. Stories like this wake people up to the problems we face every day. Sure Conficker is just the latest piece of malware, definitely not "one of the most dangerous threats ever," as said on TV. At the very least this story should enable a conversation between management and security operations.
- Client-side exploitation via socially-engineered and social network attacks were demonstrated. Good for Symantec to show that Morley Safer owns Leslie Stahl via Facebook. Better yet, 60 Minutes even used the term "owned"!
- Real consequences were demonstrated. I am very glad that Symantec showed just what an intruder can do to an owned computer. Keystroke logging, screen scraping, sensitive informatiomn retrieval, the works. They didn't even mention opening and closing the CD tray or activating the Webcam. That would have been cool, though.
Expect a few questions about this tomorrow at work!
Richard Bejtlich is teaching new classes in Europe and Las Vegas in 2009. Online Europe registration ends by 1 Apr, and seats are filling. Early Las Vegas registration ends 1 May.