FBI hacker sleuths hint at power-grid disaster

Civilisation hanging by a thread

The FBI's Chicken-Little-esque anti-hacking outfit, the National Infrastructure Protection Centre (NIPC), raised the alarm last week over an amusing FTP stuff-up enabling a group of kids to play interactive games courtesy of a power-utility's bandwidth.

The network in question was stupidly configured for anonymous FTP login with read and write privileges, pretty much a welcome mat for anyone in cyberspace to post and retrieve files as they please. Naturally some kids set up a game, with which they managed to gobble up most of the network bandwidth.

The incident occurred because hopelessly incompetent network administrators essentially left the door open, the lights on, and set out milk and cookies for their anonymous guests. Technically speaking, they left the writable FTP directory and its sub-directories owned by the FTP account rather than by root, which would have reserved write privileges to the network admins.

This FTP 'exploit' was reported by Carnegie Mellon University's Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) way back in 1993, so it's hard to excuse anyone calling himself a professional network administrator who might fall for it today. Indeed, a merely readable FTP account can lead to serious trouble depending on what's stored there.

Ironically, L0pht researcher Mudge gave a luncheon talk to members of a power-industry association called the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) back in April, during which he explained various methods of attack on energy infrastructure and their consequences. Apparently not everyone was listening as attentively as they ought to have been.

Hence the effortless entry into what should have been protected space. But to hear NIPC tell it, a band of terrorists kept all of Western civilisation hanging by a slender thread:

"A regional entity in the electric power industry has recently experienced computer intrusions through anonymous FTP (File Transfer Protocol) login exploitation," the organisation says ominously.

"The intruders used the hacked FTP site to store and play interactive games that consumed 95 per cent of the organization's Internet bandwidth." (our emphasis)

"Hacked" it most certainly was not. Trespassing is about the worst offence one could claim here; but with no access control whatsoever in place, there isn't, therefore, any digital "No Trespassing" sign in evidence, and one might argue that they had no reason to believe that the owner didn't intend to make his FTP account available for public use.

In a lame effort to make the mildly comical sound potentially catastrophic, NIPC hastened to add that "the compromised bandwidth threatened the regional entity's ability to conduct bulk power transactions."

Apparently, the manager of the exploited utility was for some mysterious reason unable to ring up the manager(s) of his frequent customers and suppliers or their brokers and transact business over the phone. Perhaps it wouldn't be a bad idea for these clowns to look into a 'Plan-B' along those lines.

Still trying to make the intruders look like terrorists, NIPC goes on to speculate that they "apparently created an automated exploit that finds a system offering FTP services and an anonymous login, and then examines the entire system tree structure looking for any directory with write privileges."

Nice try, but this is about as 'invasive' as scanning for proxies. And that, according to a recent decision by the US District Court in Georgia, is not a crime. Throughput and port scans, even in view of the imperceptible slowdown they theoretically cause, do not damage networks in any way, the Court ruled.

We don't think scanning for writable FTP directories would qualify as damage either. So nuts to the NIPC on that one.

The wording of the NIPC advisory is so pumped-up with flatulence that it testifies to the sort of cybercrime-busting 'dreams of empire' in which Centre Director Michael Vatis has long indulged himself.

Vatis, one might recall, is the articulate Fed who spent most of last year blowing horns and banging cymbals warning about the "electronic Pearl Harbour" which the Y2K Millennium Bug was supposed to make inevitable, and thereby establishing his crew's indispensability to the forces of righteousness.

He reached a lot of influential people with that little PR effort. Janet Reno's US Department of Justice (DoJ) even went so far as to streamline warrant procedures under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), in anticipation of digital mayhem and chaos which of course never materialised.

What we have now is another example of what we've long suspected: that Vatis will jump at anything to spread his gospel and justify his budget. And when we see him jump at a group of kids enjoying a prank, we also know he'll stop at nothing. ®

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