19th February 2000 Archive
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Hmmm...our hacker buddies may be smarter than they appear
The chief legacy of this month's escalation in malicious distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks will undoubtedly be a ham-handed ploy by federal and state law enforcement bodies to exploit populist insecurities in quest of vastly increased powers of intervention in Net security. We've already seen US Attorney General Janet Reno and FBI Director Louis Freeh licking their chops in hastily-convened Senate hearings, palpably gloating over the new powers of surveillance and control they anticipate. Seated only days after the celebrated DDoS attacks, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee before which they testified last week proved a sympathetic audience. Reno took the opportunity to sue for her ongoing dream of dictating technical standards to manufacturers of virtually all communications devices and media. "The technology is evolving so quickly that we find our [black-bag gizmos] obsolete almost as soon as we get them," she sighed. And why should Congress care? Because the cost of keeping up with commercial innovations and fifteen-year-old script kiddies is immense, she slyly noted to a Congressional committee charged with the budgeting of public funds, and whose fiduciary responsibilities to the taxpayer weigh heavily on conscience. As for the FBI, Freeh again made an impassioned pitch for his pet ambition of securing keys to popular cryptographic programs used by citizens and businesses alike, so that the United States might soon join the ranks of such notably neurotic countries as China (and Great Britain, if the momentum doesn't change). Committee chairman Judd Gregg (Republican, New Hampshire) seemed less than sympathetic with the notion of passing around crypto keys to the Feds, grasping, and wisely so, the damper such a programme would put on the commercial cryptographic industry and the confidence of citizens and businesses in the (largely illusory) security of their electronic communications. So Gregg offered a suggestion of his own. "Do you need a counter-cryptographic centre?" he asked. Freeh answered in one word: "Definitely." An elegant solution, we must allow: give the people their false sense of online security, but give the FBI a supercomputing centre so that it might conveniently brute-force crack the encryption codes which vex it so. But just as Reno and Freeh were patting themselves on the back for delivering command performances, a security expert with a uniquely authoritative background as a trial attorney in the Department of Justice's Criminal Division, who was assigned specifically to prosecuting cyber-crime, flatly told the Committee that "the absolute worst people to coordinate Internet security are law enforcement." Congress "should not allow law enforcement to take it upon themselves to regulate Internet architecture or technical standards," Mark Rasch, Vice President of security firm Global Integrity, insisted. His reasons were many. First, and most simply, no one in his right mind trusts the Feds, an observation borne out by the reluctance of perfectly sober network administrators to install National Infrastructure Protection Center (NIPC) software to detect the DDoS tools Trin00, TFN and Stacheldraht, chiefly because the NIPC stubbornly refused to release the source code. People didn't like the idea of loading an "official" FBI application on their systems without first having a peek at its inner workings. They were inhibited, no doubt, by a nagging fear that the Feds could implant malicious, "back-door" code of their own, and thereby render their obvious ambitions to snoop into every corner of cyber-space immensely more convenient to achieve. Another of Rasch's common-sense observations: law enforcement doesn't need to regulate Internet security. The DDoS attackers exploited "widely-known, widely publicised vulnerabilities," to carry out their attack, he noted. "Had those vulnerabilities been fixed by the sites that were broken into, this attack could not have taken place," Rasch said. "If we would just fix the problems we already know about, we would be ninety percent there," he observed. He spoke also of a brain-drain from high-tech law enforcement bodies towards a far more lucrative private security industry. The subtext here is that law enforcement subsists on under-qualified high-tech newbies who move on to greener pastures as soon as they've learned enough to be of use to the private sector. Indeed, most if not all the leads in the FBI's current DDoS investigation have been provided not by government high-tech gumshoes, but by watchful, garden-variety system administrators. Federal law enforcement, in spite of its brave postures, doesn't have much of a handle on the case. Freeh confirmed the suspicion, citing employee retention as one of his greatest challenges, and noting that government pay is inadequate to attract qualified personnel. "The ability to hire above the current [government pay] scale is essential," he said. So we are left with an impression that the Feds, spurred to action by this month's celebrated attacks, are determined to stumble headlong into Internet regulation, and in the process piss off the majority of citizens and businesses who naturally resent government intervention in their private affairs, whilst making a complete pudding of online security in the process. And this, we must observe, should effectively guarantee that the Internet will remain the hopelessly leaky, creaky, ill-fitted hackers' paradise it has always been. Who says those DDoS attackers were a lot of dumb kids? ®
Business 19 19:14