Four rising threats from cyber criminals

The next generation of security threats are leveraging technologies like text messages and smart grids to make their attacks

Criminal hackers never sleep, it seems. Just when you think you've battened down the hatches and fully safeguarded yourself or your business from electronic security risks, along comes a new exploit to keep you up at night. It might be an SMS text message with a malevolent payload or an errant signal designed to jam GPS receivers.

Whether you're protecting corporate data or simply trying to keep your personal files safe, these threats -- some rapidly growing, others still emerging -- put your systems at risk. Fortunately, security procedures and tools are available to help you win the fight.

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1. Text-message malware

While smartphone viruses are still fairly rare, text-message attacks are becoming more common, according to Rodney Joffe, senior vice president and senior technologist at mobile messaging company Neustar and director of the Conficker Working Group, a coalition of security researchers that came together to fight the malware known as Conficker. PCs are fairly well protected today, he says, so some black-hat hackers are now targeting mobile devices. Their incentive is mostly financial: Text messaging provides a way to break into devices and make money.

Khoi Nguyen, group product manager for mobile security at Symantec, confirmed that text-message attacks aimed at smartphone operating systems are commonplace now that people are increasingly reliant on mobile devices. It's not just consumers who are at risk, he adds. Any employee who falls for a text-message ruse using a company smartphone can jeopardize the business's network and data and possibly cause a compliance violation.

"This is a similar type of attack as [is used on] a computer -- an SMS or MMS message that includes an attachment, disguised as a funny or sexy picture, which asks the user to open it," Nguyen explains. "Once they download the picture, it will install malware on the device. Once loaded, it would acquire access privileges, and it spreads through contacts on the phone, [who] would then get a message from that user."

In this way, says Joffe, hackers create botnets for sending text-message spam with links to a product the hacker is selling, usually charging you per message. In some cases, he adds, the malware even starts buying ring tones that are charged on your wireless bill, lining the pockets of the hacker selling the ring tones.

Wireless carriers say they do try to stave off the attacks. For instance, Verizon spokeswoman Brenda Raney says the company scans for known malware attacks, isolates them on the cellular network, and even works with federal crime units to block them.

To keep such malware off users' phones, Joffe recommends that businesses institute strict corporate policies limiting whom employees can text using company networks and phones, and what kind of work can be done via text messaging. Another option is a policy that prohibits text messaging entirely, at least until the industry figures out how to deal with the threats.

2. Hacking into smart grids

A common misconception is that only open networks -- say, corporate wireless LANs that visitors may use -- are hackable. Not true, says Justin Morehouse, a principal consultant at Stratum Security who spoke about network security at last year's DefCon hacker convention. Morehouse says it's actually not that difficult to find an access point for a so-called closed system.

Some nuclear plants and power grids have wireless networks that are vulnerable to attack. And SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems aren't safe either.

For example, the Stuxnet worm last year infected tens of thousands of Windows PCs running Siemens SCADA systems in manufacturing and utility companies, most notably in Iran. It was largely spread via infected USB flash drives. "Stuxnet proved that it is relatively simple to cause potentially catastrophic damage" to an industrial control network, says Neustar's Joffe.

According to Morehouse, another new attack point will be smart grids that use electronic metering to streamline power management. Utility companies around the world have begun testing and rolling out smart grids to homes and businesses. The technology, which can send data to and receive it from a central system, can also be very helpful for IT: You can open a console to see the power usage for one section of a building, for example.

But smart grids might be vulnerable to attacks that would allow nefarious hackers to cut off electricity at homes and businesses and wreak other kinds of havoc. One possible attack vector is a smart grid's communications infrastructure. For example, Morehouse says, a German utility company called Yello Strom uses a consumer smart grid system that works like a home automation kit -- the sensors report energy usage back to the central server via the user's home Wi-Fi network.

The most effective preventive measure, says Morehouse, is rigid isolation -- a smart grid should not touch any other network. Given the dangers that can arise if a hacker gains access to a smart grid, he says, companies should conduct penetration tests and make sure that firewalls in closed networks are secure. He advises using tools such as Core Impact and Metasploit.

3. Social network account spoofing

Users of Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social networks are vulnerable to attacks that rely on account spoofing. A scammer poses as either someone you know or a friend of a friend, in order to fool you into revealing personal information. He then uses that information to gain access to your other accounts and eventually steal your identity.

In a typical exploit, says Joffe, someone contacts you on a site like Facebook or LinkedIn, pretending to be a friend of a friend or a co-worker of someone you trust. Then, this new "friend" contacts you directly through text message or email. The correspondence seems legitimate because you believe he has a connection with an individual you trust.

In another scenario, a scammer might impersonate someone you already know -- claiming to be an old friend from high school, for instance. Spoofers can find out your connections by following your public feeds or looking up the names of co-workers on sites like LinkedIn, where you've posted your work information.

Once the scammer has established a connection with you, he uses devious means to steal personal data, such as chatting online to find out the names of your family members, favorite bands, hobbies and other seemingly innocuous information. Then he uses that information to try to guess your passwords or answers to security questions for banking sites, webmail accounts or other online services.

Morehouse describes another type of attack that targets companies as well as individuals. The spoofer might set up a Facebook page that claims to be the official company page for, say, a major retailer. The spoofer might claim that the page is a formal method to contact the company or register complaints.

The page might offer fake coupons to entice people to join, and it soon goes viral as people share it with their friends. Once hundreds or thousands of users have joined the page, says Morehouse, the owner tricks them into giving out personal information, perhaps by signing up for additional coupons or special offers.

This ends up being a double attack: Consumers are harmed because their personal data is compromised, and the company is harmed because its customers now associate the fake Facebook page with the real company -- and decide not to buy from that company anymore.

Joffe says there is no way to prevent a criminal from setting up a fake Facebook page, but companies can use monitoring tools such as Social Mention to see how the company name is being used online. If an unauthorized page turns up, companies can ask the social network to remove the fake listing.

4. GPS jamming: Threat or nuisance?

An emerging criminal tactic -- interfering with GPS signals -- has security experts divided on just how harmful it could become.

Jamming a GPS signal at the source is next to impossible, says Phil Lieberman, founder of enterprise security vendor Lieberman Software. Blocking the radio signals that are broadcast from orbiting GPS satellites would require a massive countertransmission. And because the satellites are operated by the U.S. military, jamming them would be considered an act of war and a federal crime, says Lieberman.

However, it is easy to jam GPS receivers using low-cost jamming devices like one sold by Brando. The devices jam a receiver by overloading it with a signal that's similar to the real GPS signal. The receiver then becomes confused because it can't find a steady satellite transmission.

Lieberman doesn't give much credence to fears about jammers disrupting airplanes or air traffic control systems, because those networks use a completely different GPS signal from the one we use in cars and handheld devices. Jamming could, however, be a potentially dangerous issue when it comes to financial records, he says, because GPS devices are used in the banking industry to add time stamps to financial transactions. Although completely blocking transactions would be difficult, Lieberman says, an industrious hacker could theoretically disrupt transactions and cause headaches for banks.

Security expert Roger Johnston, a systems engineer at the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, says spoofing GPS signals is the greater danger, explaining that GPS receivers are low-power devices that latch on to any strong signal. He says spoofing could be used for serious crimes -- tricking a delivery truck driver into turning down a dark alley, changing the time stamps on financial transactions, delaying emergency vehicles from finding their routes. There have been no reported cases of GPS spoofing to commit a criminal act, but Johnston warns that the government and businesses should work to deter such attacks.

Taking some extra precautions -- using strong encryption technology, engaging only with trusted friends on social networks, and using penetration testing software on corporate networks -- can alleviate some fears and help you sleep at night, even if the bad guys keep coming up with new exploits.

Brandon is a former IT manager at a Fortune 100 company who now writes about technology. He's written more than 2,500 articles in the past 10 years. Follow his tweets at @jmbrandonbb.

This story, "Four rising threats from cyber criminals" was originally published by Computerworld.

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