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Monday, 09 April 2018 08:19

Ex-NSA man says unlikely that US involved in Iran, Russia hacks Featured

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A former member of the NSA's elite Tailored Access Operations unit has played down what appear to be revenge attacks in the last 10 days on sites belonging to Russian and Iranian interests, saying it was unlikely that the US was involved at a nation-state level.

Jake Williams (below, right), a regular commentator on such events, said in a thread on Twitter that while one possibility was that the US had been carrying out a network attack, it was unlikely.

"I really doubt it (that the US carried out a network attack)," said Williams who now runs his own information security firm, Rendition Infosec.

"It's not like US infrastructure is so much better protected and what goes around comes around. Also, every switch you take down is one more piece of network infrastructure you can't use for other ops. It's not worth the trade IMO."

The attacks were noticed on Friday, with those responsible leaving messages on the Web interfaces that were compromised. The apparent entry point was a flaw in the protocol used in the Cisco Smart Install Client, a legacy utility that could be used for no-touch installation of new Cisco switches. A message reading, "Don't mess with our elections", was left along with an email address [email protected]

cisco switch

The Web interface of a switch that was hacked. Graphic courtesy Kaspersky Lab.

Some internal websites, too, were accessed by the attackers and in some cases images of American flags were left, the tech website Motherboard claimed.

jake williams bigSwitches at other sites, too, have been compromised, though it appears that a majority of them are Russian and Iranian. Reuters  quoted a statement from the Iranian Republic News Agency as saying: "“The attack apparently affected 200,000 router switches across the world in a widespread attack, including 3500 switches in our country.”

Cisco itself had issued a warning about the flaw on Thursday last week through its Talos Intelligence Group. An additional flaw in the client itself had been patched, Talos said, adding that proof-of-concept code was known to be available.

Russian security firm Kaspersky Lab posted some details about the compromises on Friday US time, including an image of the message that the attackers were leaving on the Web interface of the routers they had attacked. The date on the image that Kaspersky posted was 30 March, giving an indication of when the attacks had begun.

Williams said other possibilities were that the attackers were from another country who were carrying out a false flag operation and blaming the US or that these attacks had been carried out by hacktivists.

He said in the former case, "Every nation must realise that they are also vulnerable to the same attacks. Even if you blame it on the US, calling attention to the ease of exploiting the vulnerable switches is probably not in your best interests."

However he said that there was one exception: "It would be a nation that: has a small network footprint relative to Iran and Russia; doesn't care about retaliation against the US; sees an advantage in outages in Iran and Russia; and benefits from cyber conflict between the US and Iran and Russia."

Williams said that while there were countries that met these criteria, they were not many. "However, this attack was not complex so there's not a substantial set of technical obstacles to overcome. E.g. you don't need a Stuxnet or a NotPetya level budget for this attack," he said.

And he added: "Again, any competent nation state would have used these switches for access to internal network assets. Even to 'send a message' this doesn't make sense for a nation state. Occam's Razor says that this was much more likely to be hacktivists."

Motherboard said the alleged hackers had told its reporter, Joseph Cox, that they had carried out the attacks as they were tired of attacks from government-backed hackers on the US and other countries.

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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