Media, like critical infrastructure, need better security

Recent Chinese cyberattacks aimed at major news media is a national problem that the security industry acknowledges it must help to solve in order to remain credible technology providers.

The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal disclosed this week that Chinese hackers bent on stealing information pertaining to the newspapers' China coverage had cracked their computer systems.

In the case of The Times, the hackers were looking to identify sources of a story on business dealings that enriched the relatives of China's prime minister, Wen Jiabao. The attempt was unsuccessful.

Nevertheless, state-sponsored attacks aimed at intimidating news sources hinder journalists in doing their job, which is to provide objective reporting rather than government spin. The national importance of the so-called fourth estate has led the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to list it as critical infrastructure.

The DHS directed a request for comment to the FBI, which declined to discuss ongoing investigations.

Security experts acknowledged Friday that for the industry to play an important role in battling cyberespionage, it must step up innovation in the category these attacks fall under, advanced persistent threats, or APTs. These threats are typically conducted by well-financed attackers capable of developing highly sophisticated malware.

As a result, run-of-the-mill antivirus solutions found on PCs today are useless against APTs. Where innovation is needed is in whitelisting applications that can run on laptops, which is the primary content creation tool of reporters. Whitelisting technology only allows pre-approved applications to run.

Right now, most products are much too difficult to manage and constantly get in the way of the notebook user. There's no unobtrusive way to handle adding new applications or making exceptions.

"As an industry, we have to move toward more endpoint-centric manageable solutions that probably focus on this whitelisting approach," said George Tubin, a senior security strategist for Trusteer.

[Also see: Advanced persistent threats can be beaten, says expert]

Making technology easier to use is also needed in technology that detects malware after it breaches the first line of defense on the laptop. Technology called security information and event management (SIEM) gathers activity logs from software and network hardware, but often provide analytical tools that require fulltime security experts.

"Everybody can capture everything, but what customers need and what the security industry needs to help provide is a way to help you interpret that," said Harry Sverdlove, chief technology officer for Bit9.

News media companies can learn a lot from the banking industry, which has been fighting equally sophisticated attacks from profit-motivated criminals for years. Technology that has evolved to help battle malware have included multi-authentication that moves beyond just a user name and password.

User-centric products include physical tokens and texting codes to a mobile phone. Both technologies require the user to input the code to access the site.

Banks have also deployed on underlying servers technology for identifying the visiting laptop. If the hardware is unrecognized, then additional steps are needed before allowing entry.

"As a first layer, the industry has to step up authentication and not just rely on user name and password to access systems," Tubin said.

Organizations other than media that are often targets of APT attacks include defense contractors, multinational corporations, the military, think tanks and government agencies.

These likely targets need to change their thinking about security, experts say. Organizations can no longer think of security as something that can be covered by one or two products.

Instead, security requires employee education and constant changes to the tools in place in order to address the evolving tactics of attackers.

"Security is no longer just a product," Sverdlove said. "It is a process."

Read more about malware/cybercrime in CSOonline's Malware/Cybercrime section.

Tags cybercrimeChinalegalsoftwareapplicationscyberattacksU.S. Department of Homeland SecurityThe New York TimesThe Wall Street JournalData Protection | Malwareadvanced persistent threats

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