The worm turns
Dec 4th 2008
From The Economist print edition
A cyber-attack alarms the Pentagon
BATTLEFIELD bandwidth is low at best, making networks sticky and e-mails tricky. American soldiers often rely on memory sticks to cart vital data between computers. Off-duty, they use the same devices to move around music and photos. The dangers of that have just become apparent with the news that the Pentagon has banned the use of all portable memory devices because of the spread of a bit of malicious software called agent.btz.
This is a “worm”, meaning that it replicates itself. If you have it on, say, the memory card of a digital camera it will infect any computer to which you upload photos. It will then infect any other portable memory plugged into that computer (the cyber-equivalent, one might say, of a sexually transmitted disease). On any computer hooked up to the internet, this variant tries to download more nasty stuff: in this case two programs that access the hard-drive. Was it a humdrum crime of trying to steal banking details? Or something more serious? The trail has gone cold.
In any case, the malicious software (malware in the jargon) penetrated at least one classified computer network. The problem was severe enough for Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, to brief George Bush on it. Officials are saying little more than that.
Kimberly Zenz, an expert on cyberwarfare at VeriSign iDefense, a computer security company that is investigating the attack, notes that it is not clear that agent.btz was designed specifically to target military networks, or indeed that it comes from either Russia or China (two countries known to have state-sponsored cyberwarfare programmes that regularly target American government computer networks).
Indeed, she says, by the standards of cyberwarfare, agent.btz is pretty basic; it is a variant of a well-known bit of malware called the SillyFDC worm, which has been around for at least three years. By contrast, a government commission warned Congress last month that “since China’s current cyber operations capability is so advanced, it can engage in forms of cyberwarfare so sophisticated that the United States may be unable to counteract or even detect the efforts.”
The most remarkable feature of the episode may not be the breach of security, but the cost of dealing with it. In the civilian world, at least one bank has dealt with agent.btz by blocking all its computers’ USB ports with glue. Every bit of portable memory in the sprawling American military establishment now needs to be scrubbed clean before it can be used again. In the meantime, soldiers will find it hard or outright impossible to share, say, vital digital maps, let alone synch their iPods or exchange pictures with their families.
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