Mon, Jun 08, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Hacking the hackers back

Hackers are being targeted by US and UK security authorities, who are eager to launch a counteroffensive to kick them off the Internet

By Pete Warren  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Hackers who attack defense or commercial computers in the US and UK in the future may be in for a surprise: a counterattack, authorized and carried out by the police and defense agencies that aims to disrupt and even knock them off the Internet.

The secret plans, prompted by the explosion in the number of computer-crime incidents from East Asia targeting commercially or politically sensitive information, are known as “strikeback” and are intended to target hackers’ computers and disrupt them, in some cases involving “denial of service” attacks.

According to well-placed sources, work on “strikeback” has already begun in the UK, with the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) and London’s Metropolitan police’s (the Met) e-crime unit working to deploy teams.

The measures are being adopted because of the unprecedented level of attacks being suffered from hacking groups in China, Russia and North Korea, which are suspected of being state-sponsored. Among intelligence circles in Washington, the idea of hitting back at foreign hacking groups is being described as the hottest topic in cyberspace.

“This is considered to be a key activity,” said a former CIA officer actively involved in the debate. “We are being penetrated and it is not in our tradition to sit back and do nothing.

“This is a huge, huge deal in Washington and it is a high priority discussion. What it means is that if we can identify who is doing this to us, then we can return fire with a payload that takes them out. That’s a very big priority,” the CIA officer said.

Amid rhetoric reminiscent of the Cold War, it is clear the US has run out of patience following blatant cyberattacks such as Titan Rain — an attempt to breach Western defense systems with the aim of stealing defense and commercial secrets.

While on the campaign trail last July, US President Barack Obama identified cybersecurity as one of the biggest challenges facing the US.

“As president, I’ll make cybersecurity the top priority that it should be in the 21st century,” he said.

He has also equated cyberthreats with nuclear and biological weapons.

Last week saw the results of Obama’s cybersecurity concerns, with the publication by the White House of the Cyberspace Policy Review written by Melissa Hathaway, a senior director at the National Security Council who is widely tipped to become Obama’s cybersecurity chief.

In this review of the US’ computer security problems, carried out over the past 60 days, Hathaway broadly recommends more cooperation and education and maintaining the US’ technological lead.

The document also states: “The Communications Act of 1934 authorized the President, if he deems it necessary in the national security or defense and the requisite threshold condition exists, to use, control, or close communications services, systems, and networks under the jurisdiction of the Federal Communications Commission in conditions ranging from ‘state of public peril’ to ‘war’.”

Many involved in the “strikeback” discussions in the US think it must be deployed immediately to develop a “defensive offensive capability.”

“At a high level this has to do with a cyberwar threat discussion. If we can confirm who has attacked us, we have to have an offensive strikeback,” the former CIA officer said.

Less bellicose but equally specific definitions are now in force in Britain.

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