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New York Times Hacked Again

The New York Times incident response and incident handling provides examples of best practices, as well as, lessons learned.

According to the New York Times, Hackers in China Attacked the Times for Four Months. The Times Incident Response Plan provides examples of best practices as well as lessons learned.

  • Include your ISP in your response plan.
  • Identify appropriate specialists.
  • Malware detection is not enough.
  • Investigate, then eradicate.
  • Involve law enforcement when appropriate.
  • Get specialists involved early.
  • Enhanced monitoring is important.
  • Review the incident postmortem.

And the most important best practice is to make security improvements based on the postmortem and lessons learned

In the case of the New York Times, the hackers were able to crack the password for every Times employee. Then the hackers used the passwords to gain access to the personal computers of 53 employees. The attack was discovered on October 25. The investigation placed the initial compromise on or around September 13 or 6 weeks earlier.

First, the Times engaged their Internet Service Provider (ISP), AT&T, to watch for unusual activity as part of AT&T’s intrusion detection protocol. The Times received an alert from AT&T that coincided with the publication of a story on the Chinese Prime Minister’s family wealth.

The New York Times briefed the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The FBI has jurisdiction over cybercrimes in the United States.

At the start of week 9, when the response team, even with AT&T assistance, was unable to eliminate the malicious code, the Times engaged Mandiant, a firm specializing in cybersecurity breaches. This is both a lesson learned and a best practice. Expect to need additional help when a significant incident occurs, but it’s best to engage the specialists when the response plan is first developed.

The response team identified 45 pieces of malware that provided the intruders with an extensive tool set to extract information. Virus protection only identified 1 piece. This is an important lesson. Advanced or enhanced malware may be difficult to detect. Defense in depth requires added security controls. In this case, monitoring provided the alert.

At this point, the response team “allowed hackers to spin a digital web for four months to identify every digital back door the hackers used”. This allowed the Times to (1) fully eradicate the intruders, (2) determine the extent of the intrusion and data extraction, and (3) build improved defenses for the future. Again, this is a best practice – investigation precedes eradication.

I found the work habits of the hackers particularly interesting. They worked a standard day starting at 8 A.M. Beijing time. Occasionally they worked as late as mid-night including November 6, election night.

Five Failures

I recently read an article on Computerworld.com titled Unseen Cyber War  that, in my mind, was more about spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) than it was about objective reporting. The focus should have been more about solving problems rather than wringing of hands, gnashing of teeth and creating unreasonable angst and concern about vulnerabilities that should have been fixed or at a minimum, mitigated.

While the threats are real, this type of FUD does not help. The real problem is fivefold:

1. Failure to deliver secure products by hardware and software vendors. Software riddled with bugs and poor programming techniques and hardware configured in ‘open’ modes are recipes for disaster.

2. Failure to enforce security standards by IT departments on devices facing the Internet and to securely configure routers, servers and other networking and computing devices. Putting devices in service and connecting them to the Internet without changing default settings is insane.

3. Failure to properly allocate resources by executive management in government and private industry to train users on secure computing practices. CISOs are ready to train users, but until CIOs and CEOs understand the full ramifications of ignorant user-bases, problems such as phishing/spear phishing, drive-by malware and similar attacks will continue.

4. Failure of our education system to teach proper security techniques to students at all levels of the education ladder. Many children today are familiar with computers and tablets by the time they enter first grade. Teachers should prepare syllabi aimed at appropriate grade levels that teach both security and ethics. Until this training is institutionalized throughout the education life-cycle (primary, secondary and university levels) there will be problems.

5. Failure by parents to understand what their children are doing on the Internet. Being open and honest with children is the best way to make sure children and young adults listen to you. Make sure you let them know that accessing the Internet by any device — mobile or otherwise — is a privilege not a right. Parents should monitor use and let their kids know they are doing it. Don’t be sneaky about it; installing silent “net-nanny” software without telling the progeny that it’s there will just raises trust issues and the kids will just figure a way around it.

Fix these five elements and you will have less problems with hackers, crackers and other ne’er-do-wells.