Advanced Cyber Attack Tools Seen Available to Hackers

Advanced cyber attack tools have become readily available for use by foreign governments and terrorists to infiltrate or cripple U.S. computer networks, two federal law enforcement officials told a congressional panel.

Dozens of countries now have sophisticated cyber espionage capabilities and terrorists want to “digitally sabotage” U.S. power grids or water supply networks, Joseph Demarest, assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s cyber division, said in prepared testimony for a Senate hearing today.

“The tools and expertise to perpetrate a cyber attack with physical effects are readily available for purchase or hire,” he said.

President Barack Obama and intelligence officials have said one of their top policy priorities is preventing cyber attacks that could disrupt banks, telecommunications networks, utilities or other vital services. Lawmakers have renewed their efforts to advance cybersecurity legislation after Congress failed last year to pass a bill. The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism is holding a hearing today on how the government and private sector are responding to cyber threats.

The advanced cyber tools that Symantec Inc. has found recently being used for attacks include large scale data breaches that last year exposed about 93 million identities, “watering hole attacks” that target visitors to legitimate websites and the use of an estimated 3.4 million bot zombies around the world last year, according to the testimony of Cheri McGuire, Symantec’s vice president for global affairs and cyber-security policy.

Growing Threat

Cybersecurity threats posed by foreign governments and terrorist groups against U.S. networks are growing, Jenny Durkan, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington, said in prepared testimony for the hearing.

“Although to date they have resembled in some ways the crimes perpetrated by financially motivated criminals, their emergence and evolution make the threat of cyber-generated physical attacks, like those that might disrupt the power grid, appear no longer to be the stuff of science fiction,” she said.

To help prevent attacks, the Justice Department is establishing cells of cybersecurity specialists “to focus on particular high-priority cyber targets,” Durkan said. She said one cell is operational, without providing details.

There’s been “an uptick” in cyber attacks against U.S. electric companies this year, Carl Herberger, a vice president for the network security firm Radware Ltd., said in a phone interview.

Information-technology systems at three different electric companies were temporarily knocked off-line by cyber-attacks this year, said Herberger, whose company is based in Tel-Aviv with offices in New Jersey. He declined to discuss specifics or name the companies.

Legislation Introduced

“We are being out-gunned,” he said. “The trade of malicious and nefarious tools and techniques is at an ever-increasing high point and has tipped in favor of the perpetrator.”

U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that groups in China and Russia are responsible for electronic intrusions into U.S. computer networks and the theft of intellectual property, Durkan said.

A bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill yesterday that would require the Obama administration to identify foreign countries that steal U.S. trade secrets, as well as possible actions to punish them, including blocking imports of products from companies that benefit from the theft.

The bill, which didn’t have a number, was introduced by Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, along with Arizona Republican John McCain and Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn.

“We need to call out those who are responsible for cyber theft and empower the president to hit the thieves where it hurts most -- in their wallets, by blocking imports of products or from companies that benefit from this theft,” Levin said.