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World’s biggest-ever cyber attacks uncovered – and it’s only the beginning

At least 72 major organisations were hacked in “Operation Shady Rat”. Gilderic (Recovering)

It’s official: we have entered a brave new world.

On Tuesday (US time), IT Security company McAfee announced the discovery of the most extensive hack-attacks ever seen, which the company referred to as “Operation Shady RAT”.

The unprecedented series of attacks was conducted over a five-year period against at least 72 major organisations, including:

  • The governments of the United States, Taiwan, India, South Korea, Vietnam and Canada
  • The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN);
  • The International Olympic Committee (IOC)
  • The World Anti-Doping Agency

In many ways, these attacks shadow the recent cyber attacks against Sony and others by groups such as LulzSec and Anonymous.

We are only just starting to see the scale that networked effects can create. Beneficially, network effects have created great new means of connecting people across the globe and in opening new markets.

At the same time, espionage groups have also used this model extremely successfully to infiltrate countless systems and to steal immeasurable quantities of extremely valuable information.

Trade secrets, business processes, early unpatented research – all this and more have been stolen. Although we are unlikely to ever really know, all fingers, it would seem, point squarely at China.

James Lewis, a cyber expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in America, was briefed on the discovery by McAfee.

He said some of the targets of the concerted cyber campaign had information that would be of particular interest to Beijing.

“It could be the Russians, but there is more that points to China than Russia,” he said.

America and Britain have capabilities to pull off this kind of campaign, he added, but: “We wouldn’t spy on ourselves and the Brits wouldn’t spy on us.”

We are entering a new stage in history. Just as Web 2.0 and the surge of social media have created new paradigms, distributed attacks based on networks of compromised computers will create new headaches – migraines even – for organisations globally.

The question we have to ask is: was Operation Shady RAT something out of the blue, or is this just a sample of what we can expect to occur more and more in the future?

The simple answer is that we can expect these attacks to not only continue, but to keep growing in scale and intensity.

This is only the beginning. Security governance expert and instructor at IT security organisation SANS, Benjamin Wright, said:

“Cyber security has become bigger than a risk/reward or return on investment analysis can convey. It’s now mission critical.

"From the perspective of a board of directors, achieving genuine security is like hiring a top executive. Do it right and the company thrives; do it wrong and the company suffers dearly.”

We have been complacent. We look at security theatre and add bells and whistles while forgetting the basics and fundamentals.

We look to compliance regimes that allow managers to say they have done a good job when the holes in their systems allow criminals, intelligence agents and others into their networks and secrets.

Operation Shady RAT has exceeded Operation Aurora – a cyber security discovery by McAfee in early 2010 – in size and scope, but it is not going to be the biggest espionage-based network of this decade.

State-based espionage brings cyber attacks into everybody’s living room and makes us all complicit.

We fail to care in the ill-conceived belief that we are small enough not to matter. We are forgetting that we have access to work email accounts, portals and more.

Each computer, be it home, corporate or government-based, adds to these networks and increases the network effect they deliver.

Each attack provides the relevant cyber crime organisation with a competitive advantage they did not earn and damages the economy of the country these secrets have been stolen from.

We have already seen botnets estimated to have more than 10 million computers. But this will pale into insignificance compared to what we can expect in this coming decade.

As SCADA and other critical information control systems come online, it will not only be our secrets that are at risk, but even lives.

Last year’s notorious super-virus Stuxnet started a new trend in SCADA-based malware.

This was used to attack nuclear control systems in Iran, but we can expect this to be the first of many.

In time, we can expect to see water, power and even rail systems targeted and with this the general population will be at risk as critical infrastructure fails.

Maybe this attack is the wake-up call we’ve all been waiting for.

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