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South Korea bank attacks should prompt rethink in U.S.

Antone Gonsalves | March 25, 2013
DDoS attacks on U.S. banks were more advanced technically, but the attackers of the South Korean banks did much more damage

The simplicity of the malware that paralyzed the computer networks of three banks and two broadcasters in technically sophisticated South Korea is a warning that U.S. corporations need to rethink security.

The cybercriminals did nothing out of the ordinary in penetrating the organizations' defenses on Wednesday. They used existing malware called "DarkSeoul," changed its signature to evade the organizations' firewalls and antivirus software, and targeted a well-known vulnerability in Internet Explorer (CVE-2012-1889).

"In South Korea, it was a malware that I think, if you say that it took more than one working day to write, it means the developer was not very bright," said Barry Shteiman, a senior security strategist for Imperva.

The malware was capable of infecting Windows, Unix and Linux servers, as well as PCs, Symantec reported on Thursday. Once in the computer, the malware destroyed the master boot record on the hard drive, causing them to crash and unable to turn back on.

As a result, employees at the South Korea's two leading television stations, Korean Broadcasting Systems and MBC, were left staring at blank screens, although normal broadcasts continued, The New York Times reported.

Shinhan Bank, the country's fourth largest, reported its Internet banking servers were temporarily blocked. Two other banks, NongHyup and Jeju, reported computers at some branches were paralyzed for a couple of hours.

What isn't known is how the malware got into the computer systems. Criminals typically send malware in carefully crafted email meant to trick recipients into opening attachments or visiting malicious websites. There's also the possibility that a saboteur installed the malware through a USB drive.

But no matter the method, the criminals were able to bypass the organizations' defensive technology for catching malware before it reached computer systems. In doing so, they were able to wreak havoc using basic technology.

Because no organization's defenses are impenetrable, companies need to think about security as not just stopping an attack from the outside, but uncovering malware once it gets in, experts say. The assumption should be that computer systems are already infected.

With this mindset, companies need to constantly examine hardware and software audit logs to track information that has left the network to look for abnormalities, said James W. Gabberty, a professor of information systems at Pace University. In addition, penetration testing should be performed regularly to catch system vulnerabilities before they are exploited.

Other precautions include identifying where critical data is stored inside a network. In the case of banks, that would mean knowing where the transactional data and customer data is sitting and wrapping it in security technology, so it can't be easily access by malware, Shteiman said.


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