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Spear phishers sharpen skills, craft 'incredible' attacks, say experts

Gregg Keizer, Computerworld | June 14, 2011
Recent break-ins at high-profile targets like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) demonstrate just how proficient hackers have become at "spear phishing," researchers said today.

Kevin Haley, director of Symantec's security response team, agreed that cyber criminals have stepped up their spear phishing game.

"Social engineering has always been around," said Haley, referring to the term that describes the hacker strategy of manipulating victims into divulging information or doing something actually against their interest, like downloading malware. "But now [criminals] have perfected it."

Haley cited the example of the targeted attacks against Gmail users that Google said last week it had disrupted. Those attacks, which ran for months, were aimed at senior U.S. and South Korean government officials, military personnel, Chinese activists and journalists.

"You could have looked pretty hard [at the phony Gmail log-in screen] and not found any problems," said Haley.

"We used to say, 'Those stupid users, they're falling for obvious attacks,' but we can't do that anymore, maybe we shouldn't have done that in the first place," said Haley. "The social engineering [in targeted attacks] has reached a point where it's pretty incredible."

But unlike Jevans, Haley isn't ready to give hackers' spear phishing expertise all the credit for the rash of big-name break-ins this year.

Haley argued that while spear phishing has become more insidious, it hasn't become more frequent. But the fact that more companies and organizations are willing to retroactively acknowledge an attack or proactively disclose one has created that perception.

He pointed to Google's very public disclosure in early 2010 that it had been hacked, allegedly by Chinese attackers, for kick-starting the trend. "Google seems to be the first to come out and talk publicly [about an attack]," Haley said. "Credit to them."

But he also traced the change to Stuxnet, the worm found by researchers in 2010 that most experts believe was built as a digital weapon, then aimed at Iran's nuclear program.

"Stuxnet made us more aware of these types of attacks and the stakes of those attacks," Haley said. "It was no longer a discussion about the theoretical, but made everyone realize that these kind of attacks could be very serious."

Some security experts have said that the IMF attack smelled of state-sponsored hacking -- attacks that were either government-run or government-financed. While Jevans and Haley were willing to rule that out, they noted that sophisticated spear phishing was well within the capabilities of cyber crime gangs.

"Although it's plausible, I'm not sure I buy it," said Jevans. "Governments certainly don't have more talent at their disposal than do the more sophisticated crimeware gangs."


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