November 17, 2009, 2:40 AM — Nations that want to disrupt their enemies' banking, media and government resources don't need their own technical skills; they can simply order botnet attack services from cybercriminals.
That's a point made in McAfee's new report "Virtually Here: The Age of Cyber Warfare," which draws from the opinions of about 20 experts, including William Crowell, former deputy director of the U.S. National Security Agency.
There have been several larger denial-of-service attacks over the past few years that raised suspicions about whether they were initiated by nations in conflict against their adversaries. Such incidents include cyberattacks that hit Estonia and Georgia, which some viewed as traceable to Russia. More recently, many were tempted to blame North Korea for this year's July 4th cyberattacks on South Korea and U.S. resources (though others disagreed).
The McAfee report, prepared by Paul B. Kurtz, an analyst at Good Harbor Consulting, presents the opinions of diplomats, researchers and others about the nature of cyberattacks that seem concentrated on a specific country but where it's hard, if not impossible, to determine whether or not another nation-state initiated the attack.
One reason it may be hard to tell is simply because a nation state may go to the criminal underground to secretly pay for a massive botnet attack against its enemy. In this case, it's conceivable that the criminals themselves would not fully understand what they're being asked to do since the request and payment of botnet attack services are typically carried out as anonymously as possible, says Dmitri Alperovitch, vice president of threat research at McAfee.
"There is an overlap between cyberwar and cybercrime," former NSA official William Crowell points out in the report. "For instance, anyone can go to a criminal group and rent a botnet. We've reached a point where you only need money to cause disruption, not know-how, and this is something that needs to be addressed." The hacking skills of a criminal group may make them natural allies for nation states looking for a way to deny involvement in cyberattacks, it's noted.