By Elinor Abreu
(IDG) -- Although the feds aren't talking publicly about a three-years-plus cyberattack believed to be coming from Russia, a member of the National Security Agency's Advisory Board said the case, dubbed "Moonlight Maze," reveals huge cracks in the U.S. government's defense system.
"The fact of the matter is our defense is a shambles, really," said James Adams, who also is chairman of security consultancy iDefense, based in Fairfax, Va.
"We need a deterrent strategy for cyberspace just like we have for nuclear war or conventional war," he said. "The Department of Defense has to step up to the plate because they have the capability and the responsibility."
Adams, the author of a book on cyberwarfare as well as a former writer and Washington bureau chief for the London Sunday Times, details the severity of the situation in an article in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs magazine.
The Moonlight Maze stealth attack, which has targeted sensitive but unclassified information since it was launched in March 1998, is the "largest sustained cyberattack" on the U.S., according to Adams. He said the U.S. government has since been tracking intrusions into the computer networks of the Pentagon and other government agencies, as well as attacks on private universities and research labs.
The hackers, Adams said, have managed to sneak into those computer networks and leave so-called back doors, which can consist of code or instructions planted into existing systems that easily enable hackers to slip back into a system and steal information or do other damaging things.
Investigators don't yet know how many systems have been penetrated, exactly how they've been compromised, or who is responsible, though some of the attacks appear to have originated from Russian Internet addresses, according to Adams.
U.S. officials complained formally to the Russian government last year to no effect, Adams said. Calls to the State Department to confirm this were not returned, and a spokeswoman from the FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center declined to comment.
Adams said he believes the attacks are a concentrated or coordinated effort. Possible suspects include organized crime or other groups that can make money from selling sensitive U.S. information, but Adams said he thinks the Russian government is involved, or at least tolerating, the actions.
Russian hackers have been linked to a number of cases of online theft of credit cards and extortion, including a case involving the credit card numbers of 300,000 CD Universe customers last year. In March, the FBI warned companies conducting business online of the threat posed by organized hackers in Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet countries. However, the e-commerce-related hacks, investigations into which the Russian government has cooperated in, are not related to the Moonlight Maze case, Adams said.
Reports on the threat of cyberterrorism and cyberwar have been released since at least 1991, when Winn Schwartau, author of several books on security, warned Congress of a "digital Pearl Harbor." However, Schwartau and others warn that exaggerating the risks of such attacks can lead people to dismiss them.
"I'm more concerned with the private sector's ability to deal with" cyberattacks, said Michael Assante, VP of intelligence at Vigilinx, a provider of managed security products and services based in Parsippany, N.J. Private companies don't have the resources the government has in order to protect themselves, he added.
Meanwhile, the Russian president and chief executive of a Dublin, Ohio-based software company said it's almost irrelevant where the attacks are coming from, especially because hackers can so easily masquerade their locations.
"You have to be worried about hackers no matter where they're coming from," said Ratmir Timashev of Aelita Software, which has its primary software-development center in St. Petersburg.
In 1999 and 2000, there were more than 1,300 cyberattacks on the Air Force, Army and Navy sites, and more than 700 of them were "serious," according to the General Accounting Office. The FBI is looking into more than 100 cases involving computer intrusions into more than 1,200 government systems, NIPC Director Ronald Dick told Congress in April.
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