The New Target for State-Sponsored Cyber Attacks: Applications
By Jeff Williams
Skilled hackers are now using simple web application vulnerabilities like SQL Injection to take over database servers. Are you prepared to defend against this new type of threat actor?
Historically, state-sponsored hackers have used memory corruption vulnerabilities like buffer overflows to create malware for their attacks, targeting operating systems and appliances written in C/C++. A new set of attacks, allegedly coming from Iran, is using a new strategy. Web applications and services, written in higher-level languages like Java and .NET, are being targeted to establish a foothold in your datacenter and pivot to other internal systems.
Escalating cyber attacks
In 2009, a highly organized attack known as “Operation Aurora” was carried out by hackers with alleged ties to the Chinese military. Aurora targeted executives’ computers with Internet Explorer-based malware. Dozens of US corporations, including Adobe, Juniper, Rackspace, Yahoo, Symantec, Northrop Grumman, Morgan Stanley, and Dow Chemical, were targets. These attacks were successful in accessing, and possibly modifying, source code repositories.
Historically, state-sponsored cyber-attacks are dominated by these malware-based exploits. Stuxnet, Duqu, and Flame are examples, allegedly orchestrated by the United States and Israel. These seriously harmed Iran’s nuclear program but also sparked Iran to develop its own cyber capability. Attacks against the Dutch certificate authority DigiNotar in 2011 were attributed to Iran. The following year, Shamoon, also attributed to Iran, was launched against gas companies based in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Despite what you see from popular television shows such as CSI and Law and Order (and even worse, Scorpion), it’s sometimes very difficult to know for sure where an attack comes from. Moreover, organizations that have been hacked are under tremendous pressure to report details quickly. To minimize accusations and/or public perception of negligence, there’s pressure to state that the attacks are “sophisticated” or “state-sponsored.” So, while the exact origin of these attacks is not always clear, there is little question that cyber-attacks are a priority for a variety of countries.
The move to application attacks
Very recently, attacks known as “Operation Cleaver,” attributed to Iran, have been revealed. For the past two years, these attacks have targeted critical infrastructure targets including airports, hospitals, telecommunications providers, chemical companies, and governments. More than 50 targets in 16 countries have been successfully compromised.
What makes Operation Cleaver different is that the attacks do not rely on malware to leverage memory exploits. Instead, they are primarily using SQL Injection to take over database servers through web applications. Once inside, the attackers use the database server to launch additional attacks on internal networks. The scary part is that, while these exploits are just as devastating as malware-based attacks, they are considerably easier to find and exploit.
The “Operation Cleaver Report” issued by Cylance claims that “Initial compromise techniques include SQL injection, web attacks, and creative deception based attacks – all of which have been implemented in the past by Chinese and Russian hacking teams.”
The attackers sent SQL Injection attacks that were designed to trick the victim’s database software into executing arbitrary commands, using “xp_cmdshell.” Here is an example targeting a ColdFusion server, from the Cylance report:
The attackers would then send commands through the compromised database server to target other backend systems. Here is an example attempting to use FTP, from the Cylance report:
Renowned security expert Charlie Miller gave a great talk a few years ago on how to build a nation-state Red Team on the cheap. He suggested that for $100 million, a country could bring about “Internet Armageddon.” However, he didn’t consider using simple web application vulnerabilities like the ones in use in the Cleaver attacks. Given the ease and pervasiveness of these vulnerabilities, it might be possible to create an application-focused Cyber Army with much less investment.
We are not ready
The unfortunate reality is that most companies and government agencies are only barely prepared for the very lowest level of threat: the auditor. Auditors are always several years behind the state-of-the-art, because they are using regulations or standards that were drafted years ago and only cover a minimal set of interests. With most security efforts focused on compliance, virtually all organizations are totally unprepared for skilled threat actors, like expert individuals or state-sponsored groups. We should be building systems designed to resist the attacks that we expect 10 years from now, not the attacks that occurred two years ago.
My colleagues at Aspect Security review thousands of applications with manual code review and manual penetration testing. On average, they find a stunning 22.4 serious vulnerabilities per application, and their work unearths thousands of vulnerabilities every year. With the threat of state-sponsored hackers targeting these vulnerabilities on the rise, the time is now to stamp out vulnerabilities like SQL Injection from your application portfolio. As Charlie Miller puts it, the “best defense is to eliminate vulnerabilities in software.”
A pioneer in application security, Jeff Williams has more than 20 years of experience in software development and security. Jeff co-founded and is the CTO of Aspect Security, an application security consulting firm that provides verification, programmatic and training.
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