Pentagon to Create New Cybersecurity Tools

Researchers are expected to unveil new tools allowing government organizations to quickly recover from “denial-of-service” attacks.

A top U.S. commander works on his computer inside a C-130 Hercules airplane on the way to Kabul. 
National Journal
Aug. 18, 2015, 8:18 a.m.

The Pentagon has in mind a three-pronged coun­ter­at­tack against a dec­ades-old form of cy­ber as­sault that con­tin­ues to para­lyze gov­ern­ment and in­dustry net­works, des­pite its low cost of some­times $10 a hit.

Be­gin­ning next spring, mil­it­ary-fun­ded re­search­ers are sched­uled to pro­duce new tools that would quickly en­able or­gan­iz­a­tions to bounce back from so-called dis­trib­uted deni­al-of-ser­vice at­tacks.

A re­cov­ery rate of at most 10 seconds is the goal, ac­cord­ing to the De­fense De­part­ment.

Today, at­tack­ers have a re­l­at­ively easy time aim­ing bogus traffic at com­puter serv­ers to knock them off­line. One reas­on is that com­puter sys­tems of­ten are con­sol­id­ated, mak­ing for a wide tar­get area. An­oth­er weak­ness is the pre­dict­able be­ha­vi­or of sys­tems that sup­port Web ser­vices. And fi­nally, cer­tain types of DDoS at­tacks that evince little ma­li­cious traffic go un­detec­ted.

Re­search­ers chosen by the De­fense Ad­vanced Re­search Pro­jects Agency will at­tempt to deny at­tack­ers such open­ings through a three-year pro­gram called Ex­treme DDoS De­fense, ac­cord­ing to Pentagon of­fi­cials. The tent­at­ive start date is April 1, 2016.

The sta­bil­ity of agency op­er­a­tions, bank­ing, on­line gam­ing and many oth­er daily activ­it­ies are at stake here.

A DDoS at­tack against Es­to­nia in 2007 al­legedly or­ches­trated by Rus­si­an-backed hack­ers downed gov­ern­ment and in­dustry In­ter­net ac­cess na­tion­wide for two weeks. More re­cently, crooks have be­gun of­fer­ing Lud­dites DDoS-for-hire ser­vices at sub­scrip­tion rates of $10-$300 a month, ac­cord­ing to journ­al­ist Bri­an Krebs.

Liz­ard Squad, a ma­jor pro­vider, al­legedly was be­hind sev­er­al per­sist­ent at­tacks on on­line gam­ing ser­vices Xbox and Play­Sta­tion. A string of 2011 cy­ber as­saults against Wall Street banks, in­clud­ing Cap­it­al One and Sun­Trust Banks, was at­trib­uted to Ir­a­ni­an hack­ers.

Just this month, at the an­nu­al Black Hat se­cur­ity con­fer­ence in Las Ve­gas, Trend Mi­cro re­search­ers said they ob­served at­tack­ers try­ing to over­power sys­tems in Wash­ing­ton that mon­it­or the phys­ic­al se­cur­ity of gas pumps. Luck­ily, the devices were fake “hon­ey­pot” traps.

“Re­sponses to DDoS at­tacks are too slow and manu­ally driv­en, with dia­gnos­is and for­mu­la­tion of fil­ter­ing rules of­ten tak­ing hours to for­mu­late and in­stan­ti­ate. In con­trast, mil­it­ary com­mu­nic­a­tion of­ten de­mands that dis­rup­tions be lim­ited to minutes or less,” DARPA of­fi­cials said in an Aug. 14 an­nounce­ment about the new pro­gram.

The fund­ing level for the pro­ject was not dis­closed but mul­tiple grants are ex­pec­ted to be awar­ded. In­ter­ested re­search­ers must sub­mit pro­pos­als by noon Oct. 13.

XD3 will en­deavor to thwart DDoS at­tacks by “dis­pers­ing cy­ber as­sets” in fa­cil­it­ies and on net­works, of­fi­cials said. Cur­rently, the prob­lem is that cloud com­put­ing ar­range­ments and oth­er crit­ic­al in­fra­struc­ture sys­tems “rely heav­ily on highly shared, cent­ral­ized serv­ers and data cen­ters,” they ad­ded.

The new tools also will try “dis­guising the char­ac­ter­ist­ics and be­ha­vi­ors of those as­sets” to com­plic­ate the plan­ning of DDoS launches, of­fi­cials said.

The trick with so-called “low-volume” DDoS at­tacks is they do not look like traffic over­loads. The ex­tern­al com­puter mes­sages seem be­nign but are ac­tu­ally ex­haust­ing a sys­tem’s memory or pro­cessors. One work­around here might be shar­ing in­form­a­tion among sys­tems that then can “de­cide col­lect­ively wheth­er at­tacks have oc­curred, and/or to de­term­ine what mit­ig­a­tions might be most ef­fect­ive,” of­fi­cials said.

One group of XD3 re­search­ers will be as­signed to in­spect the designs for un­in­ten­ded se­cur­ity holes.

Any­one want­ing to be a re­view­er must hold a top-secret clear­ance, ac­cord­ing to the con­tract rules.

“The ob­ject­ive of design re­views is the pro­act­ive iden­ti­fic­a­tion of weak­nesses and vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies that would re­duce the ef­fect­ive­ness of DDoS at­tack de­tec­tion or mit­ig­a­tion,” of­fi­cials said. The idea also is to “ap­prise per­formers of po­ten­tial DDoS at­tack meth­ods or fea­tures that they might not have con­sidered.”

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