PhotoChances are, when you're scanning the news you don't spend a lot of time reading about the latest cyber warfare attack. After all, it's just countries battling one another with computers – doesn't affect consumers, right?

Don't be too sure about that. In late March a massive cyber attack took place, not between warring nations but between an anti-spam group and a hosting service that rents server space to spammers. It resulted in what experts are calling the largest denial-of-service attack in the history of the Internet.

The players were Spamhous, a European group fighting spam, and Cyberbunker, a Dutch company that rents server space to a wide variety of clients, including those that send out spam. When Spamhous added Cyberbunker to its blacklist, war broke out.

It's war!

Swarms of computers suddenly started sending out huge data streams. In this latest attack, cyber warriors exploited the Internet's Domain Naming System (DNS), bombarding Spamhous' servers with data requests. Very soon, the servers couldn't be reached by anyone else.

But the effects didn't stop there. Many Internet users in Europe and North America found the Internet suddenly slowed or ground to a halt. Some found streaming a video on Netflix next to impossible. Others had trouble reaching websites they visit on a daily basis.

According to Chester Wisniewski, a senior security advisor at Sophos Canada, Tier One service providers, who carry the bulk of Internet traffic, were simply overwhelmed by the volume of traffic from this attack. The signals you send from your computer to reach a particular place on the network had to contend with this huge overload of traffic. In this case consumers were collateral damage.

Life and death

But more may be at stake than inconvenience. Some believe that money and lives could be at risk due to the rising levels of cyber warfare. One of these people is former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who, from his seat in the Pentagon, was getting an up-close view of the threat every day.

Leon Panetta
Before leaving office Panetta told Time Magazine that Americans tend to wait for a crisis before acting. In this case, he says, that could be dangerous. Sophisticated cyber warriors can turn loose worms, bots and malware that can infect networks all over the Internet, causing major damage.

“It is the kind of capability that can basically take down a power grid, take down a water system, take down a transportation system, take down a financial system,” Panetta told the magazine. “We are now in a world in which countries are developing the capability to engage in the kind of attacks that can virtually paralyze a country.”

That's because consumers – not just businesses – are heavily dependent on the web in a way they were not just a decade ago. Think about it – when was the last time you wrote a check?

Hackers one step ahead

Experts at Georgia Tech -- the Georgia Tech Information Security Center (GTISC) and the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) -- constantly work to stay one step ahead of the hackers. They say 2013 is posing some steep challenges.

One of their concerns is the increase in cloud-based botnets. For example, attackers can use stolen credit card data to purchase cloud computing resources and create dangerous clusters of temporary virtual attack systems.

Cyber criminals can even manipulate search engine algorithms and other automated mechanisms that control what information you see when you do a search. Moving beyond typical search engine poisoning, researchers believe that manipulating users’ search histories may be a next step in ways that attackers use legitimate resources for illegitimate gains.

Fertile ground

PhotoThe most fertile ground may be in mobile browser and mobile wallet vulnerabilities. While only a very small number of U.S. mobile devices show signs of infection, the explosive proliferation of smartphones will continue to tempt attackers into exploiting user and technology-based vulnerabilities, particularly with the browser function and digital wallet apps.

The threat could be made worse because employers appear too willing to allow employees to access corporate systems through their personal devices. This, the experts fear, could be a virtual Trojan horse, giving hackers unfettered access to private data and vital infrastructure systems.

To combat this global threat INTERPOL is stepping up its cooperation with companies in the cyber security industry. INTERPOL's Global Complex for Innovation (IGCI) announced earlier this month it will equip international law enforcement with the tools and knowledge needed to better deal with the escalating problem. Eugene Kaspersky, CEO and co-founder of Kaspersky Lab, says his company will help.

“I have been pushing for the creation of what I used to call an ‘Internet-INTERPOL’ for over a decade now, and at last it has finally come to pass,” Kaspersky said. “It should come as no surprise that we wholeheartedly support this initiative.”

The new international policing effort is expected to be operational early next year.

What to do

There's very little consumers can do about a cyber battle that slows the Internet or doesn't allow them to visit a particular site. Of more pressing concern is the security of your personal devices.

Make sure you have up to date anti-virus software installed on all devices, not just desktop PCs. Mobile devices are increasingly vulnerable to attack. Mobile security software packages cost as little as $15.

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