Agriculture hit by hacker attack

The Agriculture Department's Foreign Agricultural Service last week fell victim to a new computer attack which was planted by an unauthorized user taking control of the agency's system.

A hacker broke into the service's system on June 9 and began sending out a deluge of messages to an undetermined number of systems connected to the Internet a department spokesman confirmed. The massive number of outbound messages was intended to overload the systems receiving them causing those systems to malfunction or crash.

This type of intrusion is commonly referred to as a "denial of service" attack because although the attacks do not damage data directly they deny service to users. The attacks can involve a deluge of junk mail that simply clogs a system or specific disruptive commands such as instructing a system to shut down.

After shutting down its systems to stop the messages the Foreign Agricultural Service which promotes U.S. goods to foreign countries and works on trade policy that involves agricultural products restored 70 percent of its systems by June 11 said Jim Petterson a USDA spokesman.

Officials determined that the restored systems were not damaged and they are examining the remaining 30 percent of the systems to determine if the intruder tampered with them he said.

The service is now loading a new operating system with more robust security and revisiting operating procedures.

Richard Power an analyst with San Francisco-based Computer Security Institute said few security safeguards that can ward off this type of attack have been developed because it is relatively new. It also is a fairly simple attack in terms of technical requirements.

The Internet as a Weapon

While many attacks result from exploiting a bug or a vulnerability in a system or in software denial of service attacks result from using the Internet as a weapon against itself he said. As a result hackers with varying levels of expertise can launch these types of attacks.

"There are ways to secure your Web site but there are also new vulnerabilities being found everyday " Power said. "It's a more serious attack than just vandalizing the Web site itself. Numerous high-profile [government] Web sites have been vandalized. Now the ante has been upped."

Marcus Ranum chief executive officer of Baltimore-based Network Flight Recorder was one of the pioneers of the firewall and has been following the exploits of hackers for years. His company devises the network equivalent of an airplane's black box which records cockpit conversation and the movement of an airplane. The network flight recorder records all network traffic.

Ranum said these types of attacks can cost organizations between $20 000 and $40 000 in labor costs and the same amount for hardware repairs.

"It's basic terrorism pure and simple " he said. "For a long time the hacker community was not particularly into destructive attacks. The guys who are doing this kind of thing are coming up with more and more tools for it and we're going to see a lot more of this. It's fundamentally impossible to prevent denial of service. The only way to really prevent it is to go directly to the source and make them stop."

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