Tracking a cyberattack

The conflict between Russia and the former Soviet Republic of Georgia has underscored the relative anonymity of cyberattackers. During the conflict, attacks were launched against Georgia’s Internet infrastructure, and a debate continues over who might be responsible.

With that debate likely to continue indefinitely, policy-makers are realizing that in cyberspace, ascribing blame might be nearly impossible.

Although the Russian government has denied involvement, it is still under suspicion, along with organized crime groups and garden-variety hackers.

Experts say the distributed denial-of-service attacks that plagued Estonia’s cyber infrastructure in April 2007 and recently overloaded Georgia’s Web sites were launched from hijacked computers that were controlled remotely, making definitive attribution for the attacks nearly impossible.

“There’s just not enough security on servers around the Internet to be able to trace it back and say ‘OK, you are the ones that did it,’” said Jason Jones, network administrator at Tulip Systems, an Atlanta-based Web hosting company, which began hosting the Republic of Georgia’s defense and presidential Web sites after they were forced off-line.

Jones said some of the worst attacks could be traced back to Moscow and St. Petersburg and, after last week’s tentative military cease-fire, many of the major cyberattacks subsided. However, he said there was no way to know who was behind the attacks.

However, John Bumgarner, research director for security technology at the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit, an independent research institute, said the attacks on Georgia and Estonia provide lessons for other countries.  Officials in charge of cyberdefense in various countries should examine their defensive capabilities and close any holes they find, he said.

Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute, said that although attribution might be a national goal and revenge a natural desire, the nature of the Internet makes it possible for a perpetrator to create enough doubt about who is responsible that retribution is probably impossible.

“Attribution is the Holy Grail, and it’s just as easy to find as the Holy Grail,” Jones added. “If you understand that, you stop spending all of your best resources on finding the bad guys and you spend them on doing the work that is necessary to go on operating effectively.”

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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