A CyberVor silver lining for feds?

Shutterstock image: secure data stream.

While federal websites were likely in the mix of targets, experts said agencies complying with FISMA and other cybersecurity guidelines should be OK.

Although federal websites may be inherently vulnerable to the exploits used by the Russian "CyberVor" gang that purportedly stole more than a billion password and user combinations, they also have a few things going for them if they've been following the rules, IT experts say.

The titanic CyberVor hack discovery announced by cybersecurity provider Hold Security the week of Aug. 4 -- perhaps not coincidentally the same week the Black Hat cybersecurity conference convened in Las Vegas -- dwarfs previous data breaches. The company claims the Russian cybercriminal gang behind the hack amassed over 4.5 billion records stolen from almost half a million websites.

The CyberVor gang, according to Hold, employed a black market-purchased botnet over a period of months that could identify SQL vulnerabilities on the sites it visited. The botnet conducted possibly the largest security audit ever, said Hold, combing through 420,000 websites for user and password login combinations and email addresses. The company said the gang's botnet searched for sites vulnerable to SQL injection flaws that would allow it in to find the logins that could later be spammed or phished.

Federal agency websites are in the mix of the botnet's potential targets. "Any web application that accepts user input -- federal agency sites included -- may be vulnerable to SQL injection,” said Joshua Roback, security architect at cloud security provider SilverSky.

DHS's National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center is aware of the reports regarding the potential breach of Internet security data, department spokesman S.Y. Lee said in an Aug. 7 email to FCW. "Through the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team, we are working with the FBI and other interagency, private sector and international partners to validate the information,” Lee wrote.

Lee said DHS is working with other federal entities to monitor for potential intrusions through the EINSTEIN sensor network and analyze incident reports for the dot-gov domain.

Just another breach

The potential vulnerability to SQL attacks could be more pronounced if third-party plugins or other types of code developed outside the organization are used on the site, according to Roback.

SQL, or Structure Query Language, is a commonly-used programming language that allows interactions with databases. An SQL injection, according to security experts, is an attack mechanism that essentially weaponizes the code, with a hacker inserting SQL code into an input box on a website, like a search field. The code is then passed to the database where the SQL server will execute the query. That can lead to the database returning data it should not, including usernames and passwords.

According to Hold, the CyberVor breach was indiscriminate, and collected information from a wide variety of websites, at companies large and small, employers and even individuals. It did not seek out federal agency sites specifically.

Ola Sage, CEO of e-Management and a member of the Executive Committee of the Information Technology Sector Coordinating Council (IT SCC) that advises DHS, said government has been beefing up and enforcing security protections and precautions in the face of constant cyber threats. This was just the latest. "Anecdotally," she said, "the news of this didn't create more of a ruckus at federal agencies than other big data breaches."

Following FISMA

Experts said that if agencies have been complying with the Federal Information Security Management Act and other federal rules and practices to guard against cyberattack, they should be OK for the most part.

"Most, if not all, compliance regulations relating to the web application account for the remediation of SQL Injection vulnerabilities," said Roback. "FISMA specifically references this requirement in controls RA-5 and SI-3."

Gerry Grealish, chief marketing officer for Perspecsys, agreed.

In an email to FCW, he said that "steps can be taken to significantly reduce the risk, including proper filtering of entered user credentials, use of technologies like web application firewalls, and segregation of databases containing customer information.

"One of the documents FISMA points to for data security is NIST Special Publication 800-53,” said Grealish. "Individual controls such as vulnerability scanning and malicious code protection are designed to help ensure that agencies’ websites are developed to the latest standards so they are less vulnerable to these types of attacks."

That's not to say federal websites are out of the woods at this point, however. While some cybersecurity experts have suggested the CyberVor affair has been over-hyped by Hold Security, investigators are wary that the massive trove of stolen data has not yet been used. "The jury's still out on exactly what they were after," said Sage.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a staff writer at FCW.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

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