Feds urge early cooperation in malware investigations

Shutterstock image: sphere of cyber connection.

The financial services industry has garnered a reputation among cybersecurity professionals for being among the more resilient sectors in the face of cyberattacks. Though the recently publicized hack of J.P. Morgan was a fresh reminder that financial services are always in the crosshairs of cyber criminals, the sector's information-sharing center has been praised for building resiliency against threats.

Law enforcement officials made the case at an Oct. 20 conference on cybercrime that this resiliency was due, in part, to public-private cooperation and aggressive federal prosecution of cybercriminals.  

"This is the new normal for the United States government," declared FBI Executive Assistant Director Robert Anderson, the bureau's top cyber official, after rattling off recent Justice Department prosecutions of cybercriminals.

Speakers at the conference hosted by the Financial Services Roundtable in Washington, D.C., tried to answer a common question from the private sector: Who do you call in the government when your firm has been hacked?  

A succinct answer was not forthcoming, though speakers implied that as long as one of a handful of agencies in the departments of Homeland Security or Justice is notified, the government’s response to the incident would be coordinated.

"Now I feel quite confident that if you just have a good, solid government point of contact … in cyber, you're going to get the right people in the room, and that's because our cyber centers are in lockstep," said Jason Truppi of the FBI’s Major Cyber Crimes Unit.

Ari Baranoff, assistant special agent in charge in the Secret Service's Criminal Investigative Division, offered an example of what this "whole-of-government" approach to a cyber breach looks like.

The Secret Service got word in July that a small store in Syracuse, N.Y., was the source of a significant amount of credit card data theft, Baranoff said. Two Secret Service agents trained in cyber forensics visited the store, found malware on its server and removed it. The agency then did some "reverse engineering" with the help of Chicago-based firm Trustwave to determine that the malware was original and not well-known to security professionals. The DHS Computer Emergency Readiness Team issued an alert to industry based on that analysis of the "Backoff" point-of-sale malware.

Upon seeing the CERT notice, the UPS Store realized that it had had the same malware on its system for months, according to Baranoff, and the firm was able to limit the malware’s spread as a result.

Federal officials hope the relatively fast government-industry response to the Backoff malware will become the norm. But many private firms tend to take an early crack at addressing cyber vulnerabilities before alerting authorities, said the Secret Service's Katherine Pierce. That is problematic because "when it comes to cybercrime investigations, your evidence trail can vanish quickly," she said.

About the Author

Sean Lyngaas is an FCW staff writer covering defense, cybersecurity and intelligence issues. Prior to joining FCW, he was a reporter and editor at Smart Grid Today, where he covered everything from cyber vulnerabilities in the U.S. electric grid to the national energy policies of Britain and Mexico. His reporting on a range of global issues has appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Economist, The Washington Diplomat and The Washington Post.

Lyngaas is an active member of the National Press Club, where he served as chairman of the Young Members Committee. He earned his M.A. in international affairs from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and his B.A. in public policy from Duke University.

Click here for previous articles by Lyngaas, or connect with him on Twitter: @snlyngaas.


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