Can feds dodge the Cisco router hack?

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Hackers have claimed new territory, hacking into commercial routers, but federal agencies may not have anything to fear – at least, not anything more than the private sector.

FireEye’s Mandiant team announced that they had discovered 14 Cisco routers implanted with “SYNful Knock” malware in four countries – Ukraine, Philippines, Mexico and India – on Sept. 15.

"This is the ultimate spying tool, the ultimate corporate espionage tool, the ultimate cybercrime tool," FireEye Chief Executive Dave DeWalt told Reuters.

Cisco said it alerted customers of the problem in August.

Hackers didn’t exploit a hardware or software vulnerability, but instead used “valid administrative credentials or physical access to the victim’s device” to implant the malware, Cisco wrote in a blog post.

As FireEye and Reuters both noted, commercial routers haven’t really been thought of as vulnerable to takeover, despite the fact that they operate outside of the full gaze of organizational security tools.

“Imagine for a second that every bit of data going in and out of [global] companies could be compromised without any knowledge of it,” the FireEye team wrote. “You might first assume that all of the databases or servers would need to be under attacker control. But the router's position on the edge of the network can now be turned against you to achieve this goal.”

DeWalt said it was likely a nation with sophisticated cyber capabilities behind the attack, but didn’t name a probable culprit.

FCW asked the Homeland Security Department and Cisco for estimates of the number of Cisco devices currently being used by federal agencies, but neither organization was able to offer figures. (FireEye noted, as Cisco did, that Cisco doesn’t seem to be to blame for these attacks; fault appears to lie with organizations having poor controls over router access.)

A Cisco spokeswoman said that federal agencies don’t appear to face any greater risk than the private sector, and urged agencies to limit physical access to routers and ensure privileged credentials are protected.

“[W]e haven't found this on our current Fed customers' networks and we're currently working with all our customers to identify indicators of compromise that can help them determine their exposure to this attack method,” FireEye Communications Director Dan Wire told FCW. He added the caveat, “We can only report on what we actually found and can't make assumptions if federal agencies are impacted.”

A spokesman for the Homeland Security Department and the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team refused to comment on the attack.

Feds may be in the clear for now, but the threat is likely to persist.

“We believe that the detection of SYNful Knock is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to attacks utilizing modified router images (regardless of vendor),” FireEye’s announcement warned. “As attackers focus their efforts on gaining persistent access, it is likely that other undetected variants of this implant are being deployed throughout the globe.”

About the Author

Zach Noble is a former FCW staff writer.


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