Fighting Malware and Cybercrime with Old School Criminology

Professors are trying to get into the heads of would-be cyber criminals to predict their behavior and develop better defenses

It is an accepted axiom of computer and network security that the human being is the weakest link. Researchers at the University of Maryland are applying traditional criminology concepts to demonstrate that human beings may be the weakest link for the attackers as well. The insights learned may help improve computer defenses and thwart potential attacks.

The work at the University of Maryland is a unique cross-practice collaboration between Michel Cukier—associate professor of reliability engineering, and David Maimon—assistant professor of criminology. The two are working together to study cybercrime through the lens of old school criminology concepts to develop recommendations IT managers can use to prevent attacks and protect their networks.

"We believe that criminological insights in the study of cybercrime are important, since they may support the development of concrete security policies that consider not only the technical element of cybercrime but also the human component," Maimon said.

The two are examining cyber attacks from both sides of the fence—the point of view of the user, or victim, and the point of view of the attacker. The two analyzed trends of computer attacks against the university network between 2007 and 2009, and came to the conclusion that successful attacks are the result of the convergence of motivated offenders, suitable victims, and the absence of capable guardians.

The research supports the initial axiom that users are the weakest link in computer security. "Users expose the network to attacks," Cukier said. Simply by browsing sites on the Web, Internet users make their computers' IP addresses and ports visible to possible attackers. So, "the users' behavior does reflect on the entire organization's security."

Criminals are like flowing water--most follow the path of least resistance. They attack the low-hanging fruit--the simplest vulnerabilities to exploit, and seek out holes in the most abundant platforms because those have the highest chances of a successful return. The fact that the user is the weakest link means that the user is the path of least resistance, and yields information that can be used to predict the behavior of the attackers.

Cukier and Maimon propose a partial solution for IT admins that includes increased user-awareness. Educating users about common, or emerging attacks, and best security practices to avoid malicious exploits is always a good idea. But, years of clamoring for increased user awareness haven’t done much to change the fact that users are still the weakest link.

The other half of their suggestion may prove more helpful, though. The researchers propose that IT admins should have a better understanding of their users’ social backgrounds and online routines in order to more accurately predict the source of attacks, and better focus network and computer defenses where they will have the most impact. IT admins can't--and shouldn't--defend equally against all threats. It is a standard risk analysis to combine information about attacks circulating in the wild, with knowledge of whether or not the network is exposed to those threats, and what the potential impact might be.

The bottom line seems to be that both security admins, and cyber criminals agree that the user is the weakest link, and that IT admins who apply that fact to traditional criminology concepts may be able to implement better network defense. Think like a criminal to stay one step ahead.

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