Cyberwar increasingly defined by espionage and regional conflicts, argues FireEye

The word turning into giant malware playground

The world is still in the foothills of the cyberwar era but already online confrontation is being defined by an unstable and possibly dangerous mixture of proxy conflicts and old-fashioned espionage mixed with lower-level digital activism, security firm FireEye has said.

In an overview of targeted attack trends during 2013 that strips away some of the confusing detail that can making trend-prediction a dangerous profession, its researchers pull out two categories of attack type of particular importance.

The biggest of these was espionage, not a new phenomenon by any means but one that was suddenly charged during 2013 by the revelations about the NSA's massive international surveillance program.

But the number of targeted campaigns detected during the year was also striking, including Red October (that hit former Soviet states), Ke3chang (a large-scale allegedly Chinese attack), the major NetTraveler incursion (a dragnet run from China), and a swarm against the G20 meeting held in Russia in August. The fact that many of these campaigns appear to go back years suggests that the world is only now waking up to something that has been going on for some time in secret.

A second and sometimes ignored form was the many regional rivalries that seem to be using cyberwar as proxies for simmering disputes. The best example of this is the small mountain of malware that has emerged from the Syrian conflict, possibly the first time a government has used digital war on this scale as part of a civil war.

Other examples include the attacks traded between India and Pakistan, the numerous incursions by North Korea against South Korea (probably returned), and the Chinese obsession with ethnic tensions within its borders in Tibet and among the Uyghurs.

These low-level digital conflicts are generally seen as local affairs by western malware analysts but they appear to be slowly but surely expanding. It's not a stretch to suggest that they will greatly proliferate in the next year or two simply because the world is already beset by these conflicts.

One category that was strangely low-key in 2013 was ideological activism of the Anonymous Group ilk. Perhaps it's not that these attacks aren't happening - there is plenty of evidence that they are still out there - but they are no longer seen as the major risk they were between 2010 and 2012.

Despite the rise of Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs) as a major innovation in attack complexity, the bulk of targeted malware can still get away with the fairly simple design of combining zero day attacks with small changes to older malware. Much to the chagrin of antivirus firms and their customers, this still renders many attacks almost invisible for almost no effort.

"What I find interesting is that simple changes made to existing malware are often more than enough to evade detection," said FireEye researcher Nart Villeneuve.

"Even more surprising is that technically 'unsophisticated' malware is often found in the payload of "sophisticated" zero-day exploits. And this year quite a number of zero-days were used in targeted attacks."

This makes it relatively simple for attackers to reheat malware used in older attacks for use in new campaigns.

FireEye said it had spotted the emergence of malware arms dealers and even 'hitmen', groups willing to supply malware packages to the highest bidder as part of a commercial service. The best example of this in 2013 was the Hidden Lynx attacks.

"While the noisier groups will continue their operations as usual being documented in research papers rarely seems to faze them I believe that some groups will adopt increasingly stealthy techniques in the near future," concluded Villneuve.

One trend FireEye doesn't analyse is what all this means for the security market itself. One answer is more acquisitions at higher prices, not least by FireEye itself which recently announced it was buying security forensics outfit Mandiant for $1 billion.

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