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Spies greater threat than terrorists to infosecurity

The government is more worried about political, economic and technical espionage than terrorists when it comes to cyberattacks, the government's Centre for the Protection of the National Infrastructure (CPNI) revealed last week.

A spokesman for CPNI said the centre was particularly concerned that cyberspies were using social engineering tricks to persuade people to give them sensitive data, circumventing IT security systems.

According to reports, the CPNI has written to 300 top businesses warning that Chinese hackers are particularly active and to take special precautions against them.

In a speech to journalists in November, the director general of MI5, Jonathan Evans, said, "Despite the Cold War ending nearly two decades ago, my service is still expending resources to defend the UK against unreconstructed attempts by Russia, China and others to spy on us. A number of countries continue to devote considerable time and energy trying to steal our sensitive technology on civilian and military projects, and trying to obtain political and economic intelligence at our expense.

"They do not only use traditional methods to collect intelligence but increasingly deploy sophisticated technical attacks, using the internet to penetrate computer networks.

"It is a matter of some disappointment to me that I still have to devote significant amounts of equipment, money and staff to countering this threat. They are resources which I would far rather devote to countering the threat from international terrorism - a threat to the whole international community, not just the UK.

Security software house McAfee warned last week that it expected industrial espionage to be the major threat to businesses in the coming year, Some 120 countries are testing one anothers' network and database defences, it said.

Speaking at the launch of the annual Sans Institute report on the top 20 threats to IT last week, a spokesman for CPNI said defending against social engineering attacks was difficult because it required users to have a balance between naivete and cynicism.

A spokesman for CPNI said attackers often pretended to be in authority over the victim, and used tricks such as threatening to fire them. In a likes and similarities attack, the attacker pretended to see the victim as a kindred spirit and groomed them.

A reciprocation attack involves "doing favours" for each other, and a social validation attack uses the approach that "your friend or boss did me this favour, please will you help me". Scarcity attacks put pressure on the victim to rush them into insecure behaviour.

Awareness and training were good defences, but a spokesman for CPNI said people need to practise to overcome their shyness in confronting requests for insecure acts.

"There are also times when an attacker can exploit your actions even when you are just doing you job," he said. "This can happen when you feel you are just a cog in a broken machine," he said.


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