Don't hack back

By Mark Ward COMPUTER security managers trying to keep hackers out of their networks may be breaking the law if they use an aggressive new breed of program that mounts a counterattack against intruders. Most networks that have links to the outside world are protected by a combination of hardware and software known as a “firewall”, which simply blocks unauthorised access. But now a company called the FutureVision Group, of Santa Fe, New Mexico, has unveiled a security system it calls Blitzkrieg, which is designed to retaliate against hackers. The program was developed by a former physicist, Laurence Wood, who says it applies aspects of complexity theory and insights into how biological systems self-organise. Blitzkrieg is installed on a central server, from where it places small “daughter” programs on machines that are part of the network it is meant to protect. Each of these programs monitors its host computer, and builds up a profile of the normal pattern of data traffic. Once the system has learnt this profile, the server will alert security staff to any unusual activity. Wood says the software can detect subtle changes in network use that can even reveal damaging programs hidden inside harmless data, which may infiltrate a network over a period of days. “It’s very good at cross-correlating a large number of complex events,” he told New Scientist. FutureVision plans to demonstrate the software next month at the TechNet International `98 conference in Washington DC. The company says it has developed separate military and business versions of Blitzkrieg. According to Wood, the military version is designed to wage information warfare by launching virus-type attacks against a hacker in an attempt to destroy data on the intruder’s computer. Wood says the company is also producing a less aggressive business version that wards off likely attacks. These include a common type of assault, called a denial-of-service attack, which attempts to knock a server offline rather than steal files. Alistair Kelman, a British lawyer who specialises in IT law, warns that legislation in Britain and the US makes it illegal to damage other people’s computers, even in self-defence. “You are not entitled to go for vigilante-type gestures,” he says. Kelman says that the danger that the system might retaliate against the wrong people, or those who have simply made a mistake, would probably rule out any widespread use. Phil Cracknell, a consultant at security company Zergo, in Basingstoke, Hampshire, says that any security managers contemplating a counterattack would have to be sure they were being hacked before acting. “It would have to be a definite and persistent attack before you would get away with it,” he says. “Verifying that it’s a hacking incident rather than just a mistake can be very difficult.” Cracknell says that Zergo has developed its own anti-hacking software that simply drops the line between the hacker and the target computer,
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