Cyber-terrorism is a major theme in my new novel CyberKill. Here’s how one scenario can play out.
The internationally hunted master terrorist, code named “Raptor”, has instructed his sleeper cells in the U.S. to strike at a hydroelectric dam in the Southwest United States. The strike team consists of 4 terrorist cells – cell A, B, C and D.
Cells A and B have received their instruction via an Anonymous Encrypted Remailer and get encrypted email that they access from a free web email site thru an anonymizing proxy from a local cyber-café in Phoenix. Cell C receives its instructions hidden in files on the auction site eBay.com. Cell D receives its message via IRC in channel #satanic_verses.
The coordinated attack is planned to take control of the ‘digital switches’ at the damn, disable the phone system in the western United States, and confuse authorities and the local population that is serviced by the dam.
The 5 members of cell A split up after deciding on how to disrupt communications. Two arrive at the local HQ of the regional phone company and ‘dumpster dive’ for discarded records that show schedules, names, titles, and how day-to-day operations are conducted, then apply for various jobs at the phone company.
One of the cell members is tasked with learning how a phone system works. He goes to the local library, accesses the Net through their high-speed connection and studies the material at there.
Armed with this information, he locates a group of systems at the company that have a default password set and remote access and begins setting up his attack that will have calls originate from each PBX location and call 911 at the same time.
After a week, emails are sent disguised as spam/UCE to all email addresses that are found written on discarded paper found in the trash including vendors and other associates that send and/or receive email from personnel inside the phone company.
Each email sent is infected with viruses designed to capture keystrokes and documents and email them back to the cell members to free email addresses on Hotmail. In the meantime, by using WHOIS search at ARIN (American Registry for Internet Numbers), the cell members have determined which IP block the phone company uses and finds an ISP/hosting company that is inside the same block. The Cell now works out different DoS and vulnerability attacks against the company as well as doing DNS AXFR requests against the various domains they have located by responses to WHOIS records to create comprehensive lists of machines to attack inside the organization.
The phone company’s web site is then mirrored and rewritten to show higher rates, people’s calling patterns, how their data will be sold, and who and when to call to fix it. It is designed to look as real and believable as possible. To top off the disguise of the bogus site, a fake press release is prepared for placing on the Internet about the new phone company policies and changes.
The final piece is to perform a Denial of Service on all of the servers at the phone company, then Spoof their Web page to show the bogus info plus press release and generate lots of phone and email traffic in the region. The result being that no one will be able to contact the phone company and the phone company will not be able to make contact with anyone else while circuits for 911 get tied up as well as slowing coordination inside the company to find out what is happening.
Another member of cell A gets a job as a receptionist. She manages to set up a reverse VPN through the corporate proxy server using an SSH tunnel to give her associates access to servers, documents, passwords, etc. Cell A passes all collected info back to Raptor who in turn passes it back out to all other cells in case they can use it. Though this information may not be useful to Cell A it is a treasure trove for other Cells in operation.
The remaining 2 cell members hack up visitor badges for themselves to get into the phone company’s location as plumbers so they can get an idea of what wires can be cut or which systems need to be DoS’d from the inside. The receptionist assists in disruption of company operations by making sure she passes out virus-infected documents so that if anyone copies them from the file server, emails them, or takes them home, they can access any machines that become infected. She has also provided her Username and Password to her companions so that the internal wireless network can be used as a springboard from the outside. She will call in sick the day of the attack.
Cell A waits….
Cell B is tasked with causing difficulty with the movement of traffic and communication that the public services and authorities use. The objective is to prevent emergency response vehicles and personnel from physically responding to the confusion and damage that will result from the attack on the hydroelectric dam.
Cell B has been calling news agencies and reporting bomb threats every few days for all 12 weeks. Using certain resources they have been going into buildings they’ve found and pulling fire alarms while monitoring police and other agencies on radio. They have also been slipping into public restrooms and removing the shutoff valves for water to cause localized building floods with the intent of damaging any delicate equipment or infrastructure located beneath buildings that have been identified to have large Telco rooms or other communications equipment.
The combination of day and night false alarms and bomb threats are designed to beat down the response teams while testing how fast they are and what routes they take. That way Cell B can cause car accidents, damage plumbing, and break fire hydrants to lower water pressure needed for firefighting to cause massive delays in emergency response times.
Cell B waits….
Cell C has been tasked with disinformation to cause confusion both online and off. They have collected the email addresses of journalists and TV, print, radio, and other mediums and have set up spamming software to spoof them from false email addresses and relay them through open servers. All cell members have been provided a list of names, phone numbers, and titles with people to call and email with misinformation/lies to so they will not be where they are needed. The list includes police, doctors, fireman, company officials, and others that need to be delayed in getting to places where they can coordinate activities.
Members of cell C have also managed to crack a few websites that post news content and have scripts standing by to deface all of the servers at the same time with various disinformation messages that look like real news stories. Each email and web page message says that there is a bomb in a different part of the city and each one makes a claim that it is a different group for a different reason. Many of the messages and exploits will be conducted from various locations through open wireless access points so that the data will look as though it originated from inside those companies that have legitimacy and be impossible to trace back to the Cell. All this information is passed on to Raptor.
Cell C waits….
Cell D is responsible for the actual attack that is timed for Monday morning at the opening of the stock market on Wall Street. Members of cell D have gained root access to the hydroelectric digital switches at the dam and are prepared to open the floodgates and disrupt the electrical grid that the dam is connected to.
Root access was done by a member of cell D who discovered a misconfigured proxy server acting as a doorway between the public Internet and the dam‘s private intranet. The proxy was on a different network dealing with information on guided tours of the dam, but was trusted by their internal network. He quickly found the intranet homepage, and a list of employees at the dam. Armed with that information, the cell member could use the intranet account of any employee that hadn’t changed their password from the default. One of those belonged to a worker that had the power to create new accounts, so the cell member set up his own account on the network with higher privileges. While probing for access via the proxy, members of Cell D discover a Wireless access point. The Wireless LAN has just been installed to be used by Dam Inspectors. From there it was a short hop to gaining root access.
Cell D notifies Raptor that all is in place for a 9 AM attack. Raptor confirms and alerts all other cells that the attack is to begin at 9 AM EST.
A 9 AM EST, warning lights light up on the dam’s control panel. Dam employees looked aghast at the dam’s status boards and saw that the floodgates were opening all the way. They unsuccessfully tried to shut them but to no avail. But that wasn’t the worst of it. Somehow the digital switches that controlled the dam’s access to the power grid went offline and all electrical power to the major metropolitan area below the dam went out.
The dam’s employees had to act fast. They attempted to call supervisory personnel off site of the dam but the phone system was down. They then tried to call police and other emergency personnel in the area and the city below – but that failed to. A wall of water was headed to Phoenix that was now totally without power – and communications.
By the time word reached authorities in Phoenix, there was little time left to mount an emergency response. And the response that was mounted was delayed and confused by the actions of cell C.
When news of the energy in Phoenix hit the main newswires, those in other parts of the country tried to access the web site’s of regional phone company, Dam info, and news agencies and were greeted with the hijacked web pages of the terrorists that were inserted and sowed even more confusion.
Responding to the false information distributed by the terrorists and the potential catastrophe in Phoenix, the stock market not knowing what infrastructure could be next, goes into a tailspin.
To quote Simon Perry, vice president of security for Computer Associates, “It was unthinkable almost a year ago in the general public mind that a common airplane would be used in attacks against buildings. It’s the same here. Information technology will be used to attack the physical world.”