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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

1.2 Threats

We can consider potential harm to assets in two ways: First, we can look at what bad things can happen to assets, and second, we can look at who or what can cause or allow those bad things to happen. These two perspectives enable us to determine how to protect assets.

Think for a moment about what makes your computer valuable to you. First, you use it as a tool for sending and receiving email, searching the web, writing papers, and performing many other tasks, and you expect it to be available for use when you want it. Without your computer these tasks would be harder, if not impossible. Second, you rely heavily on your computer’s integrity. When you write a paper and save it, you trust that the paper will reload exactly as you saved it. Similarly, you expect that the photo a friend passes you on a flash drive will appear the same when you load it into your computer as when you saw it on your friend’s computer. Finally, you expect the “personal” aspect of a personal computer to stay personal, meaning you want it to protect your confidentiality. For example, you want your email messages to be just between you and your listed recipients; you don’t want them broadcast to other people. And when you write an essay, you expect that no one can copy it without your permission.

These three aspects, confidentiality, integrity, and availability, make your computer valuable to you. But viewed from another perspective, they are three possible ways to make it less valuable, that is, to cause you harm. If someone steals your computer, scrambles data on your disk, or looks at your private data files, the value of your computer has been diminished or your computer use has been harmed. These characteristics are both basic security properties and the objects of security threats.

We can define these three properties as follows.

  • availability: the ability of a system to ensure that an asset can be used by any authorized parties
  • integrity: the ability of a system to ensure that an asset is modified only by authorized parties
  • confidentiality: the ability of a system to ensure that an asset is viewed only by authorized parties

These three properties, hallmarks of solid security, appear in the literature as early as James P. Anderson’s essay on computer security [AND73] and reappear frequently in more recent computer security papers and discussions. Taken together (and rearranged), the properties are called the C-I-A triad or the security triad. ISO 7498-2 [ISO89] adds to them two more properties that are desirable, particularly in communication networks:

  • authentication: the ability of a system to confirm the identity of a sender
  • nonrepudiation or accountability: the ability of a system to confirm that a sender cannot convincingly deny having sent something

The U.S. Department of Defense [DOD85] adds auditability: the ability of a system to trace all actions related to a given asset. The C-I-A triad forms a foundation for thinking about security. Authenticity and nonrepudiation extend security notions to network communications, and auditability is important in establishing individual accountability for computer activity. In this book we generally use the C-I-A triad as our security taxonomy so that we can frame threats, vulnerabilities, and controls in terms of the C-I-A properties affected. We highlight one of these other properties when it is relevant to a particular threat we are describing. For now, we focus on just the three elements of the triad.

What can happen to harm the confidentiality, integrity, or availability of computer assets? If a thief steals your computer, you no longer have access, so you have lost availability; furthermore, if the thief looks at the pictures or documents you have stored, your confidentiality is compromised. And if the thief changes the content of your music files but then gives them back with your computer, the integrity of your data has been harmed. You can envision many scenarios based around these three properties.

The C-I-A triad can be viewed from a different perspective: the nature of the harm caused to assets. Harm can also be characterized by four acts: interception, interruption, modification, and fabrication. These four acts are depicted in Figure 1-5. From this point of view, confidentiality can suffer if someone intercepts data, availability is lost if someone or something interrupts a flow of data or access to a computer, and integrity can fail if someone or something modifies data or fabricates false data. Thinking of these four kinds of acts can help you determine what threats might exist against the computers you are trying to protect.

Figure 1.5

FIGURE 1-5 Four Acts to Cause Security Harm

To analyze harm, we next refine the C-I-A triad, looking more closely at each of its elements.


Some things obviously need confidentiality protection. For example, students’ grades, financial transactions, medical records, and tax returns are sensitive. A proud student may run out of a classroom screaming “I got an A!” but the student should be the one to choose whether to reveal that grade to others. Other things, such as diplomatic and military secrets, companies’ marketing and product development plans, and educators’ tests, also must be carefully controlled. Sometimes, however, it is not so obvious that something is sensitive. For example, a military food order may seem like innocuous information, but a sudden increase in the order could be a sign of incipient engagement in conflict. Purchases of food, hourly changes in location, and access to books are not things you would ordinarily consider confidential, but they can reveal something that someone wants to be kept confidential.

The definition of confidentiality is straightforward: Only authorized people or systems can access protected data. However, as we see in later chapters, ensuring confidentiality can be difficult. For example, who determines which people or systems are authorized to access the current system? By “accessing” data, do we mean that an authorized party can access a single bit? the whole collection? pieces of data out of context? Can someone who is authorized disclose data to other parties? Sometimes there is even a question of who owns the data: If you visit a web page, do you own the fact that you clicked on a link, or does the web page owner, the Internet provider, someone else, or all of you?

In spite of these complicating examples, confidentiality is the security property we understand best because its meaning is narrower than that of the other two. We also understand confidentiality well because we can relate computing examples to those of preserving confidentiality in the real world.

Confidentiality relates most obviously to data, although we can think of the confidentiality of a piece of hardware (a novel invention) or a person (the whereabouts of a wanted criminal). Here are some properties that could mean a failure of data confidentiality:

  • An unauthorized person accesses a data item.
  • An unauthorized process or program accesses a data item.
  • A person authorized to access certain data accesses other data not authorized (which is a specialized version of “an unauthorized person accesses a data item”).
  • An unauthorized person accesses an approximate data value (for example, not knowing someone’s exact salary but knowing that the salary falls in a particular range or exceeds a particular amount).
  • An unauthorized person learns the existence of a piece of data (for example, knowing that a company is developing a certain new product or that talks are underway about the merger of two companies).

Notice the general pattern of these statements: A person, process, or program is (or is not) authorized to access a data item in a particular way. We call the person, process, or program a subject, the data item an object, the kind of access (such as read, write, or execute) an access mode, and the authorization a policy, as shown in Figure 1-6. These four terms reappear throughout this book because they are fundamental aspects of computer security.

Figure 1.6

FIGURE 1-6 Access Control

One word that captures most aspects of confidentiality is view, although you should not take that term literally. A failure of confidentiality does not necessarily mean that someone sees an object and, in fact, it is virtually impossible to look at bits in any meaningful way (although you may look at their representation as characters or pictures). The word view does connote another aspect of confidentiality in computer security, through the association with viewing a movie or a painting in a museum: look but do not touch. In computer security, confidentiality usually means obtaining but not modifying. Modification is the subject of integrity, which we consider in the next section.


Examples of integrity failures are easy to find. A number of years ago a malicious macro in a Word document inserted the word “not” after some random instances of the word “is;” you can imagine the havoc that ensued. Because the document was generally syntactically correct, people did not immediately detect the change. In another case, a model of the Pentium computer chip produced an incorrect result in certain circumstances of floating-point arithmetic. Although the circumstances of failure were rare, Intel decided to manufacture and replace the chips. Many of us receive mail that is misaddressed because someone typed something wrong when transcribing from a written list. A worse situation occurs when that inaccuracy is propagated to other mailing lists such that we can never seem to correct the root of the problem. Other times we find that a spreadsheet seems to be wrong, only to find that someone typed “space 123” in a cell, changing it from a numeric value to text, so the spreadsheet program misused that cell in computation. Suppose someone converted numeric data to roman numerals: One could argue that IV is the same as 4, but IV would not be useful in most applications, nor would it be obviously meaningful to someone expecting 4 as an answer. These cases show some of the breadth of examples of integrity failures.

Integrity is harder to pin down than confidentiality. As Stephen Welke and Terry Mayfield [WEL90, MAY91, NCS91a] point out, integrity means different things in different contexts. When we survey the way some people use the term, we find several different meanings. For example, if we say that we have preserved the integrity of an item, we may mean that the item is

  • precise
  • accurate
  • unmodified
  • modified only in acceptable ways
  • modified only by authorized people
  • modified only by authorized processes
  • consistent
  • internally consistent
  • meaningful and usable

Integrity can also mean two or more of these properties. Welke and Mayfield recognize three particular aspects of integrity—authorized actions, separation and protection of resources, and error detection and correction. Integrity can be enforced in much the same way as can confidentiality: by rigorous control of who or what can access which resources in what ways.


A computer user’s worst nightmare: You turn on the switch and the computer does nothing. Your data and programs are presumably still there, but you cannot get at them. Fortunately, few of us experience that failure. Many of us do experience overload, however: access gets slower and slower; the computer responds but not in a way we consider normal or acceptable.

Availability applies both to data and to services (that is, to information and to information processing), and it is similarly complex. As with the notion of confidentiality, different people expect availability to mean different things. For example, an object or service is thought to be available if the following are true:

  • It is present in a usable form.
  • It has enough capacity to meet the service’s needs.
  • It is making clear progress, and, if in wait mode, it has a bounded waiting time.
  • The service is completed in an acceptable period of time.

We can construct an overall description of availability by combining these goals. Following are some criteria to define availability.

  • There is a timely response to our request.
  • Resources are allocated fairly so that some requesters are not favored over others.
  • Concurrency is controlled; that is, simultaneous access, deadlock management, and exclusive access are supported as required.
  • The service or system involved follows a philosophy of fault tolerance, whereby hardware or software faults lead to graceful cessation of service or to work-arounds rather than to crashes and abrupt loss of information. (Cessation does mean end; whether it is graceful or not, ultimately the system is unavailable. However, with fair warning of the system’s stopping, the user may be able to move to another system and continue work.)
  • The service or system can be used easily and in the way it was intended to be used. (This is a characteristic of usability, but an unusable system may also cause an availability failure.)

As you can see, expectations of availability are far-reaching. In Figure 1-7 we depict some of the properties with which availability overlaps. Indeed, the security community is just beginning to understand what availability implies and how to ensure it.

Figure 1.7

FIGURE 1-7 Availability and Related Aspects

A person or system can do three basic things with a data item: view it, modify it, or use it. Thus, viewing (confidentiality), modifying (integrity), and using (availability) are the basic modes of access that computer security seeks to preserve.

A paradigm of computer security is access control: To implement a policy, computer security controls all accesses by all subjects to all protected objects in all modes of access. A small, centralized control of access is fundamental to preserving confidentiality and integrity, but it is not clear that a single access control point can enforce availability. Indeed, experts on dependability will note that single points of control can become single points of failure, making it easy for an attacker to destroy availability by disabling the single control point. Much of computer security’s past success has focused on confidentiality and integrity; there are models of confidentiality and integrity, for example, see David Bell and Leonard La Padula [BEL73, BEL76] and Kenneth Biba [BIB77]. Availability is security’s next great challenge.

We have just described the C-I-A triad and the three fundamental security properties it represents. Our description of these properties was in the context of things that need protection. To motivate your understanding we gave some examples of harm and threats to cause harm. Our next step is to think about the nature of threats themselves.

Types of Threats

For some ideas of harm, look at Figure 1-8, taken from Willis Ware’s report [WAR70]. Although it was written when computers were so big, so expensive, and so difficult to operate that only large organizations like universities, major corporations, or government departments would have one, Ware’s discussion is still instructive today. Ware was concerned primarily with the protection of classified data, that is, preserving confidentiality. In the figure, he depicts humans such as programmers and maintenance staff gaining access to data, as well as radiation by which data can escape as signals. From the figure you can see some of the many kinds of threats to a computer system.

Figure 1.8

FIGURE 1-8 Computer [Network] Vulnerabilities (from [WAR70])

One way to analyze harm is to consider the cause or source. We call a potential cause of harm a threat. Harm can be caused by either nonhuman events or humans. Examples of nonhuman threats include natural disasters like fires or floods; loss of electrical power; failure of a component such as a communications cable, processor chip, or disk drive; or attack by a wild boar.

Human threats can be either benign (nonmalicious) or malicious. Nonmalicious kinds of harm include someone’s accidentally spilling a soft drink on a laptop, unintentionally deleting text, inadvertently sending an email message to the wrong person, and carelessly typing “12” instead of “21” when entering a phone number or clicking “yes” instead of “no” to overwrite a file. These inadvertent, human errors happen to most people; we just hope that the seriousness of harm is not too great, or if it is, that we will not repeat the mistake.

Most computer security activity relates to malicious, human-caused harm: A malicious person actually wants to cause harm, and so we often use the term attack for a malicious computer security event. Malicious attacks can be random or directed. In a random attack the attacker wants to harm any computer or user; such an attack is analogous to accosting the next pedestrian who walks down the street. An example of a random attack is malicious code posted on a website that could be visited by anybody.

In a directed attack, the attacker intends harm to specific computers, perhaps at one organization (think of attacks against a political organization) or belonging to a specific individual (think of trying to drain a specific person’s bank account, for example, by impersonation). Another class of directed attack is against a particular product, such as any computer running a particular browser. (We do not want to split hairs about whether such an attack is directed—at that one software product—or random, against any user of that product; the point is not semantic perfection but protecting against the attacks.) The range of possible directed attacks is practically unlimited. Different kinds of threats are shown in Figure 1-9.

Figure 1.9

FIGURE 1-9 Kinds of Threats

Although the distinctions shown in Figure 1-9 seem clear-cut, sometimes the nature of an attack is not obvious until the attack is well underway, or perhaps even ended. A normal hardware failure can seem like a directed, malicious attack to deny access, and hackers often try to conceal their activity to look like ordinary, authorized users. As computer security experts we need to anticipate what bad things might happen, instead of waiting for the attack to happen or debating whether the attack is intentional or accidental.

Neither this book nor any checklist or method can show you all the kinds of harm that can happen to computer assets. There are too many ways to interfere with your use of these assets. Two retrospective lists of known vulnerabilities are of interest, however. The Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) list (see http://cve.mitre.org/) is a dictionary of publicly known security vulnerabilities and exposures. CVE’s common identifiers enable data exchange between security products and provide a baseline index point for evaluating coverage of security tools and services. To measure the extent of harm, the Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS) (see http://nvd.nist.gov/cvss.cfm) provides a standard measurement system that allows accurate and consistent scoring of vulnerability impact.

Advanced Persistent Threat

Security experts are becoming increasingly concerned about a type of threat called advanced persistent threat. A lone attacker might create a random attack that snares a few, or a few million, individuals, but the resulting impact is limited to what that single attacker can organize and manage. A collection of attackers—think, for example, of the cyber equivalent of a street gang or an organized crime squad—might work together to purloin credit card numbers or similar financial assets to fund other illegal activity. Such attackers tend to be opportunistic, picking unlucky victims’ pockets and moving on to other activities.

Advanced persistent threat attacks come from organized, well financed, patient assailants. Often affiliated with governments or quasi-governmental groups, these attackers engage in long term campaigns. They carefully select their targets, crafting attacks that appeal to specifically those targets; email messages called spear phishing (described in Chapter 4) are intended to seduce their recipients. Typically the attacks are silent, avoiding any obvious impact that would alert a victim, thereby allowing the attacker to exploit the victim’s access rights over a long time.

The motive of such attacks is sometimes unclear. One popular objective is economic espionage. A series of attacks, apparently organized and supported by the Chinese government, was used in 2012 and 2013 to obtain product designs from aerospace companies in the United States. There is evidence the stub of the attack code was loaded into victim machines long in advance of the attack; then, the attackers installed the more complex code and extracted the desired data. In May 2014 the Justice Department indicted five Chinese hackers in absentia for these attacks.

In the summer of 2014 a series of attacks against J.P. Morgan Chase bank and up to a dozen similar financial institutions allowed the assailants access to 76 million names, phone numbers, and email addresses. The attackers—and even their country of origin—remain unknown, as does the motive. Perhaps the attackers wanted more sensitive financial data, such as account numbers or passwords, but were only able to get the less valuable contact information. It is also not known if this attack was related to an attack a year earlier that disrupted service to that bank and several others.

To imagine the full landscape of possible attacks, you may find it useful to consider the kinds of people who attack computer systems. Although potentially anyone is an attacker, certain classes of people stand out because of their backgrounds or objectives. Thus, in the following sections we look at profiles of some classes of attackers.

Types of Attackers

Who are attackers? As we have seen, their motivations range from chance to a specific target. Putting aside attacks from natural and benign causes, we can explore who the attackers are and what motivates them.

Most studies of attackers actually analyze computer criminals, that is, people who have actually been convicted of a crime, primarily because that group is easy to identify and study. The ones who got away or who carried off an attack without being detected may have characteristics different from those of the criminals who have been caught. Worse, by studying only the criminals we have caught, we may not learn how to catch attackers who know how to abuse the system without being apprehended.

What does a cyber criminal look like? In television and films the villains wore shabby clothes, looked mean and sinister, and lived in gangs somewhere out of town. By contrast, the sheriff dressed well, stood proud and tall, was known and respected by everyone in town, and struck fear in the hearts of most criminals.

To be sure, some computer criminals are mean and sinister types. But many more wear business suits, have university degrees, and appear to be pillars of their communities. Some are high school or university students. Others are middle-aged business executives. Some are mentally deranged, overtly hostile, or extremely committed to a cause, and they attack computers as a symbol. Others are ordinary people tempted by personal profit, revenge, challenge, advancement, or job security—like perpetrators of any crime, using a computer or not. Researchers have tried to find the psychological traits that distinguish attackers, as described in Sidebar 1-1. These studies are far from conclusive, however, and the traits they identify may show correlation but not necessarily causality. To appreciate this point, suppose a study found that a disproportionate number of people convicted of computer crime were left-handed. Does that result imply that all left-handed people are computer criminals or that only left-handed people are? Certainly not. No single profile captures the characteristics of a “typical” computer attacker, and the characteristics of some notorious attackers also match many people who are not attackers. As shown in Figure 1-10, attackers look just like anybody in a crowd.

Figure 1.10

FIGURE 1-10 Attackers


Originally, computer attackers were individuals, acting with motives of fun, challenge, or revenge. Early attackers acted alone. Two of the most well known among them are Robert Morris Jr., the Cornell University graduate student who brought down the Internet in 1988 [SPA89], and Kevin Mitnick, the man who broke into and stole data from dozens of computers, including the San Diego Supercomputer Center [MAR95].

Organized, Worldwide Groups

More recent attacks have involved groups of people. An attack against the government of the country of Estonia (described in more detail in Chapter 13) is believed to have been an uncoordinated outburst from a loose federation of attackers from around the world. Kevin Poulsen [POU05] quotes Tim Rosenberg, a research professor at George Washington University, warning of “multinational groups of hackers backed by organized crime” and showing the sophistication of prohibition-era mobsters. He also reports that Christopher Painter, deputy director of the U.S. Department of Justice’s computer crime section, argues that cyber criminals and serious fraud artists are increasingly working in concert or are one and the same. According to Painter, loosely connected groups of criminals all over the world work together to break into systems and steal and sell information, such as credit card numbers. For instance, in October 2004, U.S. and Canadian authorities arrested 28 people from 6 countries involved in an international, organized cybercrime ring to buy and sell credit card information and identities.

Whereas early motives for computer attackers such as Morris and Mitnick were personal, such as prestige or accomplishment, recent attacks have been heavily influenced by financial gain. Security firm McAfee reports “Criminals have realized the huge financial gains to be made from the Internet with little risk. They bring the skills, knowledge, and connections needed for large scale, high-value criminal enterprise that, when combined with computer skills, expand the scope and risk of cybercrime.” [MCA05]

Organized Crime

Attackers’ goals include fraud, extortion, money laundering, and drug trafficking, areas in which organized crime has a well-established presence. Evidence is growing that organized crime groups are engaging in computer crime. In fact, traditional criminals are recruiting hackers to join the lucrative world of cybercrime. For example, Albert Gonzales was sentenced in March 2010 to 20 years in prison for working with a crime ring to steal 40 million credit card numbers from retailer TJMaxx and others, costing over $200 million (Reuters, 26 March 2010).

Organized crime may use computer crime (such as stealing credit card numbers or bank account details) to finance other aspects of crime. Recent attacks suggest that professional criminals have discovered just how lucrative computer crime can be. Mike Danseglio, a security project manager with Microsoft, said, “In 2006, the attackers want to pay the rent. They don’t want to write a worm that destroys your hardware. They want to assimilate your computers and use them to make money.” [NAR06a] Mikko Hyppönen, Chief Research Officer with Finnish security company f-Secure, agrees that today’s attacks often come from Russia, Asia, and Brazil; the motive is now profit, not fame [BRA06]. Ken Dunham, Director of the Rapid Response Team for VeriSign says he is “convinced that groups of well-organized mobsters have taken control of a global billion-dollar crime network powered by skillful hackers.” [NAR06b]

McAfee also describes the case of a hacker-for-hire: a businessman who hired a 16-year-old New Jersey hacker to attack the websites of his competitors. The hacker barraged the site for a five-month period and damaged not only the target companies but also their Internet service providers (ISPs) and other unrelated companies that used the same ISPs. By FBI estimates, the attacks cost all the companies over $2 million; the FBI arrested both hacker and businessman in March 2005 [MCA05].

Brian Snow [SNO05] observes that hackers want a score or some kind of evidence to give them bragging rights. Organized crime wants a resource; such criminals want to stay under the radar to be able to extract profit from the system over time. These different objectives lead to different approaches to computer crime: The novice hacker can use a crude attack, whereas the professional attacker wants a neat, robust, and undetectable method that can deliver rewards for a long time.


The link between computer security and terrorism is quite evident. We see terrorists using computers in four ways:

  • Computer as target of attack: Denial-of-service attacks and website defacements are popular activities for any political organization because they attract attention to the cause and bring undesired negative attention to the object of the attack. An example is the massive denial-of-service attack launched against the country of Estonia, detailed in Chapter 13.
  • Computer as method of attack: Launching offensive attacks requires the use of computers. Stuxnet, an example of malicious computer code called a worm, is known to attack automated control systems, specifically a model of control system manufactured by Siemens. Experts say the code is designed to disable machinery used in the control of nuclear reactors in Iran [MAR10]. The persons behind the attack are unknown, but the infection is believed to have spread through USB flash drives brought in by engineers maintaining the computer controllers. (We examine the Stuxnet worm in more detail in Chapters 6 and 13.)
  • Computer as enabler of attack: Websites, web logs, and email lists are effective, fast, and inexpensive ways to allow many people to coordinate. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the terrorists responsible for the November 2008 attack that killed over 200 people in Mumbai used GPS systems to guide their boats, Blackberries for their communication, and Google Earth to plot their routes.
  • Computer as enhancer of attack: The Internet has proved to be an invaluable means for terrorists to spread propaganda and recruit agents. In October 2009 the FBI arrested Colleen LaRose, also known as JihadJane, after she had spent months using email, YouTube, MySpace, and electronic message boards to recruit radicals in Europe and South Asia to “wage violent jihad,” according to a federal indictment.

We cannot accurately measure the degree to which terrorists use computers, because terrorists keep secret the nature of their activities and because our definitions and measurement tools are rather weak. Still, incidents like the one described in Sidebar 1-2 provide evidence that all four of these activities are increasing.

If someone on television sneezes, you do not worry about the possibility of catching a cold. But if someone standing next to you sneezes, you may become concerned. In the next section we examine the harm that can come from the presence of a computer security threat on your own computer systems.

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