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Cyberattacks targeting city could signal ominous threat

Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

Pittsburgh is “ground zero” for cyber threats, U.S. Attorney David Hickton said on Friday, citing recent denial-of-service attacks on PNC Bank and last year's wave of bomb threats against the University of Pittsburgh that mostly were made via email.

Hickton made the comments during a meeting with reporters in his office Downtown, in which national security expert Paul Kaminski discussed the growing threat to the United States from individual hackers, criminal organizations and other nations bent on crippling “critical infrastructure” and stealing personal information, money and corporate secrets.

“I want the public to know that we are aware of the specific severity of the threat,” Hickton said, referring to the recent bank attacks. “We take it seriously.”

Downtown-based PNC Bank, the nation's seventh-largest, has been hit with attacks in a wave that began Dec. 11. The assaults can temporarily block access to the bank's website, frustrating customers.

A group calling itself the Martyr Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Cyber Fighters claimed responsibility on an Internet message board for the assault and said the attacks will continue for at least six months.

The group, which says the attacks are in retaliation for an anti-Muslim video posted on YouTube, hit PNC and other large U.S. banks in late September with attacks that shut PNC's website for two days.

In the most recent attacks, PNC has been more successful in defending itself, with some customers experiencing only intermittent access problems.

Hickton and Kaminski said banks were more prepared for this latest round because of help from the federal government.

The National Security Agency provided technical assistance to help banks assess their computer systems and better understand the attackers' tactics, The Washington Post reported on Friday, citing unnamed sources.

The cooperation between the NSA and banks, industry officials told The Washington Post, underscores the government's fears about the unprecedented assault against the financial sector.

Kaminski, who was an undersecretary of Defense in the 1990s and is chairman of Rand Corp., said denial-of-service attacks are generally an unsophisticated type of cyber threat. But the recent attacks have grown in complexity, indicating a level of sophistication that is worrisome for what it might suggest about the future.

He described the attacks as “a warning shot across our bow of what might be coming.”

While no customer information was compromised in the recent attacks, some experts suggest that denial-of-service attacks could be part of a larger effort to infiltrate bank computer systems.

Others have said the group claiming responsibility for the attack is likely a front for Iran, which is seeking retribution for U.S. and Israeli cyberattacks on its nuclear capability.

While Kaminski said he could not comment on the source of the recent attacks or the motivation of the attackers, he said it's clear that the threat of a major attack on the financial system or other critical part of the economy is increasing.

“The good news is we have not seen any substantial attacks,” he said. But the nation is not “moving fast enough to prevent that.”

Alex Nixon is a staff writer forTrib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7928 or anixon@tribweb.com.

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