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Cyber attacks on U.S. banks likely to continue, experts say

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Americans should not breath a sigh of relief just because a computer hacking group said it would suspend a four-month offensive to disrupt access to more than two dozen bank websites.

Even if the al-Qassam Cyber Fighters group says it won't attack PNC Bank and other financial institutions, cyber attacks meant to disrupt commerce in the United States are likely to continue, said Jeff Bardin, a Boston cyber security consultant and expert in Middle Eastern hackers and cyber jihad.

“I think it's just basically a temporary stay of execution,” he said. “They'll find plenty of other issues to continue their activities.”

Bardin said other hackers could use the group's success as motivation to initiate attacks. Hacking software and vast networks of zombie computers for rent are becoming easier to obtain.

“There is a virtual proliferation of small arms,” Bardin said. “It's like leaving weapons on the physical battlefield. They get picked up.”

The Cyber Fighters began attacks on banks in September, claiming in statements posted to an Internet message board that they would continue until a YouTube video mocking the Islamic Prophet Muhammad was taken down. The YouTube webpage for the video says it was “removed by the user.”

The cyber attacks, called “distributed denial-of-service attacks,” flood a website with traffic, overwhelming it so that legitimate users cannot access it. Stealing personal information usually is not the goal.

In addition to PNC, the attacks hit Citizens Bank, Fifth Third Bank and Huntington Bank in the Pittsburgh region.

Many government officials and Internet security experts have said they believe the attacks were carried out by the Iranian government or at its behest.

Iran has denied involvement.

Dave Aitel, CEO of the Miami Internet security firm Immunity Inc., said everything the Cyber Fighters wrote suggested Iran was involved.

“Clearly this was state-sponsored, and the only state with an interest is Iran,” Aitel said, citing the frequent use of “proportional response” by the group to describe the attacks on banks. “Normal hackers would never use that term.”

Bardin said the attacks fit the standard mode of operation of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, who “go around the world and set up proxy groups sympathetic to them.” The approach has been used in traditional warfare and terrorism, he said.

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

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