Public cloud services can provide useful tools for criminals

Cyber drops for stolen data and computing to mine data are among the possibilities.

Buying public cloud services passwords as demonstrated this week at the Black Hat D.C. conference is not the only malicious use these computational and storage resources might offer, according to one security expert.

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Cloud storage might be used to house stolen data virtually undetected, and cloud computing power could be used to mine it, says John Pironti, president of IP Architects, a security consulting firm, and the security track chairman for Interop.

For example, adversaries could use cloud storage capacity as a drop for massive amounts of stolen data that another party could access, download and then purge, leaving no reason to suspect a transfer of stolen data had happened, he says.

Or hackers could gather massive amounts of Internet data about individuals from social networking and job sites as well as blogs, store it in the cloud then mine it using cloud computing power to discover likely answers to password-reset questions. If they can link a person's name with their mother's maiden name or the town they were born in, that can be used to answer authentication questions posed at password reset sites for bank and credit card accounts, Pironti says.

"They could find out what model car you drove in 1994 or your pet's name when you were 12, and sell that information," he says.

The Black Hat briefing focuses on using cloud computing power to crack WPA2 encryption keys and that type of cracking is the most suitable use of that capability, he says.

Until cloud computing came along, only entities as large as countries could amass the computing power needed to effectively crack passwords and codes, Pironti says. Now, with virtually limitless compute power available, anyone with a credit card can launch these criminal activities. "Public cloud has made that level of computing power available to the general public," he says.

Another criminal use of cloud infrastructure is hosting command-and-control servers that direct activities of botnets, Pironti says.

When the servers are discovered and taken down, they can be re-established quickly with servers hired in the networks of competing cloud providers, he says. The command and control servers could be deployed ahead of time in different clouds so if one is discovered the backup is ready to take over. "This could be done with multiple providers to provide high availability for command and control," Pironti says.

Public clouds would not be suitable for launching distributed DoS attacks because even if many virtual servers were set up to attack, the assaults would all be launched from one or a few provider networks and so be relatively easy to shut down, he says. Being distributed is a key factor in making the distributed DoS attacks effective by virtue of there being so many source addresses for the attacking packets that it's difficult to shut them all down.

Flexible cloud services could also be used by criminals to create test labs where they try out new malware against a range of operating systems that they can purchase from public cloud service providers, he says. So with little investment, they could try a new virus against a range of operating systems and applications, get their results and shut down the lab, he says.

Beyond being illegal, such activities likely violate terms of the agreements customers sign in order to get cloud services, Pironti says.

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