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Countermeasure technology against evolving cyberattacks

Shigeki Goto
Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Waseda University

Ineradicable cyberattacks

The Internet has become indispensable for our work and daily lives. Even this article you are reading now was sent to an editor by e-mail. A personal computer (PC) with Internet access is a very useful tool and can be used for various tasks. A PC can be likened to a robot that does not have arms and legs, and carries out tasks just as its master, a human, says. It is too troublesome for us to give every detailed command to a PC so we proactively write commands for PCs into a program. A program is not a physical machine (hardware) and is sometimes called “software.”

Here lies the problem. A PC, which is not a robot, cannot correctly distinguish between programs written by its master and those written by others. This weakness is targeted by malicious individuals. Although a PC user is usually identified by their user name (ID) and password, this isn't enough for a PC to distinguish between the master’s programs and others. The master may receive a program in an e-mail and run it carelessly, believing it is from a well-known colleague or associate. This is a program written by someone other than the master. Websites are another threat. It is possible you could visit a website skillfully created by a malicious individual where malicious software could be automatically loaded onto your PC.

It is not easy for burglars to wander around freely and observe houses they are targeting or check if residents are physical home. They must choose the right time and avoid being spotted by neighbors. On the other hand, it is relatively easy for cyber criminals to look into PCs they are targeting. First, they send e-mails from a free e-mail address to many people. According to one estimate, about five out of ten thousand recipients of such e-mails reply or access the website mentioned in the e-mail. Cyber criminals view these responses and narrow down their targets. They can automatically check what applications have been installed in target PCs and use information posted on the Internet meant to inform users of their applications' vulnerabilities against them.

Whether it's a fever, a headache, or a persistent cough, a person can go to the hospital when they get sick. When a robot or pet has a problem, its owner should take it to the hospital. Who should take care of a PC when it has a problem? It does not tell you that it has a fever. You need to look after the health of your PC. This includes installing antivirus software as a countermeasure against cyberattacks. However, antivirus software checks a PC based on patterns of past viruses. This means it is only effective against “yesterday's viruses.” There is no guarantee the antivirus software can detect new malware today.

A malicious program loaded onto your PC checks information stored in your PC and obtains information on people with whom you've communicated. It also checks the conditions of the network to which the PC is connected. Using this data, it sends your important information. If other PCs or servers can be accessed via the PC, the damage is multiplied. These malicious programs are elaborate and have been evolving and incorporating various technology.

Countermeasure technology against cyberattacks

If misused, the Internet, while a useful tool, does more harm than good. Countermeasure technology against cyberattacks is actively being developed. I learned about ways hackers target PCs through discussions with people engaging in research and development of countermeasure technology against cyberattacks. The defensive side has been studying the attacker's techniques. The defensive side has issues to address. One of them is developing human resources capable of analyzing new cyberattacks. Cyber criminals target vulnerabilities. The defensive side must be knowledgeable of hardware as well as operating systems such as Windows, Linux, and Android. They must also have knowledge of web browser mechanisms and e-mail and database systems in which important data is stored. Knowledge regarding Internet configuration and technologies for blocking unnecessary communications are also important. It is not so easy to develop human resources who can respond to this wide range of orders.

Many of those studying countermeasures against cyberattacks emphasize human resource development. To promote human resource development, Waseda University has established two new NTT endowed courses for the 2015 academic year. One is “Advanced cyber-attack and cyber-defense technologies” intended for students pursuing a master’s degree (spring semester) and another is “Introduction to cyber-attack and cyber-defense technologies” for undergraduates in their third year and higher (autumn semester). The number of students for the former course was limited in order to allow advanced exercises. Many students were interested in this course and those enrolled were chosen by a lottery. This proves students are highly interested in countermeasure technology against cyberattacks.

Shigeki Goto
Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Waseda University

Goto received his bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in mathematics from the University of Tokyo in 1971 and 1973. In 1973, he joined a NTT laboratory. While at NTT, he was a visiting researcher in 1984-85 at Stanford University. In 1991, he earned a Ph.D. in information engineering from the University of Tokyo and in 1996 he became a professor at Waseda's School of Science and Engineering (now professor at the School of Fundamental Science and Engineering). He is the president of the Japan Network Information Center (JPNIC) and the chairman of the Research and Development Strategies Expert Study Committee of the National center of Incident readiness and Strategy for Cybersecurity (NISC).

Dr. Goto's works include Internet Kogaku (Internet Engineering) (coauthor, CORONA PUBLISHING CO., LTD., 2007), Iwanami Koza—Internet (Iwanami Lecture Course—Internet) (editor and author of volumes 1, 2 and 4 of 6 volumes, Iwanami Shoten, Publishers, 2001-2003), Internet Juou Mujin (Exploring the Internet: A Technical Travelogue) (joint translator, KYORITSU SHUPPAN CO., LTD., 1994), and Hayawakari TCP/IP (An Introduction to TCP/IP) (joint translator, KYORITSU SHUPPAN CO., LTD., 1991).