Dave Marcus has more than twelve years of technical experience in information security, and network and host ...
The news that Google is supposedly dropping Microsoft Windows is spreading like wildfire all over the Internet today. Without getting into any “which OS is better or more secure” holy war, let’s review some facts to see if this “decision” has any basis in reality. (I caution readers to remember this is not confirmed, even if it is true.)
The supposed cause of this change is Operation Aurora, the attack that affected Google and many other companies. From the McAfee Labs Threat Center:
“Operation Aurora was a coordinated attack which included a piece of computer code that exploits the Microsoft Internet Explorer vulnerability to gain access to computer systems. This exploit is then extended to download and activate malware within the systems. The attack, which was initiated surreptitiously when targeted users accessed a malicious web page (likely because they believed it to be reputable), ultimately connected those computer systems to a remote server. That connection was used to steal company intellectual property and, according to Google, additionally gain access to user accounts.”
What many people fail to realize is that Operation Aurora was not really about any technical issues.
But you may ask “Marcus, how can you possibly say that? Have you gone mad? Aurora 0wned multiple computers on multiple networks! They were all running that evil Microsoft Windows. Surely removing Windows will solve all the problems!”
These objections are not even close to the real issue. Sure, the attackers used a very effective zero-day vulnerability. And, certainly, they used lots of evasion techniques in delivering the payload? But the real vulnerability has not been discussed.
People were the weak link.
The attackers who launched Operation Aurora knew their targets well from both corporate and personal viewpoints. They knew what their victims were running and what their roles were. The attackers even knew what application versions they used. (Ever wonder why the zero-day was limited in effectiveness to Internet Explorer Version 6 when the attack commenced? The attackers knew that was all they needed.)
The intel that the attackers gathered to make Operation Aurora work is what made it a success–not the operating system involved. The targets were the people.
Would it make any difference if the victims were running Linux or any other operating system if an attacker builds such a sophisticated profile? Not remotely. Linux, Windows, Mac, whatever–everything has weaknesses. Especially the users of those systems.
When an attacker knows the details of a company’s technical deployment and personnel to the level we saw in Operation Aurora, the difference between one operating system and another is irrelevant. Any system or network can be technically compromised. Likewise, malware can be written for any operating system.
If determined attackers and gatherers of intelligence invest the time to get to know their targets–their behaviors, likes, dislikes, technical backgrounds, job roles, etc.–the actual exploit is trivial. All they have to do is get their victims to click a link. The more they know about their targets, the more likely users will click it.
Social engineering and intelligence gathering trumps technology every time. It always has and always will.