Fatal System Error: The Hunt for the New Crime Lords Who are Bringing Down the Internet

Posted on by Ben Rothke

Fatal System Error: The Hunt for the New Crime Lords Who are Bringing Down the Internet is a non-fiction cyber-thriller with super analytical advice. 

As computing and technology has evolved, so too have the security threats correspondingly evolved. The classic Yankee Doodle virus of 1989 did minimal damage, all while playing a patriotic, albeit monotone song. In 2010, aggressive malware now executes in stealth mode, running in the background with an oblivious end-user, and antivirus software that can’t detect it 

Cybercrimes have evolved using increasingly sophisticated techniques, and the resulting financial losses are staggering. Many criminal cyber gangs are well organized and resourceful and their ability to recover after new defenses have been deployed make it a challenge for those on the right side of the law. 

Fatal System Error: The Hunt for the New Crime Lords Who are Bringing Down the Internet is an excellent book billed as a non-fiction cyber-thriller, and describes the cyber gangs who operate on the Internet. Author Joseph Menn, a cyber security reporter for the Financial Times, takes the reader into the inner operations of today's cyber-criminal, who use the Internet as their personal mint. 

While Willie Sutton never really said that the reason he robbed banks is because that's where the money is; the truth is that today's cyber criminal does know where the money is, and its address is the Internet. They use the net as a means to steal and extort money from businesses and individuals. 

The book's protagonist is Barrett Lyon, a highly skilled technical engineer and entrepreneur, who founded companies such as Prolexic, BitGravity and 3Crowd. It was at Prolexic where Lyon developed the software used to fend off the DoS attacks that were bringing some of his client's networks to a standstill. 

Lyon, along with the other major character in the book, Andy Crocker, a British policeman, were the 1-2 punch that resulted in the prosecution of a Russian cyber criminal. The fact that the prosecution took place via the Russian judicial system was a surprise to everyone. What was unusual about the prosecution is that criminals in Russia and Eastern Europe often operate with the assistance of corrupt political and police forces. Even though the evidence against the defendant was significant, the ability to secure a guilty verdict was far from a sure thing. 

Much of the book deals with Lyon and his working relationship with BetCRIS, a company offering online gambling services, including sports betting, online casino games, online bingo and mobile gambling. 

BetCRIS is an off-shore company, operating in the safe havens of the Republic of Costa Rica. In 2003, at the height of the DoS attacks, the BetCRIS website was down for nearly a month. With tens of millions of dollars of gambling revenue at stake, BetCRIS management were desperate for a solution, and they reached out to Lyon. 

While Lyon created a first-generation solution to stop the early DoS attacks, the book details how the attackers were able to get around those countermeasures, and how it turned into a cat and mouse game of futility, where Lyon would create a fix, only to be beguiled by a new attack. 

In the book, Menn writes about many of the major players in the Internet criminal world. He spends a good amount of time writing about the infamous Russian Business Network (RBN). He notes that little true business was carried out via the RBN; rather it was a front for Internet-based criminal activities in Russia. 

Menn does get into some technical details, but not so much so to confuse a non-technical reader. He covers topics such as botnets, DoS and DDoS attacks, cyberwarfare, cyber espionage, and the difficulty in prosecuting the perpetrators. 

Menn notes that there are many reasons why Russia and in Eastern Europe are ground zero for cybercriminals. The educational institutions there provide a good source of technical training; combined that with the fact that legitimate job opportunities are often quite limited. Add to the fact that political and law enforcement officials often ignore the cyber attacks again the rich capitalists of the US, the difficulty and challenges with jurisdiction, and you have a perfect storm for the creation of a sophisticated cyber criminal element. Finally, there is a long and established culture of corruption in Russia and in Eastern Europe that adds to the problem. 

There are two directions that Fatal System Error takes. The main part of the book is Menn's narrative, which takes up 11 of the book's 12 chapters. These 11 chapters take the reader on an enthralling ride into the inner workings of the cyber-criminal world. Fatal System Error is an enjoyable read on par books such as The Cuckoo's Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage and Takedown: The Pursuit and Capture of Kevin Mitnick

Where the book truly stands out is in the final chapter Fixing What's Fixable, and is worth purchasing for that chapter alone. Menn displays his incredibly deep understanding of the underlying issues around computer security and why we are vulnerable. He suggests numerous pragmatic solutions to the crisis, and how to better secure the Internet and networks. 

Some of the ideas include significantly greater budgets for information security, more liability against software developers who write insecure code, greater information sharing between the cybercrime agencies in the US and their counterparts in Russia, and more. His on-target analysis of what the US Government can and should do to increase the security of the Internet infrastructure is quite impressive. 

Reading the narrative part of the book, many readers will likely be scared to death to connect their computers to the Internet, and to a limited degree, rightfully so. Even with Menn's balanced and compelling account of what transpired, the threat of identity theft and ease of how financial accounts are breached may be too much for some readers many to bear.

If corporate America and the US Government would take Menn's suggestions to heart on how to create a secure Internet infrastructure, many of those security concerns he wrote about could be obviated, and the cyber criminals of Eastern Europe would have to look for different work. 

Additional pragmatic ideas that Menn suggests are to legalize and regulate online gambling, more funding to teach safer computing in schools, and for a complete re-engineering of the Internet, in order to build in the necessary security functionality which should have been in there in the first place. As part of the process to re-engineer the Internet, Menn suggests designs that create accountability into the Internet fabric. 

Finally, Menn notes that many end-users are not blameless. By not educating themselves on how to securely use the Internet, they are setting themselves up to becoming victims. He writes that anyone that connects a computer to the Internet needs to have significant security vigilance to ensure that they don't make themselves a victim. It is 2010 and far too many people are still oblivious to the security threats. Many still naively believe that someone from Nigeria really does want to make them richer with tens of millions of dollars worth of gold from their deceased uncle. 

Menn shows how the underlying infrastructure of the Internet is significantly more vulnerable than most people realize. Finally, what exacerbates the problem is that those doing the attacks are working much quicker than those who are trying to secure it. 

One of Menn's criticisms is that the US Government spends a fraction of what it should on securing its critical technology infrastructure. Fatal System Error: The Hunt for the New Crime Lords Who are Bringing Down the Internet is the wake-up call that those in Washington, and those charged with IT need to wake up to. Unfortunately, it is likely those that truly need to read this book, will press the information security snooze button yet again.

Ben Rothke

Senior Information Security Manager, Tapad

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