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A hacker's technical blunder allowed South Korean investigators to trace back recent attacks against the country's banks and broadcasters to an IP address located in North Korea's capital, Pyongyang.
While the identity of the hacker isn't known, on February 20, the attacker inadvertently exposed his or her IP address (175.45.178.xx) for a few minutes, apparently after experiencing technical difficulties, reported South Korea's Yonhap News Agency.
According to the state-run Korea Internet & Security Agency in Seoul, the IP address was traced to the Ryugyong-dong residential district of Pyongyang. The IP address is registered to a company called Star Joint Venture (Star JV), which is North Korea's sole service provider, and also administers the country's top-level ".kp" domain.
Star JV is a joint venture between the Pyongyang regime that rules North Korea -- officially known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) -- and Loxley Pacific Company, a Thai company that bills itself as a telecommunications system integration and solutions provider. Bangkok-based Loxley Pacific didn't immediately respond to an emailed request for comment -- sent outside of business hours in Thailand -- about South Korean investigators having attributed the recent bank and broadcaster cyberattacks to a network hosted by Star JV.
[ Tension escalates between North and South Korea. See South Korea Charges Alleged Hackers. ]
Officials at the Korea Internet & Security Agency said that because the IP address exposure appeared to be accidental, they think it's legitimate and wasn't spoofed, reported Yonhap. Furthermore, the IP address was logged 13 times in the course of South Korean investigators cataloging North Korean systems that accessed the attacked South Korean financial firms' systems. They said such access had occurred 1,590 times since June 2012.
The IP address finding has implications beyond just the March 20 wiper malware attacks. "The North Korean IP address made it clear that the North is behind not only the latest hacking but also previous hacking attacks," Kim Seung-joo, a professor at the Graduate School of Information Security at Korea University, told Yonhap.
After three weeks of analysis, South Korean government officials only Wednesday said they'd traced the March 20 malware attacks to North Korea, based not only on the IP addresses and domains used to launch the attacks, but also on the use of relatively outdated hacking tools and malware, much of which had been seen previously only in attacks sponsored by Pyongyang. The attacks, which targeted three South Korean banks and three broadcasters, resulted in disruptions to online banking, mobile banking and ATM networks.
Interestingly, the bank malware attacks were launched shortly after North Korea lost Internet connectivity on March 13 and 14. A statement issued at the time by the Pyongyang-run Korean Central News Agency blamed the outage on a U.S. and South Korean cyberattack, claiming that the DPRK had been targeted by "intensive and persistent virus attacks."
Without a doubt, the outage was atypical. "It should be noted that although North Korea's Internet is small, it is very stable," said Doug Madory, senior research engineer for Renesys, in a blog post. "Until [March 13 and 14], North Korean outages had been very rare."
But it's not clear whether the disruptions resulted from hack attacks launched against North Korean infrastructure, or simply internal glitches. Notably, North Korea only has four networks, all of which are routed by Star JV using a direct link to mainland Chinese service provider China Unicom, as well as via satellite communications provider Intelsat, and the outage affected both.
"Since it affected both Internet transit connections (China Unicom and Intelsat), it stands to reason the disruption was on the North Korean side," Madory said. "So perhaps it was networking equipment deeper in the North Korean network which suffered the outage."
"Was it the result of a cyber attack? Maybe," he said. "It could also have been a power failure, equipment failure or a misconfiguration by a network admin."
In related news, Pyongyang Monday bolstered the country's Internet connectivity by adding another connection to China Unicom, this time via a link to Hong Kong. "The new connection appears to [provide] a third way for traffic to reach the country, although much is unclear," reported journalist Martyn Williams, who maintains the North Korea Tech website. "It's not immediately clear if it represents a third physical connection or [is] only happening on the network level, and at present there's no way to know if it serves as an additional backup or will become an important connection."
A well-defended perimeter is only half the battle in securing the government's IT environments. Agencies must also protect their most valuable data. Also in the new, all-digital Secure The Data Center issue of InformationWeek Government: The White House's gun control efforts are at risk of failure because the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' outdated Firearms Tracing System is in need of an upgrade. (Free registration required.)