Beware of Zombies

September 17, 2007

Bob Brewin

The wave of cyberprobes or cyberattacks against Pentagon networks and government computer systems in France, Germany, New Zealand and the United Kingdom this summer appears to emanate from China, but no one in authority in the Defense Department or any of the other countries that have been victimized seems willing to finger the Chinese government or military as the culprit.

Paul Strassmann -- who served as director of Defense information in the early 1990s, the acting chief information officer of NASA from 2002 to 2003, and now serves as a Defense senior adviser -- declines to point fingers, either. He prefers, instead, to focus on one startling fact about Chinese activity in cyberspace: As of the morning of Sept. 14, there were exactly (remember, Strassmann is an engineer and likes precision) 735,598 computers in the United States infested by Chinese zombies, he said. Zombies are those small programs that infect computers at the root level and allow the computers to be controlled by remote users.

"This is a fact that should get everyone's attention," Strassmann said. Those zombie computers can launch massive denial-of-service attacks, spewing 1,000 messages a second against target computers, he said.

While at NASA, Strassmann experienced a massive zombie-directed denial-of-service attack which eventually shut down eight of the Internet's root servers. The servers help direct traffic globally through a master directory of domain names.

The zombies infecting U.S. computers today could be used to launch a massive cyberattack, which Strassmann described as "the cheapest attack weapon a nation can buy."

I have a hunch that the 735,598 U.S. computers infected by Chinese zombies did not come about because China is filled with a lot of bored teenagers with broadband connections who just like to goof around in cyberspace.

Want to monitor the inexorable march of the Chinese zombies on your own? Strassmann suggests checking out the zombie stats on a Web site maintained by CipherTrust.

Millions of GIG Scans a Day

Defense experiences millions of cyberscans of the Global Information Grid every day, according to an internal talking paper it prepared in response to news reports this month that China had successfully attacked Pentagon computer systems, including those used by the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

The paper dances around the subject of Chinese culpability and would only go as far as to report, "We have seen attempts by a variety of state- and nonstate-sponsored organizations to gain unauthorized access to, or otherwise degrade, DoD information systems."

Well, that certainly narrows it down.

The Microsoft Petri Dish

Strassmann said one reason that zombies and other cybernasties succeed so well is that they can easily hide in the hundreds of millions of lines of code that make up Microsoft operating systems and applications. Microsoft-based systems are a "Petri dish" for zombies, he said, adding that global reliance on MS systems exacerbates the problem.

Since there are no real, inexpensive alternatives to MS today, Strassmann said users really, really need to be conscious of even seemingly innocent e-mails that can be used to launch a zombie attack.

It's hard to believe, but evidently there are some folks out there who have not figured out that e-mails flogging Viagra are scams -- and potential zombie launchers.

How About Some DeVenCI Code For Zombies?

In a bit of serendipity, the Critical Information Technology Sector group, part of the Defense Venture Catalyst Initiative (DeVenCI), plans to hold a network survivability and recovery workshop on Nov. 13. Maybe out of that workshop will come a new zombie killer?

DeVenCI is looking for innovative companies who do not normally conduct business with Defense to make short pitches on their network software, gadgets and gizmos. Anyone interested in the workshop should e-mail an application (hopefully from a noninfected machine) to no later than Friday, Sept. 28.

Real Bad Pentagon Meetings

I had a meeting with an unhappy bureaucrat at the Pentagon recently that was so strange that it counts as the most bizarre in my 36-year career as a journalist. Suffice it to say that I cannot go into details.

I thought nothing that happened in the Pentagon that day could have been as weird. Then I talked to an Army colonel on a flight out of Washington, D.C., later that week. He too described his meeting in the Pentagon that day as an "out-of-body experience," unequaled in his career.

We both decided that maybe -- just maybe -- there are hundreds of similar meetings in the Pentagon every day.

If anybody who would like to relate such stories, I would be happy to know about them. E-mail me at

main page ATTRITION feedback