Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Web-based attacks could create chaos in the physical world


Computer security researchers suggest ways to thwart new form of cybercrime

Most experts on computer crime focus on attacks against Web servers, bank account tampering and other mischief confined to the digital world. But by using little more than a Web search engine and some simple software, a computer-savvy criminal or terrorist could easily leap beyond the boundaries of cyberspace to wreak havoc in the physical world, a team of Internet security researchers has concluded.

At a recent Association for Computing Machinery conference on privacy in an electronic society, the researchers -- including a Johns Hopkins faculty member -- described how automated order forms on the Web could be exploited to send tens of thousands of unwanted catalogs to a business or an individual. Such an onslaught would not only pose problems for the victim, but it could also paralyze the local post office charged with making such deliveries, the researchers suggested. After explaining how such attacks could take place, the researchers proposed several technological "fixes" that could help prevent them.

The rapid growth of the World Wide Web has enabled many merchants, government agencies and non-profit organizations to make sales catalogs and information packets available to anyone who can fill out a simple on-line form. But these forms, the researchers say, have also opened a gateway that could allow disruptive activity to spill out of cyberspace. "People have not considered how easily someone could leverage the scale and automation of the Internet to inflict damage on real-world processes," said Avi Rubin, technical director of the Information Security Institute at The Johns Hopkins University and one of the authors of the paper.

Rubin and two other researchers first determined that a popular search engine such as Google could be used to locate online order forms. They also discovered that simple software could be launched to automatically recognize and fill in fields such as "name," "address" and "city," and then submit the catalog request online. "It could be set up to send 30,000 different catalogs to one person or 30,000 copies of one catalog to 30,000 different recipients," said Rubin. "This could create a great expense for the sender, a huge burden for local postal facilities and chaos in the mail room of a business targeted to receive this flood of materials."

The technique could also be used to exploit the increasingly common Web-based forms used to request repair service, deliveries or parcel pickups, said Rubin, who also is an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at Johns Hopkins. Tracking down the attacker could be difficult, he added. The offender could easily escape detection by loading the program onto a floppy disk or a small USB hard disk and paying cash for a few minutes of time at an Internet café. By the time the damage was discovered, the culprit would have vanished, Rubin said.

Because of the confusion and costs such attacks could inflict, Rubin and his fellow researchers wondered whether they should make public the technological weakness they’d uncovered; by doing so, they might provide a "blueprint" for people to launch such attacks. With this in mind, they did not publish their paper for some time after the initial research was done. However, after a popular search engine introduced its new Application Programming Interfaces, the researchers concluded that the attacks they envisioned were now much more likely to occur. In their paper they stated that "there is also a risk in not disclosing vulnerabilities for which there are known solutions. By not educating people who are in a position to defend against an attack, it can be more damaging to bury knowledge of a vulnerability than to announce it."

The researchers suggested several methods to deter the attacks they described. One is to set up online forms so that they cannot easily be picked up by a search engine. Another is to alter the HTML coding used to create an online form so that it no longer contains easily recognizable field names such as "name" and "address." (Such coding changes would not be visible to the person filling out the form.)

Yet another option is to include in each form a step that must be completed by a human computer user. This process, called a Reverse Turing Test, could display writing that could not easily be recognized by a computer, or it could require some other visual task that would trip up an automated ordering program. Other deterrents suggested by the researchers include client puzzles and monitored systems called "Honeypots," which are set up to attract cyber-attackers for early detections.

Hoping to prevent the type of cyber-attacks they’ve envisioned, the researchers have conferred with a top technology administrator from the U.S. Postal Service and have made their concerns and recommendations public on the Web. "To prevent these damaging activities," Rubin said, "we need to look at the interface between cyberspace and the real world and to make sure there is a real person submitting a legitimate request, not a computer program launching a disruptive attack."

Phil Sneiderman | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Information Technology:

nachricht TIB’s Visual Analytics Research Group to develop methods for person detection and visualisation
19.03.2018 | Technische Informationsbibliothek (TIB)

nachricht Green Light for Galaxy Europe
15.03.2018 | Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg im Breisgau

All articles from Information Technology >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Tiny implants for cells are functional in vivo

For the first time, an interdisciplinary team from the University of Basel has succeeded in integrating artificial organelles into the cells of live zebrafish embryos. This innovative approach using artificial organelles as cellular implants offers new potential in treating a range of diseases, as the authors report in an article published in Nature Communications.

In the cells of higher organisms, organelles such as the nucleus or mitochondria perform a range of complex functions necessary for life. In the networks of...

Im Focus: Locomotion control with photopigments

Researchers from Göttingen University discover additional function of opsins

Animal photoreceptors capture light with photopigments. Researchers from the University of Göttingen have now discovered that these photopigments fulfill an...

Im Focus: Surveying the Arctic: Tracking down carbon particles

Researchers embark on aerial campaign over Northeast Greenland

On 15 March, the AWI research aeroplane Polar 5 will depart for Greenland. Concentrating on the furthest northeast region of the island, an international team...

Im Focus: Unique Insights into the Antarctic Ice Shelf System

Data collected on ocean-ice interactions in the little-researched regions of the far south

The world’s second-largest ice shelf was the destination for a Polarstern expedition that ended in Punta Arenas, Chile on 14th March 2018. Oceanographers from...

Im Focus: ILA 2018: Laser alternative to hexavalent chromium coating

At the 2018 ILA Berlin Air Show from April 25–29, the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT is showcasing extreme high-speed Laser Material Deposition (EHLA): A video documents how for metal components that are highly loaded, EHLA has already proved itself as an alternative to hard chrome plating, which is now allowed only under special conditions.

When the EU restricted the use of hexavalent chromium compounds to special applications requiring authorization, the move prompted a rethink in the surface...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Industry & Economy
Event News

Virtual reality conference comes to Reutlingen

19.03.2018 | Event News

Ultrafast Wireless and Chip Design at the DATE Conference in Dresden

16.03.2018 | Event News

International Tinnitus Conference of the Tinnitus Research Initiative in Regensburg

13.03.2018 | Event News

Latest News

A new kind of quantum bits in two dimensions

19.03.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

Scientists have a new way to gauge the growth of nanowires

19.03.2018 | Materials Sciences

Virtual reality conference comes to Reutlingen

19.03.2018 | Event News

Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>