DDoS Wars: The Network Strikes Back

It’s time your IT department rebelled against the cybercrime empire, says Srinivasan CR, VP of global product management, data centre services at Tata Communications

Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks have been making a lot of headlines in the last year – particularly through the work of the Lizard Squad, the cyber criminals behind the attacks that caused major network outages for global corporations such as Microsoft, Sony and Malaysian Airlines.

While only the severest attacks affecting some of the highest profile businesses might make the news, cyber criminals are launching new DDoS attacks on a daily basis. Large enterprises such as carriers and online retailers – who rely on the web to sell their products and services and to engage with their customers – are often under relentless bombardment. Furthermore, the financial and reputational implications of DDoS attacks are growing in significance. Companies face the threat of not only losses inflicted by operational downtime, but also of extortion from the more recent phenomenon of ‘ransom attacks’.

Attack of the Clones – Forming a Botnet Army

DDoS attacks rely on hijacked devices that cyber criminals add to their army, bombarding a weakness in a network. Infected devices are turned into robots, called botnets, which add network traffic to the attack. This is akin to recruiting an army of clones formed by specific computers, ports or services on the target system, entire networks or network and system components.

The most common type of DDoS attack involves flooding the target with external communications requests. Eventually, the attack will build enough momentum to bring the network to a standstill, as it can no longer deal with the wave of requests. It is comparable to a global ticketing website crashing on the day Beyoncé tour tickets go on sale due to unmanageable traffic demand. Both scenarios can lead to significant financial losses and damage client and customer relationships, as mission critical systems and business operations grind to a halt.

One of the reasons DDoS protection is climbing higher up the IT agenda is that this form of cyber attack is growing in sophistication. By exploiting vulnerabilities in unprotected networks and a range of connected devices, including smartphones and tablets, DDoS attackers are able to grow their botnets at an alarming rate. This increases the scale and power of an attack and reduces the likelihood of an effective counter attack from the victim’s network. This also gives cyber criminals more control over the timing of an attack. For example, staging a successful attack at a crucial time when a business simply cannot afford for its networks to fall over gives attackers far more leverage.

Furthermore, while DDoS attacks are not, strictly speaking, to be confused with hacking, which involves infiltrating a network rather than simply choking it into submission, the two can be combined to devastating effect. A successful DDoS attack can render the network operator powerless to protect their systems, making them more susceptible to a full-scale network breach. Consequently, there have recently been examples of companies effectively being held to ransom under the threat of a DDoS attack in exchange for sums of bitcoin and other forms of extortion.

Organisations such as carriers, online retailers and financial service platforms are heavily reliant on their global online presence to do their day-to-day business and remain profitable. Therefore, the threat of a powerful DDoS attack, particularly around a significantly busy trading period, gives cyber criminals additional leverage, which may persuade the target organisation to hand over significant sums to avoid being attacked.

A New Hope – Scrubbing the Network Clean

Given the nature of DDoS attacks, the best form of defence is attack. Rather than waiting for attacks to hit your network and relying on the ability of your security system to stand up to them, best practice is to anticipate them, and deal with them in real-time. This process is known as scrubbing. Designated scrubbing centres take care of the heavy lifting when it comes to mitigating and breaking up attacks. Scrubbing ensures the network layers act as the first line of defence. Incoming traffic is monitored and cleansed in real-time. Clean traffic is then routed into the network, whereas traffic that is considered threatening is routed back to the source. This approach means that legitimate traffic always gets through, and malicious traffic is mitigated at the source rather than near the target network, so it does not choke bandwidth.

For example, Tata Communications has 15 scrubbing centres across the globe. A team of skilled engineers monitor attacks close to the botnet and DDoS heatmap. The attack is broken down in manageable chunks rather than tackled when it has gathered too much momentum. Yet, scrubbing should only be considered the first line of defence. IT managers also have monitoring proxy services, network and web application firewalls, VPN protection and securing virtual gateways to think about. Ideally, these should be delivered as part of a comprehensive managed security service. This can be achieved by delivering security services from the cloud, giving IT managers greater flexibility and choice in terms of the services and pricing models available to them.

Providing security as a managed service with cloud-based solutions such as Distributed Denial of Service as a Service (DDoSaaS), Firewall as a Service (FwaaS), Virtual Private Network as a Service (VPNaaS) and Security Information and Event Management as a Service (SIEMaaS) has numerous benefits for businesses. As well as the peace of mind of knowing that all aspects of security are being proactively managed by a team of dedicated experts, a managed security service also gives IT managers a single point of contact for their security needs. This removes the administrative strain of multiple contracts, and the prospect of being passed around the houses when trying to solve a problem.

Keeping the Peace – Neutralising the DDoS Threat

DDoS attacks are becoming increasingly sophisticated and malicious, as cyber criminals hold businesses to ransom, threatening to bring corporate networks down for days or even for weeks. Yet, best practice to fight DDoS follows common security rules of thumb. As with any type of cyber threat, enterprises should expect to be hit by a DDoS attack, so preventative measures are key. Protecting the network is a living, breathing operation – you need to constantly seek out the next DDoS wave on the network and strike back before your business comes under attack.

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