Global hacking a growing concern

PARKERSBURG – Officials are growing increasingly concerned over what appears to be foreign hacker attacks on U.S. computer systems.

Officials have warned of coordinated “cyber intrusions” originating in China targeting U.S. businesses, banks and government systems. The Chinese government and military have denied the accusations.

Locally, officials say they are aware of the attacks, but have yet to see much regional impact.

“Our finance department is really the only area where we would have any concerns,” said Parkersburg Mayor Bob Newell. “For the most part, any documents a hacker would be able to retrieve from our systems would already be available to the public. We don’t keep, for example, employee medical records here locally. Those are kept by the state PEIA in Charleston.

“Viruses are always a concern, and we’ve had issues in the past, but it’s not been a big concern or expense to us,” he said. “We share those kinds of concerns and issues with anyone who is connected online, from businesses to individuals. It’s something we all deal with.”

Newell said officials do try to pay attention to issues on a national level in case they become issues locally.

“We do pay attention if there are potential problems that happen elsewhere,” he said. “We share those concerns with everyone, though. We don’t have any special protection from it.”

“Techniques to breach security are always evolving and techniques to keep out hackers keep improving as well,” said Bob Van Camp, associate professor of computer science at Marietta College. “No plan is perfect, but individuals still need to find economical ways to remain secure.”

Van Camp said cyberattacks are when hackers penetrate computers or networks to maliciously exploit those systems. Such intrusions can result in identity theft, viruses, theft of intellectual property or a computer system being taken over by a remote user. When it occurs between countries, he said, the goal is often theft of state secrets or causing damage to systems or institutions.

“Apparently some countries have determined it is economical to use cyberwarfare to steal state secrets and to cause damage to other countries as part of their defense system,” he said.

In a recent op-ed piece submitted to The Parkersburg News and Sentinel, Maggie Wilderotter, chairman and CEO of Frontier Communications and chairman of the National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee, said such attacks affect everyone.

“The cyberworld is a great equalizer in many respects, not the least of which is its risk for mischief,” she said. “Wealth and privilege offer no shield against potential damage to finances, reputations, corporate intelligence and vital infrastructure. It’s open season whenever anyone goes online.”

“While national security-related industries, such as aerospace, energy, scientific research and information technology systems, seem to be the chief targets of cyberwarfare, area residents should never click on unknown links requesting information,” Van Camp said. “This can lead to identity theft, viruses, theft of intellectual property or full system infiltration.

“With a few lines of code, a hacker can install backdoor programs, upload and download files, capture screenshots of the user’s desktop, record keystrokes and passwords, and shut down the system,” Van Camp said. “This break-in can last months or even years, and confidential and top-secret files can be easily transported from the network into the hacker’s hands.”

Wilderotter said telecommunication corporations are working to protect both corporate and private users from cyberthreats, but everyone has to take an active role in online defense.

“The most powerful weapons to protect against costly and frightening cyberintrusions may be as simple as heightened awareness and common sense,” she said. “We all should be consistently reminded to be alert when using any device connected to the Internet, ever mindful of the strength and safety of passwords, the authenticity of external devices and links,and the security or lack thereof of the websites they visit.”

Van Camp said this kind of digital theft and destruction is a concern not only for governments and businesses, but also for individual users. The main lesson to take away: Be cautious and be prepared.

“Individuals need to backup up their data consistently and continue to use proper security precautions such as software updates and using up-to-date antivirus software,” he said. “One rule of thumb, the cost of the security system used should not be greater that the value of the data.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.