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FBI starts new initiative to name hackers

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The cybercrime division of the FBI, under a new program, has retooled to focus on determining the identities of intruders at the other end of the keyboard, bureau officials announced.

Giving priority to the labeling of suspects follows claims by the Pentagon that the military now has the capability to single out and retaliate against hackers. 

“A key aim of the Next Generation Cyber Initiative has been to expand our ability to quickly define the attribution piece of a cyberattack to help determine an appropriate response,” Richard McFeely, executive assistant director of the FBI Criminal, Cyber, Response, and Services Branch, said in a blog post on Friday.

He went on to describe the attribution piece as uncovering “who is conducting the attack or the exploitation and what is their motive.”

The FBI during the past year has deployed a corps of specially trained computer scientists able “to extract hackers’ digital signatures,” or the unique behaviors of a given malicious online campaign, the post explained.

Investigators can send findings to the FBI Cyber Division’s Cyber Watch command, a 24-hour station at headquarters, where specialists will look for patterns or similarities among cases, officials said. The watch center also feeds leads to partner agencies, including the departments of Defense and Homeland Security, they added.

“We are obviously concerned with terrorists using the Internet to conduct these types of attacks,” McFeely said. “As the lead domestic intelligence agency within the United States, it’s our job to make sure that businesses’ and the nation’s secrets don’t fall into the hands of adversaries.”

Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, during a landmark speech on cyber’s threat to national security, said a two-year investment in forensics to solve the attribution problem is paying off. “Potential aggressors should be aware that the United States has the capacity to locate them and hold them accountable for actions that harm America or its interests,” he remarked, in what news reports say was a signal to Iran.

Iran, or at least hackers thought to be sponsored by the nation state, is allegedly behind a spate of server attacks that have paralyzed major U.S. bank websites.

Still, some cybersecurity experts are cautious about assigning blame for computer assaults too quickly. Just last week, investigators told Bloomberg a strike on Saudi Arabian state oil company Aramco, which U.S. officials reportedly linked to Iran, now appears to be the work of a company insider.

“The mistakes in the virus’s code led investigators to the point of attack -- a USB stick that had been inserted in a computer on the internal company network -- and to the identity of the suspected attacker, an Aramco employee who was logged onto the machine at the time of the incident,” Bloomberg reported on Thursday. 

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