Identify malicious users

Charles R. Elden and Tara M. Swaminatha

You will soon notice the ever-present malicious user. The term malicious is used liberally. What we are referring to is an individual or group who has the knowledge, skills, or access to compromise a system's security. Malicious user is a generic category encompassing a variety of roles that deserve additional discussion. A malicious user can be any of the following.

Organized crime (financial motivation)
These malicious users are capable, motivated, well organized, and well funded. They are intent on operations such as cloning cell phones or other wireless devices and stealing money, goods, and services. Organized crime is the most capable category of attackers. Their ability stems from having the resources available to obtain the necessary hardware, software, and knowledge to mount sophisticated attacks quickly if the potential financial benefits justify the effort.

Hackers (nonfinancial motivation)
These malicious users are also capable, motivated, and well organized and may be well funded. Although hacker interest in wireless systems may initially be sparked by the financial or proprietary information the system protects, their attacks are generally focused on achieving notoriety. Attacks that can be expected of hackers include small-scale and wide-scale disruption of operations and the collection and release of sensitive information.

Malicious programmers (financial or brand damage)
These malicious users vary

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in their technical ability and are usually highly motivated by personal greed, grievance, or grudge. They are usually not well organized but may possess significant knowledge of the wireless system and access to internal processes. Malicious programmers can originate from various sources: a disgruntled employee at a wireless manufacturer; an application programming contractor; operations and support personnel; a knowledgeable programmer who feels wronged by someone associated with the manufacture, distribution, or management of a wireless system or device; a programmer who feels wronged by an individual or a company using wireless systems or devices.

Also in this group we consider attackers with nonmalicious intent whose actions can incur security issues, either inadvertently or because of an interest in improving the system's security. The information and vulnerabilities generated by nonmalicious attackers are capitalized on by malicious attackers if not immediately addressed by the affected wireless component or system.

Academics and security researchers
These attackers are capable, motivated, well organized, and often well funded. Academics and security researchers can analyze the security of a wireless component or system from an intellectual standpoint to determine how the system is designed or whether and how potential vulnerabilities have been addressed. They look at both the theoretical and practical implementation of the system, focusing primarily on issues in their area of expertise for the purposes of advancing the field, or their standing in the field. Although this group does not have malicious intent, malicious attackers can use their findings before mitigation or corrections are in place. This group is more likely to inform the vendor when a vulnerability is detected, before publishing their results, although this is not guaranteed.

Inexperienced programmers and designers
Although they do not fit most standard definitions of a malicious user, inexperienced programmers and designers can inadvertently create security issues and are considered malicious for this analysis. These inexperienced personnel are motivated to perform a specific task to support a wireless system, but they do not possess the skill or experience necessary to execute the task properly. The mistakes and oversights made by these personnel affect the operation of wireless components and can adversely affect the security of the wireless system. Other attackers exploit the vulnerabilities generated by inexperienced personnel.

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This was first published in June 2003

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