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Cyber threats evolving as state-sponsored hacks increase

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HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — Cyber threats are evolving as state-sponsored hackers target institutions in the United States.

The types of threats presented by hackers have changed as well, said Grady Summers, chief technology officer of Milpitas, California-based technology security company FireEye Inc. From identity theft and stealing financial data, hackers have moved to where they can remotely control vehicles and threaten critical infrastructure, he said.

In the early 2000s, pranksters and others used email worms to disrupt their targets' operations, but the entrance of state-sponsored hackers changed the nature of attacks, said Mr. Summers.

However, state-sponsored hackers are looking for different information and patiently establish themselves within the target, staying for months or even years without being detected by installing malicious software, he said during the recent Property Casualty Insurers Association of America's annual meeting in Hollywood, Florida.

State-sponsored hackers sometimes target nonfinancial or government targets, said Mr. Summers.

An example is the Syrian Electronic Army, which is sponsored by the Syrian government. Mr. Summers said the group probably consists of 10 to 12 people who have compromised more than 30 Western media outlets by issuing tweets claiming things such as an explosion at the White House that injured President Barack Obama.

“It's amazing to see how such a small group could have such a large impact,” he said.

Now the group is moving from disinformation to military targets, posing online as women in an effort to get battle plans from Syrian rebel groups.

“In many parts of the world, cyber warfare really is that,” Mr. Summers said.

Also during the conference, former Homeland Security Secretary and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge said the United States faces a new and permanent threat in what he called the “digital forevermore.”

In several years, the Internet will be like electricity and be everywhere, but the greatest threat to U.S. security and its economy is the digital world, he said.

“Our infrastructure generally is exposed,” and a successful cyber attack on the nation's infrastructure would have dire effects, Mr. Ridge said.

Companies can better arm themselves against cyber attack by remembering that a company's risk level is only as good as its worst-connected partner, said Mr. Summers. While no company can stop all cyber attacks, its response preparation can determine the damage it sustains, he said.