In the last decade, governments and military intelligence agencies around the world have waged relentless cyber-war against one another, from denial of service attacks to Trojan viruses, worms, and garden varieties of malware.
While their code and methods and ethics may vary, at least 40 governments around the world–including the United States–have a common ally in Ashar Aziz ’81.
The founder and CTO of FireEye, a small firm in Silicon Valley whose product detects and thwarts cyber-attacks, Aziz spends sleepless nights monitoring the world’s Internet wars.
“Cyber-attacks, and their ultimate evolution in the context of warfare, are one of the greatest dangers and risks of the 21st century,” says Aziz.
Cyber-warfare has been on the rise since the advent of the personal computer. Recent tensions between the U.S. and Iran, Syria, Libya, China, and others have all had cyber-warfare components.
Aziz, who worked at Sun Microsystems and Terraspring before launching FireEye in 2004, found the best guard against viruses and malware over the years to be machine virtualization. By creating a small army of computers to act as dummies and absorb attacks, a company or government can quickly see where infections occur, study them, and guard their actual databases against them.
Aziz describes virtual machines as “food testers,” akin to servants in a royal court. Once the king saw that his food testers lived through dinner, he’d feel safe enough to eat.
In March, FireEye customers in South Korea had virtual machines protecting them when 80 malware variants, originating in North Korea, attacked both public and private South Korean interests. The attacks were zero-day, meaning their victims’ weaknesses were exposed at the same time they were exploited. “Scores of organizations were impacted,” Aziz recalls, “except for the ones that had deployed FireEye. We instantly recognized and blocked all of these attacks.”
While his battle tactics are the same that he deployed at Sun and Terraspring, Aziz marvels at how the scale and scope of attacks has changed since his career began.
“The entire Internet is a gigantic minefield,” Aziz told one interviewer. “In 2004 it was the Internet of random scaling worms; blaster and others infected millions of systems. As nasty as those were, the reality is they were toys written by children.”
Today, FireEye’s products protect 60 U.S. government agencies and guard against attacks on “three of the top four social networking sites” and “two of the top three Internet search sites,” according to its website. FireEye’s largest clients want protection from attacks meant to destroy data infrastructure and steal intellectual property.
This past week, FireEye published data on China’s growing cyber-warfare arsenal, one that acts much like a guerrilla operation, handing out weapons to small units of hackers who will fight for their country.
Personally, his line of work has affected Aziz’s own sense of security.
“My level of knowledge about threats does make me more protective of our information,” he says. “Fear is probably not the right emotion, but vigilance and awareness are key in order to be prepared to respond…We should not be unmindful of the risks in cyber space, whether we are individuals, small businesses, large enterprises, critical infrastructure providers such as power grids, or government agencies. The risks are very real and profound.”