By Jess Goulart
Photo courtesy of Sebastiaan ter Burg.
What ever happened to good ol’ gun-point bank robbing? These days it seems like everyone is getting their cyber systems hacked. A reluctant Department of Homeland Security reported an onslaught of attacks in 2013 targeting energy companies and attempting to disrupt distribution via network shut down or data destruction. A few months ago, 40 million Target shoppers had their credit card information stolen, the largest breach in history, and one of several against national retailers.
Perhaps the biggest problem facing cyber crime fighters is the sophistication of online anonymity, achieved via proxy’s, Tor, or free software that will re-route criminals through a maze of various IP addresses. Thanks to the infamous Snowden leaks, we know that the NSA admitted in a top-secret presentation they will never be able to fully de-anonymize Tor users, though with manual analysis they may be able to de-anonymize a small fraction.
Brandon Gregg, Director of Global Investigations at a popular Fortune 500 Company who’s responsible for tracking anonymous hacker groups and corporate espionage, tells BTR it’s often impossible to “go after” hackers. Instead, his job revolves around prevention methods and discovering vulnerabilities before they’re exploited.
Gregg has been working to save his company from hackers like those who attacked Target for seven years now, and says the methods for hiding one’s online identity are extremely sophisticated. Often police will track a hacker’s computer only to find they’ve been led to an old woman’s house in the middle of nowhere, her computer selected by happenstance to stand as an intermediary between hacker and world. “Plus,” Gregg adds, “they’re very good at what they do, especially hackers out of China and Eastern Europe. They don’t work and instead become exceptionally skilled with computers and hack from half-way around the world with little to no risk.”
Gregg’s first step in fighting attacks is classifying them. There are two primary categories, each warranting different measures.
The first are common viruses, or malware, that target, what Gregg calls, “low-hanging fruit.” People whose systems are out-of-date, or whose security software lacks the latest patches. People who use WiFi on public networks, like at Starbucks. People who use email service providers that don’t automatically encrypt their information. Low-hanging fruit is usually attacked by “script-kiddies,” which is to say, newcomers to hacking that can recognize an advanced bit of code (or script) and copy/paste it for a new attack.
The more advanced hacking is typically reserved by corporations and high security systems like those of the government and is usually perpetrated by a handful of seasoned experts. This kind of attack is called an APT, or Advanced Persistent Threat. APTs use zero-day attacks, tricks, or social engineering to hack into a system and, as their name suggests, automatically keep trying until they succeed.
“As an individual you should really only concern yourself with malware threats. Prevent yourself from being that low-hanging fruit by always updating your system, including your router, which most people don’t even realize can be updated. This will actually also protect you from the NSA,” advises Gregg.
Another great way to protect yourself is to use open source software, like Firefox or Gimp. Open source means that there’s no corporate agenda working behind the scenes of development. If an open source isolates and fixes a security problem, they’ll release the fix right away. On the flip side, corporations will usually wait and release patches in accordance with quarterly earnings goals or other agendas. In fact, Gregg tells BTR there are reports of corporations knowing there’s a security issue, having the patch to fix it, and still waiting to divulge to the public.
Not all cyber-crime has malicious intentions behind it. The aptly-named hacker and activist group Anonymous has hacked companies like Paypal, Twitter, and a handful of government sites to raise political awareness.
“One of the reasons Anonymous has a positive side to it is because it’s making cyber attacks more publicized,” says Gregg. “It’s less shameful because people are publicizing it more. Anonymous forced mom and pops to actually take security seriously and increase it and wake up to the fact they can’t just leave people’s information unencrypted.”
Yes, cyber crime is on the rise, but it was also vastly under-reported until recently. At the macro-level, changing laws are requiring corporations to report security breaches that would otherwise remain invisible to the public eye. This new awareness has increased demand for anti-virus and other security services, a trend that is predicted to continue rise.
Gregg is fairly hopeful for a more secure future, though he expects that, like bank robbing, cyber crime will never cease completely.
“I can see encrypted hard drives and internet and websites becoming standard,” he explains. “I honestly don’t understand why anything is plain text going across the internet to begin with. Those measures will limit cyber crime, but definitely not do away with it.”