The cyber world is a peculiar one — it is intangible. We do not have indications that appeal to our ordinary senses. There is nothing to taste, nothing but a plastic keyboard to touch, and what we see on a monitor is only an illusion constructed by code. Composite images are formed by tiny pixels of light within a plastic and metal screen.
This brave new world operates on new rules of behaviour; perhaps it is the Wild West brought back to life — this time in a virtual world where natural laws are not applicable.
While we can lock our doors to protect our possessions in the real world, the property that we have stored online in digital space is vulnerable in ways we never expect. Even more strangely, the data we store in the cloud, on silicon disks and as digital code, can sometimes be more precious than what lies behind closed doors.
Access to our bank accounts, reputations, personalities, livelihoods, intellectual property, credit scores — may be accessible even if protected by passwords, encryption and locked firewalls. As long as the servers they are stored on are connected to the internet, anyone from anywhere, with the right skills and tools, might be able to walk right in.
A few cases of many.
There are a wide variety of methods, motivations and interests in hacking and similarly, just as many employed as countermeasures. Leagues of computer experts are working on all sides of the digital divide, from breaking into bank accounts to stealing trade secrets and embarrassing governments, companies and individuals. We’ve selected only a few cases out of the innumerable exploits attempted each year.
Lizard Squad’s Christmas DDOS attack.
On Christmas Day, 2014, a group of hackers calling themselves “Lizard Squad” took over the PlayStation and Xbox online gaming networks by overwhelming the game servers with nonsense traffic, thereby preventing registered gamers from being able to play online with their friends. This is known as a distributed denial of service attack (DDOS) — not considered a “hack” in technical terms, it should be noted — that essentially sends millions of simultaneous messages to targeted servers in order to overload them until they crash. A spokesperson for Lizard Squad, a man calling himself ‘Ryan’ claimed credit, saying it was done “for a laugh” and to expose weak security on the networks. Alongside two friends, he was able to wreak havoc at a time when kids wanted to play with their new holiday games.
If there are anti-heroes hacking for the greater good, it might be the collective known as Anonymous — known by their iconic Guy Fawkes mask. There is debate whether this international loosely-organised and leaderless collective is the digital equivalent of Robin Hood or a cyber lynch-mob, but they seem to be on the side of Western sensibilities. Their current battles against ISIS, Islamic jihadists, Al Qaeda and other terror groups began in the wake of the murders at Charlie Hebdo, the satirical French publication that makes fun of world and religious leaders. Since the Paris terrorist attacks of November 2015 — claimed by ISIS — they have taken down thousands of social media sites that ISIS uses for communication and recruitment.
According to Gregg Housh, the only member of Anonymous who has been publicly identified, “shutting down their channels to talk to impressionable youth around the world is a smart move. … If just a few kids don’t get caught up, I’d be happy.”
Anonymous takes on social issues and attacks those organisations that it deems a threat to civilised society. They have confronted religious fanatical groups such as the Westboro Baptist Church and the Church of Scientology, the US Government, as well as agencies in Israel, Tunisia, and more. They take over home-pages and social media sites like Twitter and others, post new messages and publicise the contact information of people involved with these organisations.
The Sony Hack.
Sony also experienced a hack by a group calling itself “The GOP – Guardians of Peace” who broke into Sony’s systems and extracted plans, movies yet to be released, emails and more. After exposing sensitive material, the group threatened Sony with more damage if the corporation did not meet its demands. These demands included not releasing a movie — “The Interview” — which depicted comedic journalists assassinating the ruler of North Korea, Kim Jong-un. Unsurprisingly, North Korean hackers were suspected.
$300 million in an instant.
In 2013, five Russian hackers stole credit cards and eventually purloined over $300,000,000 in a few months. It’s estimated that every 7 seconds, 126 adults or companies or government agencies are hacked.
Our side has enlisted teams of ethical hackers to do battle with unauthorised, perceived enemies, stalking them through cyber trails and phantom servers through the dark web. Their mission is to strengthen our own digital defences and constantly test our own security systems for vulnerabilities, back doors and viruses planted by the other side. These “clean hackers” are employed by law enforcement, software companies, the military and other clandestine agencies.
Patching the web.
Computer security is a game of cat and mouse on a global scale. As soon as any software company provides a software update, someone is attempting to exploit it.
Knowing that security strategies can be cumbersome for employees and key personnel, protocols may be relaxed inside a firewall, or certain permissions automated for users who log in properly. Colleagues and friends must communicate and cyber-life must continue to be functional and accessible.
Whenever a new application is released, there can be vulnerabilities that are unintended and bypass initial testing. Every time software is updated, tiny errors can leave an entry way. These holes are opportunities for outsiders to slither in.
If a hacker can start from inside the secure network, the greatest degree of protection has already been bypassed. If an insider is deceived, and opens an infected email attachment, or accepts a tiny self-executable virus onto his networked computer and it launches some illicit code, then that virus can follow its instructions, steal information and pass this data back to the hacker.
Worryingly, hackers often try to get hired by their intended targets just so they can live inside the firewalls. Often, that means weaving a complex digital background that will be verifiable by human resources and to obfuscate the employee’s modus operandi.
Almost all hackers are fascinated by computers and the code that makes everything work. They are programmers who explore the vast regions of the internet and scout challenges to get past firewalls and step into forbidden places. Talented hackers seek out others who share the same interests, and learn by being mentored — frequenting hacker forums and emulating their heroes. Hackers may have a programming background or may be self-taught. Some formal courses are now being taught at universities and trade schools.
Your turn: Can you program? Have you ever looked into someone else’s private files, or have you been a victim of hacking? Tell us about your experiences below in comments. If you want to remain “anonymous” — well, you know how to do that.