With all the recent news stories of successful hacking attacks of some very prominent organisations, this seems like an entirely reasonable question.
The litany of victims is impressive including such luminaries as Google, RSA, Visa, MasterCard, Citibank, Epsilon, the US Senate, the UK National Health Service, Fox, Sony (of course) and just last night the CIA website was targeted with what a Distributed Denial of Service Attack. The amount of prime time coverage these various activities are getting is prompting several questions. Is this hacking group stuff something new? Is this cyber-espionage or even cyber warfare? What impact will this have on me and the future of the internet?
The idea of a hacking group is certainly not a new phenomenon, in fact they began to flourish in the early eighties, the early days of home computing, acting as a forum for members to share information, learn and compare skills. Early groups bore names such as Legion of Doom, Cult of the Dead Cow or Masters of Deception and specialised not only in the nascent internet hacking scene and are responsible for the birth of hacktivism, but also in the perhaps dying are of phreaking (abuse of public telecommunications networks).
The nineties saw the rise of a different kind of hacking group, L0pht Heavy Industries who operated more as a research organisation, providing software tools for penetration and security testing and issuing advisories. This group also famously testified to the US Congress that they could take down the entire internet in under 30 minutes back in 1998. L0pht later merged with @stake, who were eventually acquired by Symantec.
Now in the noughties we have witnessed the rise of Anonymous, and more recently LulzSec. Anonymous as a collective is something that began on message boards like the infamous 4chan, for the purposes of attacking the Church of Scientology, and has with generous media coverage evolved into a bigger deal. Instead of being a relatively closed group, Anonymous instead actively sought the participation of the general public when they began their actions in support of Wikileaks.
Tens of thousands of volunteers are downloading tools which enable them to participate in the global assault on businesses with whom they feel personally aggrieved. The latest versions of this tool includes functionality which means the user can hand of control of their weaponised computer to a central authority (Anonymous) to better direct and control the attacks. Lulz Sec on the other had maintain the tradition of the closed group, and according to their own web site have no motivation but anarchy,
“We’re LulzSec, a small team of lulzy individuals who feel the drabness of the cyber community is a burden on what matters: fun. Considering fun is now restricted to Friday, where we look forward to the weekend, weekend, we have now taken it upon ourselves to spread fun, fun, fun, throughout the entire calendar year“.
Of course similar groups have emerged around the world in places as far flung as Pakistan and India, where there is fierce competition between the groups. In Romania groups such as HackersBlog have hit various companies. In China and Russia, many hackers are believed to act as proxies for their governments.
It’s not all about the hacking for fun and kudos gangs, organised criminal groups have been with us for many years now, and the last 12 months or so has seen a marked increase in the frequency of attacks on online aggregations of information, such as Sony, Epsilon or Citibank for the purposes of theft of information for financial reward. One single attack, if successful can yield such a vast amount of saleable or otherwise abusable personal data, that I’m only surprised the attacks took so long to gather pace.
Another phenomenon that has risen to prominence recently is purported nation-state activity. Again, despite recent press coverage this is also nothing new, the Titan Rain attacks for example date back to 2003 where the finger was firmly pointed at China for the theft of large amounts of information from military and governmental targets, gh0stnet in 2007 was similarly blamed on China, as were the Aurora attacks the following year.
This year has already seen similarly motivated attacks on RSA, the European Council, the French Finance Ministry, the Canadian government, Lockheed Martin and of course Stuxnet.
So many technological and cryptographically advances have their roots in the centuries old art of espionage, we should really not be surprised to see national foreign intelligence services making use of cutting edge tools and techniques to further their national or economic interests.
None of this represents a global online meltdown, or the end of the internet economy or national security as we know it. Like everything else in this world we can trace a simple process of evolution at work here.
Security companies, individuals and enterprises must evolve to keep pace and just maybe learn some of the lessons that some of these guys have been teaching us for years now. Encrypt your data, develop securely, configure correctly, test your defences effectively, use complex passwords, shield your vulnerabilities and build your systems under the assumption that a breach *will* happen.