Entries Tagged "cybercrime"

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The Problem with "Hiring Hackers"

The Communications Director for Montana’s Congressman Denny Rehberg solicited “hackers” to break into the computer system at Texas Christian University and change his grades (so they would look better when he eventually ran for office, I presume). The hackers posted the email exchange instead. Very funny:

First, let’s be clear. You are soliciting me to break the law and hack into a computer across state lines. That is a federal offense and multiple felonies. Obviously I can’t trust anyone and everyone that mails such a request, you might be an FBI agent, right?

So, I need three things to make this happen:

1. A picture of a squirrel or pigeon on your campus. One close-up, one with background that shows buildings, a sign, or something to indicate you are standing on the campus.

2. The information I mentioned so I can find the records once I get into the database.

3. Some idea of what I get for all my trouble.

Posted on December 27, 2006 at 1:40 PMView Comments

Cybercrime Hype Alert

It seems to be the season for cybercrime hype. First, we have this article from CNN, which seems to have no actual news:

Computer hackers will open a new front in the multi-billion pound “cyberwar” in 2007, targeting mobile phones, instant messaging and community Web sites such as MySpace, security experts predict.

As people grow wise to email scams, criminal gangs will find new ways to commit online fraud, sell fake goods or steal corporate secrets.

And next, this article, which claims that criminal organizations are paying student members to get IT degrees:

The most successful cyber crime gangs were based on partnerships between those with the criminals skills and contacts and those with the technical ability, said Mr Day.

“Traditional criminals have the ability to move funds and use all of the background they have,” he said, “but they don’t have the technical expertise.”

As the number of criminal gangs looking to move into cyber crime expanded, it got harder to recruit skilled hackers, said Mr Day. This has led criminals to target university students all around the world.

“Some students are being sponsored through their IT degree,” said Mr Day. Once qualified, the graduates go to work for the criminal gangs.

[…]

The aura of rebellion the name conjured up helped criminals ensnare children as young as 14, suggested the study.

By trawling websites, bulletin boards and chat rooms that offer hacking tools, cracks or passwords for pirated software, criminal recruiters gather information about potential targets.

Once identified, young hackers are drawn in by being rewarded for carrying out low-level tasks such as using a network of hijacked home computers, a botnet, to send out spam.

The low risk of being caught and the relatively high-rewards on offer helped the criminal gangs to paint an attractive picture of a cyber criminal’s life, said Mr Day.

As youngsters are drawn in the stakes are raised and they are told to undertake increasingly risky jobs.

Criminals targeting children — that’s sure to peg anyone’s hype-meter.

To be sure, I don’t want to minimize the threat of cybercrime. Nor do I want to minimize the threat of organized cybercrime. There are more and more criminals prowling the net, and more and more cybercrime has gone up the food chain — to large organized crime syndicates. Cybercrime is big business, and it’s getting bigger.

But I’m not sure if stories like these help or hurt.

Posted on December 14, 2006 at 2:36 PMView Comments

The Hidden Benefits of Network Attack

An anonymous note in the Harvard Law Review argues that there is a significant benefit from Internet attacks:

This Note argues that computer networks, particularly the Internet, can be thought of as having immune systems that are strengthened by certain attacks. Exploitation of security holes prompts users and vendors to close those holes, vendors to emphasize security in system development, and users to adopt improved security practices. This constant strengthening of security reduces the likelihood of a catastrophic attack — one that would threaten national or even global security. In essence, certain cybercrime can create more benefits than costs, and cybercrime policy should take this concept into account.

Posted on September 26, 2006 at 6:42 AMView Comments

Organized Cybercrime

Cybercrime is getting organized:

Cyberscams are increasingly being committed by organized crime syndicates out to profit from sophisticated ruses rather than hackers keen to make an online name for themselves, according to a top U.S. official.

Christopher Painter, deputy chief of the computer crimes and intellectual property section at the Department of Justice, said there had been a distinct shift in recent years in the type of cybercriminals that online detectives now encounter.

“There has been a change in the people who attack computer networks, away from the ‘bragging hacker’ toward those driven by monetary motives,” Painter told Reuters in an interview this week.

Although media reports often focus on stories about teenage hackers tracked down in their bedroom, the greater danger lies in the more anonymous virtual interlopers.

“There are still instances of these ‘lone-gunman’ hackers but more and more we are seeing organized criminal groups, groups that are often organized online targeting victims via the internet,” said Painter, in London for a cybercrime conference.

I’ve been saying this sort of thing for years, and have long complained that cyberterrorism gets all the press while cybercrime is the real threat. I don’t think this article is fear and hype; it’s a real problem.

Posted on September 19, 2006 at 7:16 AMView Comments

Why the Top-Selling Antivirus Programs Aren't the Best

The top three antivirus programs — from Symantec, McAfee, and Trend Micro — are less likely to detect new viruses and worms than less popular programs, because virus writers specifically test their work against those programs:

On Wednesday, the general manager of Australia’s Computer Emergency Response Team (AusCERT), Graham Ingram, described how the threat landscape has changed — along with the skill of malware authors.

“We are getting code of a quality that is probably worthy of software engineers. Not application developers but software engineers,” said Ingram.

However, the actual reason why the top selling antivirus applications don’t work is because malware authors are specifically testing their Trojans and viruses to make sure they can bypass these applications before releasing them in the wild.

It’s interesting to watch the landscape change, as malware becomes less the province of hackers and more the province of criminals. This is one move in a continuous arms race between attacker and defender.

Posted on August 2, 2006 at 6:41 AMView Comments

Bot Networks

What could you do if you controlled a network of thousands of computers — or, at least, could use the spare processor cycles on those machines? You could perform massively parallel computations: model nuclear explosions or global weather patterns, factor large numbers or find Mersenne primes, or break cryptographic problems.

All of these are legitimate applications. And you can visit distributed.net and download software that allows you to donate your spare computer cycles to some of these projects. (You can help search for Optimal Golomb Rulers — even if you have no idea what they are.) You’ve got a lot of cycles to spare. There’s no reason that your computer can’t help search for extraterrestrial life as it, for example, sits idly waiting for you to read this essay.

The reason these things work is that they are consensual; none of these projects download software onto your computer without your knowledge. None of these projects control your computer without your consent. But there are lots of software programs that do just that.

The term used for a computer remotely controlled by someone else is a “bot”. A group of computers — thousands or even millions — controlled by someone else is a bot network. Estimates are that millions of computers on the internet today are part of bot networks, and the largest bot networks have over 1.5 million machines.

Initially, bot networks were used for just one thing: denial-of-service attacks. Hackers would use them against each other, fighting hacker feuds in cyberspace by attacking each other’s computers. The first widely publicized use of a distributed intruder tool — technically not a botnet, but practically the same thing — was in February 2000, when Canadian hacker Mafiaboy directed an army of compromised computers to flood CNN.com, Amazon.com, eBay, Dell Computer and other sites with debilitating volumes of traffic. Every newspaper carried that story.

These days, bot networks are more likely to be controlled by criminals than by hackers. The important difference is the motive: profit. Networks are being used to send phishing e-mails and other spam. They’re being used for click fraud. They’re being used as an extortion tool: Pay up or we’ll DDoS you!

Mostly, they’re being used to collect personal data for fraud — commonly called “identity theft.” Modern bot software doesn’t just attack other computers; it attacks its hosts as well. The malware is packed with keystroke loggers to steal passwords and account numbers. In fact, many bots automatically hunt for financial information, and some botnets have been built solely for this purpose — to gather credit card numbers, online banking passwords, PayPal accounts, and so on, from compromised hosts.

Swindlers are also using bot networks for click fraud. Google’s anti-fraud systems are sophisticated enough to detect thousands of clicks by one computer; it’s much harder to determine if a single click by each of thousands of computers is fraud, or just popularity.

And, of course, most bots constantly search for other computers that can be infected and added to the bot network. (A 1.5 million-node bot network was discovered in the Netherlands last year. The command-and-control system was dismantled, but some of the bots are still active, infecting other computers and adding them to this defunct network.)

Modern bot networks are remotely upgradeable, so the operators can add new functionality to the bots at any time, or switch from one bot program to another. Bot authors regularly upgrade their botnets during development, or to evade detection by anti-virus and malware cleanup tools.

One application of bot networks that we haven’t seen all that much of is to launch a fast-spreading worm. (Some believe the Witty worm spread this way.) Much has been written about “flash worms” that can saturate the internet in 15 minutes or less. The situation gets even worse if 10 thousand bots synchronize their watches and release the worm at exactly the same time. Why haven’t we seen more of this? My guess is because there isn’t any profit in it.

There’s no real solution to the botnet problem, because there’s no single problem. There are many different bot networks, controlled in many different ways, consisting of computers infected through many different vulnerabilities. Really, a bot network is nothing more than an attacker taking advantage of 1) one or more software vulnerabilities, and 2) the economies of scale that computer networks bring. It’s the same thing as distributed.net or SETI@home, only the attacker doesn’t ask your permission first.

As long as networked computers have vulnerabilities — and that’ll be for the foreseeable future — there’ll be bot networks. It’s a natural side-effect of a computer network with bugs.

This essay originally appeared on Wired.com.

EDITED TO ADD (7/27): DDOS extortion is a bigger problem than you might think. Right now it’s primarily targeted against fringe industries — online gaming, online gambling, online porn — located offshore, but we’re seeing more and more of against mainstream companies in the U.S. and Europe.

EDITED TO ADD (7/27): Seems that Witty was definitely not seeded from a bot network.

Posted on July 27, 2006 at 6:35 AMView Comments

New Directions in Malware

Kaspersky Labs reports on extortion scams using malware:

We’ve reported more than once on cases where remote malicious users have moved away from the stealth use of infected computers (stealing data from them, using them as part of zombie networks etc) to direct blackmail, demanding payment from victims. At the moment, this method is used in two main ways: encrypting user data and corrupting system information.

Users quickly understand that something has happened to their data. They are then told that they should send a specific sum to an e-payment account maintained by the remote malicious user, whether it be EGold, Webmoney or whatever. The ransom demanded varies significantly depending on the amount of money available to the victim. We know of cases where the malicious users have demanded $50, and of cases where they have demanded more than $2,000. The first such blackmail case was in 1989, and now this method is again gaining in popularity.

In 2005, the most striking examples of this type of cybercrime were carried out using the Trojans GpCode and Krotten. The first of these encrypts user data; the second restricts itself to making a number of modifications to the victim machine’s system registry, causing it to cease functioning.

Among other worms, the article discusses the GpCode.ac worm, which encrypts data using 56-bit RSA (no, that’s not a typo). The whole article is interesting reading.

Posted on April 26, 2006 at 1:07 PMView Comments

Identity-Theft Disclosure Laws

California was the first state to pass a law requiring companies that keep personal data to disclose when that data is lost or stolen. Since then, many states have followed suit. Now Congress is debating federal legislation that would do the same thing nationwide.

Except that it won’t do the same thing: The federal bill has become so watered down that it won’t be very effective. I would still be in favor of it — a poor federal law is better than none — if it didn’t also pre-empt more-effective state laws, which makes it a net loss.

Identity theft is the fastest-growing area of crime. It’s badly named — your identity is the one thing that cannot be stolen — and is better thought of as fraud by impersonation. A criminal collects enough personal information about you to be able to impersonate you to banks, credit card companies, brokerage houses, etc. Posing as you, he steals your money, or takes a destructive joyride on your good credit.

Many companies keep large databases of personal data that is useful to these fraudsters. But because the companies don’t shoulder the cost of the fraud, they’re not economically motivated to secure those databases very well. In fact, if your personal data is stolen from their databases, they would much rather not even tell you: Why deal with the bad publicity?

Disclosure laws force companies to make these security breaches public. This is a good idea for three reasons. One, it is good security practice to notify potential identity theft victims that their personal information has been lost or stolen. Two, statistics on actual data thefts are valuable for research purposes. And three, the potential cost of the notification and the associated bad publicity naturally leads companies to spend more money on protecting personal information — or to refrain from collecting it in the first place.

Think of it as public shaming. Companies will spend money to avoid the PR costs of this shaming, and security will improve. In economic terms, the law reduces the externalities and forces companies to deal with the true costs of these data breaches.

This public shaming needs the cooperation of the press and, unfortunately, there’s an attenuation effect going on. The first major breach after California passed its disclosure law — SB1386 — was in February 2005, when ChoicePoint sold personal data on 145,000 people to criminals. The event was all over the news, and ChoicePoint was shamed into improving its security.

Then LexisNexis exposed personal data on 300,000 individuals. And Citigroup lost data on 3.9 million individuals. SB1386 worked; the only reason we knew about these security breaches was because of the law. But the breaches came in increasing numbers, and in larger quantities. After a while, it was no longer news. And when the press stopped reporting, the “cost” of these breaches to the companies declined.

Today, the only real cost that remains is the cost of notifying customers and issuing replacement cards. It costs banks about $10 to issue a new card, and that’s money they would much rather not have to spend. This is the agenda they brought to the federal bill, cleverly titled the Data Accountability and Trust Act, or DATA.

Lobbyists attacked the legislation in two ways. First, they went after the definition of personal information. Only the exposure of very specific information requires disclosure. For example, the theft of a database that contained people’s first initial, middle name, last name, Social Security number, bank account number, address, phone number, date of birth, mother’s maiden name and password would not have to be disclosed, because “personal information” is defined as “an individual’s first and last name in combination with …” certain other personal data.

Second, lobbyists went after the definition of “breach of security.” The latest version of the bill reads: “The term ‘breach of security’ means the unauthorized acquisition of data in electronic form containing personal information that establishes a reasonable basis to conclude that there is a significant risk of identity theft to the individuals to whom the personal information relates.”

Get that? If a company loses a backup tape containing millions of individuals’ personal information, it doesn’t have to disclose if it believes there is no “significant risk of identity theft.” If it leaves a database exposed, and has absolutely no audit logs of who accessed that database, it could claim it has no “reasonable basis” to conclude there is a significant risk. Actually, the company could point to a study that showed the probability of fraud to someone who has been the victim of this kind of data loss to be less than 1 in 1,000 — which is not a “significant risk” — and then not disclose the data breach at all.

Even worse, this federal law pre-empts the 23 existing state laws — and others being considered — many of which contain stronger individual protections. So while DATA might look like a law protecting consumers nationwide, it is actually a law protecting companies with large databases from state laws protecting consumers.

So in its current form, this legislation would make things worse, not better.

Of course, things are in flux. They’re always in flux. The language of the bill has changed regularly over the past year, as various committees got their hands on it. There’s also another bill, HR3997, which is even worse. And even if something passes, it has to be reconciled with whatever the Senate passes, and then voted on again. So no one really knows what the final language will look like.

But the devil is in the details, and the only way to protect us from lobbyists tinkering with the details is to ensure that the federal bill does not pre-empt any state bills: that the federal law is a minimum, but that states can require more.

That said, disclosure is important, but it’s not going to solve identity theft. As I’ve written previously, the reason theft of personal information is so common is that the data is so valuable. The way to mitigate the risk of fraud due to impersonation is not to make personal information harder to steal, it’s to make it harder to use.

Disclosure laws only deal with the economic externality of data brokers protecting your personal information. What we really need are laws prohibiting credit card companies and other financial institutions from granting credit to someone using your name with only a minimum of authentication.

But until that happens, we can at least hope that Congress will refrain from passing bad bills that override good state laws — and helping criminals in the process.

This essay originally appeared on Wired.com.

EDITED TO ADD (4/20): Here’s a comparison of state disclosure laws.

Posted on April 20, 2006 at 8:11 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.