Cyber Guns for Hire

Dawn of a New Era of Hacking

Last week I was trying to log on to the control panel of my blog and an annoying message came back. It announced that the host company was under a massive cyber attack by a botnet of some 90,000 infected slave computers trying to break into its customers’ blogging accounts by a brute force attack that was guessing its customers’ user IDs and passwords. Success would enable the attacker to take control over some blogs. So a login was not available.

My first reaction was mild annoyance at this déjà vu event of Internet daily life. Then something occurred to me: this was not business as usual, it was a sign of a new hacking era.

There are two important points to be made here. One is the type of the attack. Botnet attacks have been around for decades, but usually they are crude flooding-type DDoS attacks, with tons of cyber junk thrown at some entity’s servers, clogging up their communications channels and thus denying normal cyber services. This was dramatically different: the botnet was performing a crypto attack by a vastly distributed but coordinated force. And there was a fundamental qualitative difference here: instead of a dumb flooding the botnet performed an intelligent task by utilizing the vast computing power of the combined slave machines.

This is just the beginning of a trend, with the performance of more sophisticated tasks to come. It represents a frightening increase of the cyber powers of hackers not backed by a state, who by themselves possess limited computing power.

The second point here is that the attack was directed at the blogs’ controls server, which does not itself contain any of its clients’ financial information. Typically, hackers go after financial data or target a specific entity they don’t like. In this case the site attacked contains multiple blogs, so it was not itself the target. This, in turn, means that somebody – a hacker’s customer who does not possess the level of expertise necessary for such a major operation — was after a specific blog or two they didn’t like for some reason. So the entity behind the attack was not a typical hacker.

What does this tell us? That it likely was a hacking job for hire performed by a competent hacker for some customer motivated by unknown considerations. This means that a paying customer can hire the services of skilled but unscrupulous hackers with their powers vastly amplified by potentially millions of computers around the world.

This aspect of the event seems to signal the dawn of an alarming new era in cyberspace, when someone can actually use cyber guns for hire to mount sophisticated attacks far more devastating than just silencing a blog they dislike.

I addressed the theoretical potential of this dimension of hacking in my book (Cyberspace and Security), and it now looks like an upcoming reality.

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