Computer Crime Research Center


How cyber crime went professional

Date: August 14, 2008

As Russian and Georgian soldiers were flinging explosive artillery shells at each other, both sides in the South Ossetia conflict were also exploiting the very latest in cyber aggression, using techniques honed by professional gangsters specialising in online crime.

Although the attacks are largely untraceable, both sides are pointing the finger firmly at each other. Russian reports claim that South Ossetian government sites were brought down by Georgian hackers. But Georgian institutions, including government departments and the National Bank, have also suffered a string of attacks. Georgia's foreign ministry is posting all news content to the Polish President's website after its own was taken out when President Mikheil Saakashvili's pages were replaced with pictures of Adolf Hitler. Meanwhile, reports also claim that Russia's RIA Novosti news agency site is being targeted and crashed.

Such tactics are not only political weapons. The start of the Beijing Olympics last week kicked off a slew of malicious internet activity. Some are relatively indiscriminate – using malicious software embedded in innocent websites, often of news organisations with audience numbers boosted by their sports coverage, which then infects the visitor's computer.

Some are more sophisticated. MessageLabs, a security company, detected a bogus email sent to at least 19 national sporting organisations that purported to be International Olympic Committee information on media plans for the Games, but was actually carrying a trojan which takes control of the PC and scans all files and networks to steal information.

Hacking, which was once the preserve of tech-savvy teenagers showing off, has turned into big business. By some estimates, organised crime represents up to 20 per cent of the global GDP, and cybercrime is the fastest-growing part of it. And as the perpetrators become more experienced, the attacks become more precise.

"There is an increase in targeted attacks on specific pieces of high-value information, whether that is directors of companies and their personal pension investments or attacking corporate networks to try to take intellectual property (IP) out of the organisation and move it to the developing world," said Chris Potter, a partner at the consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The term cybercrime covers a multitude of sins. Spam campaigns and infected web pages can be used to embed spyware into end users' computers – to monitor keystrokes and steal anything from single credit card details to a large chunk of corporate data.

Or they can be used to recruit the computer into a "botnet", a network of hijacked PCs that can be used either to launch more spam, or to participate in denial of service attacks (DoS) that target a website and bombard it with traffic until it crashes.

The cyberwarfare over South Ossetia is of this type. "The computer in Aunt Ethel's back bedroom may be right now playing a role in a cyber warfare campaign," explained Graham Cluley, a senior consultant at Sophos, a security company. "We don't know for certain it is Russia attacking Georgia and vice versa, or if the attacks are sanctioned by the military, but there is clearly disruption taking place as the governments take pot shots at each other."

As internet crime has become professionalised, it has spawned a shadow economy that could be worth as much as $105bn (55bn) every year.

"The shadow economy is very similar to the real world economy," said Maksym Schipka, a senior architect at MessageLabs. "Specialisation drives competition, and high-quality goods, and all the things that make the real world economy tick."
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