Who Are the Best Hackers Working For?

In a nutshell, hackers come in two varieties – those who introduce themselves as hackers and those who don’t. If you meet someone who introduces themselves as a hacker, then they probably don’t understand the true power and resulting danger of being a professional hacker. The self-acknowledged hacker is a cut-and-paste hacker, or a social hacker that managed to figure out a password or two of low clearance logins. They probably haven’t benefited from their ‘hacking’ activities, nor have they uncovered anything really secret or valuable in the process. The best criminals don’t announce that they are criminals – or they’d be incarcerated post haste.

The cream of the crop hackers are extremely secretive, and only a privileged few know how to get in touch with them. These hackers work for the entities that can benefit from stolen information most effectively – governments. Yes, hackers are largely government employees. When you hear that a defense contractor was hacked by the Chinese or the Russians, or the North Koreans, these hackers are working for their country’s government. Certainly they don’t go around announcing that they are government-sponsored hackers. They probably wouldn’t have hands to type with shortly thereafter. These are the real hackers, the super-secret hackers that are super-driven, experienced, educated and most of all discrete.

Even the U.S. government hires hackers. It’s no secret. Yet, the most notorious hacking does happen in secret, and is sponsored by governments. These hacks aren’t for credit card data or even defense secrets, but a much broader, macroscopic mass of information. Governments, even the US government, use hacking techniques to keep tabs on its citizens. Government agencies have supercomputers whose task is to spy on citizens (any and all citizens) by scanning emails and texts for keywords or groups of keywords to identify possible terrorist organizations within our borders. Most would not object to the government trying to find terrorist cells within the US, but the means by which it is done is certainly objectionable, and so is carried out under the table, out of view of the general public.

The truly scary side of this is that since the data is already being corralled, simply changing the search criteria will alter the search results from terrorist cells to right-wing gun owners, or angry evangelicals, or secessionist libertarians. Agencies could probably identify soccer moms if it interested them. Hacking has a far more sinister side than presumed. We are being categorized, sized up and measured by our own governments, all made possible by state of the art government-sponsored hacking.

Hackers Moving Into Social Hacking

We talked with a computer technician for an Amarillo cell phone repair / computer repair center about what he sees on a daily basis with regards to viruses. Computer hacking has a long history of programming expertise and intelligence, but in his opinion, with the growth of anti-virus software, many hackers are giving up hacking to work for anti-virus software companies – the pay is much better! Copycat and cut-and-paste hackers are filling the void. The result is fewer new and technologically advanced viruses coupled with a move toward social hacking.

Anti-virus software has become adept at proactively stopping viruses before they get ‘into the wild’. As a result, hacking in the sense of creating new styles of programs or scripts lacks the satisfaction that is once had. The resulting damage from a new virus is often quickly contained and doesn’t make a noticeable impact. The days of viruses making headline news seem to be gone.

The technician we spoke with described a different type of hack being employed today. Rather than trying to circumvent anti-virus software with new and different viruses, hackers are using marketing and social techniques to target a larger audience. Instead of trying to beat the anti-virus software, try to find the computers that don’t have anti-virus software installed. By casting a wider net, you increase your chances of success.

Viruses are most commonly spread by email, either by mass mailings of emails scraped from the internet or by using infected computers to email all the contacts in the computer users’ email account. The component of the hack that has changed the most is the email’s approach tactic.

The emails used to deliver the virus or bogus website link often appear to be designed by a professional marketer, with subject lines that guarantee that a sizeable sample of the email list will actually open the email. Furthermore, the contents of the email can be so convincing that even the most astute and aware computer user might be duped.

For instance, a relatively large percentage of the population has recently purchased something on Amazon or Ebay. So if the hackers appeal to that group with a phony email decrying a problem with the credit card charge, or the delivery of the package, he will successfully get a fraction of that group to click through to his virus-laden website. It’s this social aspect of hacking that continues to spread viruses the most effectively.

With all of this in mind, be mindful of the emails you receive. Be skeptical of unexpected emails and even expected emails if the requests to click a link or open an attachment seems out of the ordinary. Better yet, before clicking any link, verify where the link is leading. By being vigilant, we can help to stop the spread of computer viruses.

A Brief History of Malware

In the beginning, there was just the VIRUS. It was a computer program that executed on your computer and ran some programs that deleted programs, crashed your hard drive, etc. Because there was no real protection against computer viruses, hackers (typically anarchist, nerd-types) took pleasure in wreaking havoc on computer users, even if they weren’t able to see it first-hand. They anonymously reveled in their notoriety. They weren’t in it to make money, they just were anti-establishment types who did for the principle of it. When copycat’s eventually found that they could make money from hacking, the Pandora’s box had been opened. There was no closing it, and the cat was out of the bag.

As viruses became more prevalent, they also began to mutate and take on different functions. One virus would delete files, another would open a back door to your computer, and another would capture you keystrokes to be analyzed for passwords by the hackers. With the relative openness of the Windows operating system, hacking Windows became child’s play, and viruses of various forms began to run rampant. What were users to do about worms, Trojan horses, backdoors, crashers, and spammer viruses? So arose the anti-virus software industry.

Companies like McAfee, Norton, Symantec, V-Prot, and a host of others found ways to identify viruses and kill them or at least quarantine them before they had unloaded their payload, whatever it may be. Hackers, virus authors, crackers – whatever you want to call them – adapt and evolve, trying to move into new areas outside of the anti-virus software’s realm.

Today, viruses take many forms, many of which are propagated through suspect websites, infecting users with programs that open up bogus web pages, replace your default search page with another, install start-up programs, steal your web-based email password, just to name a few. Viruses are also beginning to affect Android-based cell phones, and even iPhones.

Although we all are at risk as technology users, there are steps we can take to remain vigilant, skeptical, and smart about our computer/cell phone use to prevent falling prey to these unscrupulous hackers. Stay tuned to future posts as we continue to bring you updates about the future of hacking and cracking.