Information Warfare: January 20, 2002

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Cybercriminals- The internet is seen as increasingly vulnerable as more commercial operations open up online and more powerful, complex and error prone software is made available. Criminal activity is increasing as the crooks realize how vulnerable many systems are and how much money can be made. There have always been techies who have fallen in with the criminal element and gotten rich (or imprisoned) using their skills illegally. Late in the Cold War, the Soviets recruited teams of hackers in Western Europe to crack NATO military and government systems. Secret information was the goal, and we only know about the jobs pulled off by hackers that were caught and prosecuted. Criminal hacker are generally open to offers from anyone (with the right amount of money) to do anything. 

Particularly worrisome is the increased amount of cybercriminals operating in post Cold War Russia and Eastern Europe. These groups are very skillful and have been going after banks and some of the best protected sites. There are three main reasons for such a concentration of hacking talent in this area. First is the communist era educational system that produced more engineers and scientists than jobs. Then there was the presence of rather fewer and more primitive computer technology, which required local programmers to work harder with less to get anything done. The communist nations could not afford to buy newer, better and more powerful PCs every year or two, so the local programmers had to get the most out of older and more limited hardware. The ragged economy produced many underemployed programmers with excellent skills. Lastly, during the communist period there was no way for a skillful programmer to create a new product and profit from it. Indeed, there was a culture of theft, with Western software seen as something to steal, or use as a jumping off point for additional products. Taking apart someone else's software and basically doing whatever you wanted without regard to intellectual (or any) property rights became part of the local culture. This also produced superior hacking skills. While many programmers in this region have gone straight, many remained on the dark side of the art. These skills became available for criminal, military or terrorist operations on the net and Eastern Europe has become a paradise for cybercriminals. The more conventional thugs were quicker to learn how to pull off scams on the net. These crooks were also more bloody minded than their Western counterparts and knew how to motivate their hackers with terror, as well as money. And the price for failure to pull off a hack was often death. Not the sort of motivational skills taught in Western business schools, but effective up to a point. 

As the 21st century dawned, Russia and Eastern European nations began to crack down on the cybercriminals in their midst. But given the degree of corruption in Eastern Europe (especially Russia), government officials sometimes got in on the scams. Sometimes this was done officially, as when hackers went on the government payroll to do military or industrial espionage. While many of the criminals are patriots of a sort, there are others (like the many Chechen gangs in Russia) who will work with terrorists. Like most criminals, hackers will sell to anyone. For Western anti-terrorism agencies, this is a major headache when it comes to the illegal encryption tools sold by hackers in Eastern Europe. Terrorists, as well as common criminals, use this stuff to keep their communications secret. It's more difficult for terrorists to obtain hacking services that might hurt countrymen of the hackers. For example, few East European criminal hackers would help crack the air traffic control system, or a nuclear plants communications system. But the Chechen gangs are developing their own hacking crews, so such sensitivity may not be a problem for terrorists in the future.

Criminal hackers in the West, and emerging software superpowers like India and China, are providing enough legitimate, and more lucrative (and safe) jobs for those who might be temped to go rogue. This has always been the case in the West, where even a convicted hacker can usually find a good job after doing time. But it looks like the struggling economies of Eastern Europe, and especially Russia, will remain the prime breeding ground for cybercrimials for at least another generation.

 


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