Your guide to the seven types of malicious hackers

Originally published at: InfoWorld.Com
Copyright: InfoWorld


When I learned over the weekend that hackers had planted malware on a Nasdaq Web server, I wasn’t exactly surprised. It’s the rare company that isn’t owned by hackers. Even the most well-defended organization will likely find itself under attack by outsiders.

Whether you’re attacked today or tomorrow, it’s important to understand the motivation and objective of your intruders — doing so can help you devise an appropriate defense. Malicious hackers can, in fact, be broken out under some broad classifications.

Malicious hacker No. 1: Cyber criminals

Professional criminals comprise the biggest group of malicious hackers, using malware and exploits to steal money. It doesn’t matter how they do it, whether they’re manipulating your bank account, using your credit card numbers, faking antivirus programs, or stealing your identity or passwords. Their motivation is fast, big financial gain.

Malicious hacker No. 2: Spammers and adware spreaders

Purveyors of spam and adware make their money through illegal advertising, either getting paid by a legitimate company for pushing business their way or by selling their own products. Cheap Viagra, anyone? Members of this group believe they are just “aggressive marketers.” It helps them sleep at night.

Malicious hacker No. 3: Advanced persistent threat (APT) agents

Intruders engaging in APT-style attacks represent well-organized, well-funded groups — often located in a “safe harbor” country — and they’re out to steal a company’s intellectual property. They aren’t out for quick financial gain like cyber criminals; they’re in it for the long haul. Their dream assignment is to essentially duplicate their victim’s best ideas and products in their own homeland, or to sell the information they’ve purloined to the highest bidder.

Malicious hacker No. 4: Corporate spies

Corporate spying is not new; it’s just significantly easier to do, thanks to today’s pervasive Internet connectivity. Corporate spies are usually interested in a particular piece of intellectual property or competitive information. They differ from APT agents in that they don’t have to be located in a safe-harbor country. Corporate espionage groups aren’t usually as organized as APT groups, and they are more focused on short- to midterm financial gains.

Malicious hacker No. 5: Hacktivists

Lots of hackers are motivated by political, religious, environmental, or other personal beliefs. They are usually content with embarrassing their opponents or defacing their websites, although they can slip into corporate-espionage mode if it means they can weaken the opponent. Think WikiLeaks.

Malicious hacker No. 6: Cyber warriors

Cyber warfare is a city-state against city-state exploitation with an endgame objective of disabling an opponent’s military capability. Participants may operate as APT or corporate spies at times, but everything they learn is geared toward a specific military objective. The Stuxnet worm is a great example of this attack method.

Malicious hacker No. 7: Rogue hackers

There are hundreds of thousands of hackers who simply want to prove their skills, brag to friends, and are thrilled to engage in unauthorized activities. They may participate in other types of hacking (crimeware), but it isn’t their only objective and motivation. These are the traditional stereotyped figures popularized by the 1983 film “War Games,” hacking late at night, while drinking Mountain Dew and eating Doritos. These are the petty criminals of the cyber world. They’re a nuisance, but they aren’t about to disrupt the Internet and business as we know it — unlike members of the other groups.

Know thine cyber enemy

It’s important to know your enemy in order to defend against them. If you think simply having a buffer overflow, fully patched systems, and antivirus will defend against all hackers no matter their objectives, you’re wrong.

For instance, APT agents usually take over the entire corporate environment: They control hundreds of computers, know every password, and are able to listen in on every conversation, including the ones discussing how to get rid of them. APT is very hard to vanquish. The “advanced” part of “advanced persistent threat” doesn’t refer to their tactics; it refers to their high level of organization. They are strategic, and a strategic defense is necessary to minimize their threat. If you want to get rid of an APT, you have to slow down and figure which tactics to take when.

Combating cyber warfare is easier. To defeat the Stuxnet worm, for example, all you have to do is patch four holes and disable USB ports — done. If a hacker’s motivation is purely pushing adware, then you don’t need to format your machine and begin all over again when you find an adware malware program. However, the exact opposite is true of a crimeware program. When you find crimeware, the only defense is to flatten and rebuild, along with closing the hole through which it entered.

Using honeypots is a dependable way to gauge which sort of intruder you’re dealing with; plus, they make great early-warning systems and serve as alerts to the low and slow threats. For example, I’ll set up a honeypot full of popular games, another that appears to hold highly confidential company data, and a third that appears to hold military secrets. The intruder breaking into the gaming server has different objectives than the perpetrator who concentrates on the other two.

When you come across intruders or malware make sure you understand the attacker’s motivation. Without that, you’re being prematurely reactive.