Mikko Hyppönen told the audience at WIRED Security that the vast majority of hackers are part of organised crime syndicates
Forget the cliché of lonely figures in hoodies crouched over laptops, feverishly bashing out lines of code. Online crime is a lucrative business, and hackers are the new Mafia.
“We have to understand our enemy,” said Mikko Hyppönnen, a self-described ‘hacker hunter’ who has been tracking down online criminals since the early 1990s. The earliest viruses were written by bored teenagers looking for a challenge, but today’s hackers are much more malicious. “What makes them different from old-school hackers is they have a motive,” said Hyppönen.
Some of the most publicised cyber attackers are by self-styled ‘hacktivists’. Hacking collectives such as the infamous Anonymous group police the internet, attacking groups and individuals that fall foul of the group’s ideology. In 2015, Anonymous publicly released the names and addresses of hundreds of people that the group alleges were members of the Ku Klux Klan.
But the majority of hackers aren’t vigilantes at all. Every day, Hyppönen, who is chief research officer at the cybersecurity firm F-Secure, looks at 350,000 samples of malware attacks all over the world. The vast majority of those – 95 percent – are from organised online crime syndicates. Only the tiniest proportion of hacks are committed by hacktivists or foreign spies.
On the dark web, these cybercriminals style themselves as digitals mafiosos. Their websites – impossible to find on Google and accessible only if you know the exact URL – are crammed with images of girls, guns and cash. But behind the bling is big business. The Moldovan hackers behind the Dridex attack stole millions of dollars in coordinated hits on 300 banks around the world. Evgeniy Mikhailovich Bogachev, a Russian man thought to be the author of the Zeus trojan, has a $3 million bounty on his head from the FBI and is wanted by Interpol and Europol.
And as its name suggests, organised crime is, well, organised. Criminal syndicates might lock your computer with a ransomware attack but, once you pay the ransom, they’ll make sure you get your data back right away. “It’s a business,” Hyppönen said. Hacker gangs look for ways to get an edge on competitor sites, obsess over profit margins and put together new customer strategies just like legitimate companies do.
Other hackers are offering ransomware as a service. One site on the dark web franchises out its trojans, writing code which it then sells to other people who get the malicious software onto victim’s computers. Cyber defenders are now tasked with taking down complex networks of sophisticated criminals that criss-cross the globe.
Even the most advanced cyber defender is no match for human stupidity though, Hyppönen said. Software vulnerabilities can be fixed, but as long as people post pictures of their bank cards on Twitter and click links they shouldn’t be clicking, cybercrime is set to continue. “People do stupid stuff,” he said. “You cannot patch people.”