It helps to understand more about the history of hacking, when you need to defend yourself against cyber criminals. So here is your Executive Summary:
Early hacking started when guys like Kevin Mitnick became ‘digital delinquents’ and broke into the phone company networks. That was to a large degree to see how far they could get with social engineering, and it got them way further than expected. Actual financial damage to hundreds of thousands of businesses started only in the nineties, but has moved at rocket speed these last 20 years.
Those were the teenagers in dark, damp cellars writing viruses to gain notoriety, and to show the world they were able to do it. Relatively harmless, no more than a pain in the neck to a large extent. We call them sneaker-net viruses as it usually took a person to walk over from one PC to another with a floppy disk to transfer the virus.
These early day ‘sneaker-net’ viruses were followed by a much more malicious type of super-fast spreading worms (we are talking a few minutes) like Sasser and NetSky that started to cause multi-million dollar losses. These were still more or less created to get notoriety, and teenagers showing off their “elite skills”.
Here the motive moved from recognition to remuneration. These guys were in it for easy money. This is where botnets came in, thousands of infected PCs owned and controlled by the cybercriminal that used the botnet to send spam, attack websites, identity theft and other nefarious activities. The malware used was more advanced than the code of the ‘pioneers’ but was still easy to find and easy to disinfect.
Here is where cybercrime goes professional. The malware starts to hide itself, and they get better organized. They are mostly in eastern European countries, and use more mature coders which results in much higher quality malware, which is reflected by the first rootkit flavors showing up. They are going for larger targets where more money can be stolen. This is also the time where traditional mafias muscle into the game, and rackets like extortion of online bookmakers starts to show its ugly face.
The main event that created the fifth and current generation is that an active underground economy has formed, where stolen goods and illegal services are bought and sold in a ‘professional’ manner, if there is such a thing as honor among thieves. Cybercrime now specializes in different markets (you can call them criminal segments), that taken all together form the full criminal supply-chain. Note that because of this, cybercrime develops at a much faster rate. All the tools are for sale now, and relatively inexperienced criminals can get to work quickly. Some examples of this specialization are:
Cybercrime has their own social networks with escrow services
Malware can now be licensed and gets tech support
You can now rent botnets by the hour, for your own crime spree
Pay-for-play malware infection services that quickly create botnets
A lively market for zero-day exploits (unknown vulnerabilities)
The problem with this is that it both increases the malware quality, speeds up the criminal ‘supply chain’ and at the same time spreads the risk among these thieves, meaning it gets harder to catch the culprits. We are in this for the long haul, and we need to step up our game, just like the miscreants have done the last 10 years!