Today’s headline alludes to a concept perhaps as old as civilization itself. Plato expressed it as, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” Who will watch the watchers? In a spectacular demonstration of what a well-executed hack can do, an unknown hacker has virtually imploded the operations of a digital surveillance company known (ironically now) as Hacking Team. Despite the rather colorful name, this Italian security company has contracts with dozens of government agencies from all over the world, including the United States. Their product? Essentially spyware for conducting remote surveillance and other covert digital operations. The unknown hacker taunted the company and its employees by taking over Hacking Team’s Twitter account and began sharing extremely sensitive internal files through tweets purportedly coming from the company itself. Once the breach was discovered, Hacking Team contacted its clients and strongly recommended they cease using any of the company’s software. Given the general public distaste for Hacking Team’s type of software and the amount of daylight this shines on its customers, its highly likely that very few contracts will be renewed, leaving the company’s future in very uncertain terms.
What this means for you:
Unless you happened to be on the list of Hacking Team customers, there’s not a lot you need to worry from your own organization’s perspective. However, as a citizen of a supposedly democratic nation, you should be concerned about how our government agencies conduct themselves. Should law enforcement agencies be allowed to break the law in order to do their jobs? Who will watch the watchers? Are those people (I’m talking about Congress now) qualified to make proper decisions when they barely understand how the Internet works? To translate this into more relatable (and actionable) terms, do you understand enough about your own organization’s security and technology to make informed decisions on what to buy, what to use, and who to hire? In the case of Hacking Team, it appears that the hacker breached the company through the personal computers of its own system administrators, an irony within an irony. Are you adhering to the security standards to which you hold your own employees accountable?
A client recently asked me, “What’s the difference between ‘malware’ and a ‘virus’? Is ‘spyware’ still a thing? Are these pop-ups a virus, or something else? Was I hacked?!?” As a computer user who could easily remember the earliest days of computer viruses, his confusion was understandable, especially when the media and sometimes even industry pros have a tendency to use those terms interchangeably when they really aren’t. The complexity of today’s malware landscape is complex enough to fill multiple textbooks, but I’ll try to boil it down to the things most professionals should know.
The term “hacking” is probably the most mis-appropriated term in use today. Originally, the true purpose of hacking something was to make alterations to how a device (or system) operated in order to achieve results different from the originally intended purpose of the hacked object. This could take just about any form: the brilliant, life-saving hacks used to return the Apollo 13 crew safely to earth in 1961, all the way to subverting computer security systems to paralyze a giant corporation in 2014. The important qualifier in determining if something was “hacked” is identifying actual, human-driven intent. In most cases, malware-compromised systems are the result of an “infection” versus a purposeful hacking.
The term “malware” is a portmanteau of the two words “malicious software” which, as you might imagine, is used to describe any sort of non-native programming or code loaded into a device that subverts the device’s original purpose, with the result that its activities cause some form of harm (hence the “mal” part). Malware covers a broad range of code including the annoying pop-ups and browser redirects that take control of your internet searches to show you advertising (aka “adware”), to the incredibly disruptive (and effective) malware that encrypts your data and holds it for ransom (aka “ransomware”). “Spyware” still exists – though it has taken a dark turn from it’s original advertising roots of harvesting your demographics to now harvesting your sensitive personal information for the purposes of identity theft.
Though a computer “virus” is still considered malware, most malware found today are not considered actual viruses. In keeping with the spirit of its biological predecessor, a true computer virus distinguishes itself by insinuating itself into or altering the host’s code with the express purpose of multiplying and spreading, something that is relatively rare at the moment in most malware, even the ones that spread via email. Though they exhibit virus-like infection patterns, their methods of spreading are more akin to poisoning or parasitic infection.
How it all comes together
It’s important to note that malware is often a primary tool in any computer hacking effort. It can be used to weaken or subvert security systems, usually by installing other programs that facilitate other activities that can range from gathering passwords, data and opening security backdoors to erasing hard drives and crippling critical network infrastructure. Though they find little comfort in it, I tell my clients that most malware infections are akin to getting the flu: it’s highly unlikely someone set out to get you sick. Typically you got it from someone who didn’t even know they were contagious.
However, similar to their biological counterparts, other digital pathogens may take advantage of your computer’s compromised immune system to cause further damage. At best, these malware infections take the form of a symbiotic parasite that may surface relatively innocuous symptoms (pop-ups, Google doesn’t work, etc.), but those redirects can lead you to further infection by more harmful malware. At the extreme, they can lead to the digital equivalent of metastatic cancer, usually with fatal results. Suffice it to say, any form of malware infection should not be tolerated, regardless of the host machine’s primary purpose, and should be taken care of immediately.
From the moment it was announced, Google Glass has been a favorite target in the growing privacy debate in our always-online and increasingly less-private society. Initially, privacy advocates were worried that Glass wearers could record others without their permission or even awareness. Now, we have to worry about the possibility that the device itself could fall victim to remote access malware, like we recently wrote about here and here. Grad students from Calforina Polytechnic have created a trojan application that purports to be a note-taking application, but instead takes photos without the wearer’s knowledge, recording images every 10 seconds while the device appears to be off, and uploading the photos via Glass’s built-in data connection to a specified destination conceivably anywhere on the internet.
What this means for you:
I’m fairly certain the students in question weren’t the first to dream up this concept, and you can bet that hackers with much more nefarious intent are impatiently waiting for the inevitable arrival and wide-spread use of wearable technology. The current, laser-hot focus of the privacy debate may be on the NSA and Ed Snowden’s disturbing revelations for the moment, but it seems the government isn’t the only one spying on us. In the words of the sage Walt Kelly (of Pogo comic strip fame), “We have met the enemy, and they are us.“