Thinking Like a Cyber Criminal to Prevent Cyber Crime

Sue Marquette Poremba
Slide Show

Emerging Cyber Threats for 2012

In my childhood hometown, we had one policeman, a man that my parents grew up with. From the stories my parents and other relatives told, this police officer was the town troublemaker in his youth. If there were any mischief going on, he was somehow in the middle of it. The stories always ended with, "It makes sense he became the town cop. He knows how the minds of criminals work and knows where to find them when they go hiding." I didn't think much about it then, but looking back on it, while this man was on patrol, our town was practically crime-free. When he left the job, it didn't take long before the crime rate soared. I don't think it was a total coincidence.


I tell this story because the same school of thought can be used in network security. We've long known that smart companies seek out skilled hackers as employees, with the idea that if the hacker can figure out how to get in, he will know the best way to keep others out.


Apparently, some researchers are also looking into this theory that if you understand the way criminals think, you can better fight crime - in this case, cyber crime. At the University of Maryland, an engineer and a criminologist are using criminology concepts to study cyber crime, which they hope will give IT security professionals tools against cyber attacks on their networks. The researchers studied cyber attacks from two different angles: that of the user and that of the attacker. They've been analyzing the trends of cyber attacks against the university over a two-year period. What they've found is that cyber crime happens because of three points: the criminals are motivated to commit the crime, the victims are susceptible to crime and there is an absence of capable guardians (i.e., good security). According to PC World:

The research supports the initial axiom that users are the weakest link in computer security. "Users expose the network to attacks," Michel Cukier- associate professor of reliability engineering - said. Simply by browsing sites on the Web, Internet users make their computers' IP addresses and ports visible to possible attackers. So, "the users' behavior does reflect on the entire organization's security."

Cyber criminals are then like most criminals - they take the easiest path to commit the crime. We lock our house and car doors because it is a protective layer. The majority of criminals will continue on to the next house or car, trying the doors until they find one unlocked. Why should we expect cyber criminals to be any different? Again from PC World:

They attack the low-hanging fruit--the simplest vulnerabilities to exploit, and seek out holes in the most abundant platforms because those have the highest chances of a successful return. The fact that the user is the weakest link means that the user is the path of least resistance, and yields information that can be used to predict the behavior of the attackers.

This is useful to know, but let's face it: We're not all criminologists and aren't experts on how criminals behave. The researchers have some advice - advice that, not too surprisingly, follows what most security personnel (and many of my blog postings) stress as vital steps for security. That advice: Increase education and awareness about risks and use the network users' online routines to help predict future attacks.

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