Back in Vogue: Hacking for Notoriety

Paul Henry
In the earliest days of the Internet, hacking was about gaining notoriety among your peers. It was a way to show off your L33t skills. Once people found a way to make money by hacking, organized crime joined in and large scale, malicious data breaches became inevitable. Today, we recognize the reality isn't if you get hacked, but when.

Lately though, we have seen an interesting return to the good-old days when hacking was done for notoriety and at times, with a bit of a political twist. HBGary, RSA, Sony and many others have fallen to this latest trend. A more recent organization to fall victim to confidential information being leaked online was the Department of Public Safety in Arizona - reportedly in retaliation of Arizona's immigration policies.

What brought back hacking for notoriety?

Social media platforms like Twitter have clearly played a part in spreading the word about attacks and in some cases they have even helped coordinate hacks. And while I agree recent, high-profile attacks have in fact increased awareness about the importance of effective security at a time when we've arguably never needed it more, I am suspicious of the attackers' claims that it is being done for that reason. More likely, the awareness (notoriety) is for those perpetrating the attacks than about illustrating the need for improved security.

As someone who gets called to clean up after security breaches, I equate current activities to being the equivalent of a bunch of arsonists running around an otherwise quiet neighborhood lighting houses on fire under the guise they are doing it to raise the awareness of the need to change the batteries in our smoke detectors. In this example, yes, awareness was raised, but at what cost?

What did we really expect was going to happen?

Our current security posture faces an undeniable reality today - we have been doing the wrong things to secure ourselves for over a decade. But our efforts were acceptable because they were the same things everyone else was doing. Not all inclusive but here are a couple of examples:

  • Our old hard-shell, soft-center approach that places all of our emphasis at the gateway with complete neglect of our end points has been an utter failure.
  • Our reliance on the negative security model where we try to block every bad thing that is sent via Internet connection has been overwhelmed with the use of obfuscation.

In 1980, the negative security was a viable approach when malware instances could be counted in the hundreds annually. With obfuscation pushing the number of unique instances of malware to over 6,000,000 new samples in Q1 2011 alone, it is high time we adjust our defense strategies.

Regardless of why hacks are occurring, it is clear we need to reassess our 'grandfathers'' defenses and upgrade policies, procedures and technical safeguards to those that are able to meet today's threats.

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