Criminal gangs taking over from amateur hobbyists

Owen Bowcott, Saturday June 11, 2005, The Guardian

Gary McKinnon is deemed to be so deviously manipulative at the keyboard that he has been banned from using the internet. He is not even allowed a passport. The peculiar bail conditions imposed this week on the 39-year-old computer systems administrator from Wood Green, north London, suggest that the law enforcement community stands in awe of his technological prowess.

Until his next court appearance, due on July 27, the tousle-haired programmer, who is fighting extradition to the United States, has been ordered to stay away from any computer connected to the web.

Mr McKinnon has gained international notoriety for his alleged ability to break into scores of sensitive US defence computers, steal secret passwords, sabotage email systems and delete military files. In the hi-tech world of online hacking, however, he is perceived as one of a dying breed of amateur hobbyists – those the Americans deride as “script-kiddies”.

Despite US prosecution claims that he perpetrated “the biggest military computer hack of all time”, Mr McKinnon’s supposed achievements are by no means unique. The attempt to extradite him to answer charges in Virginia and New Jersey is far more unusual. Systems run by Nasa, the Pentagon and the Department of Defence have long been hackers’ trophy targets. His misfortune, apparently, was to get caught, and to have carried out his explorations shortly after September 11.

According to security experts, US military sites are not the most heavily protected on the internet. They rely on the deterrent threat of legal action rather than deploying highly sophisticated software or enforcing best practice among military personnel.

Mathew Bevan, another British hacker arrested for breaches of security at Nasa and US Air Force sites, found himself similarly demonised by US lawyers as “the single biggest threat to world security since Adolf Hitler” back in 1994. The case against him eventually collapsed. Like Mr McKinnon, he was also hunting for evidence about UFOs hidden on military installations.

Mr Bevan, now 30, is an IT consultant and living in Wiltshire. “The security on US military machines is probably not much better than it was back then,” he said. “There were plenty of military machines with sensitive information that had account names with no passwords. Others had been left with the standard default passwords used by the manufacturers.

“University systems and corporations are much harder to break into than military machines: universities because there are always students testing their skills, and companies because they have shareholders demanding better security.”

In Britain, the hacking subculture that nurtured Mr McKinnon’s talents has been driven underground by diligent enforcement of the Computer Misuse Act, which since 1990 has criminalised those who gain unauthorised access to computer systems.

Mr Bevan typifies the career trajectory once pursued by teenage hackers. After years hunched alone over a computer screen, and an infamous brush with the law, he has graduated to running his own company, the Kuji Media Corporation, which offers security and technology advice.

“Hackers are a dying breed,” said Mr Bevan. “Organised criminals have cottoned on to the potential rewards. There’s viruses and trojan programs flooding out of places like Russia and Bulgaria these days.

“I get people asking, ‘Why is my machine running slowly?’ And when you look, there are 300 viruses, bits of adware [advertising programs] and trojans mucking up the system. Internet service providers should really be doing deals with security firms to provide virus-free connections.”

Mr Bevan said he spoke to Mr McKinnon in 2002, “after he was first busted”.

“He’s only been selected by US prosecutors because he’s an excellent scapegoat. Maybe the amount of recreational hacking is the same, but the volume of people on the net means far more are involved in genuinely nefarious activities.”

“Pharming”, for example, is the latest threat to the integrity of internet banking services. It has emerged from Estonia in the past few months. This cunning electronic fraud may force banks to issue customers with a new generation of identity devices.

Unlike “phishing” scams – which rely on the gullibility of those who receive emails urging them to log on to sites purporting to be their online bank and confirm passwords and account details – pharming is more insidious.

Customers’ computers are infected by a trojan program – either delivered through an innocent-looking email or inadvertently downloaded from a fake advert on the internet. When the user tries to log on to the online account, the hidden program diverts the web browser to a seemingly identical site operated by criminal gangs in eastern Europe. Their electronic identities are captured, then used to empty the accounts.

“There’s discussions about whether banks will eventually have to give out security devices for customers to plug into their computers,” said Sandra Quinn of APACS, the banking industry’s payments organisation. “Barclays have already carried out trials.”

Last year, online fraud cost British banks ?12m, an increase on previous losses. That figure was dwarfed, however, by the ?150m taken via what is known as “card not present” frauds, where goods are purchased over the telephone using stolen credit cards or simply their numbers.

The array of online threats grows all the time. Denial of service (DoS) attacks, where firms’ email systems are bombarded into overload, are frequently accompanied by blackmail demands for cash to switch off the onslaught. Last year, the bookmaker William Hill was targeted and then received a demand for $50,000 (?28,000).

“Bot” programs enable computers across the net to be hijacked by remote users who in effect turn them into “zombie” machines which can be used in DoS attacks. Keylogging programs can infiltrate computers and record the keystrokes customers make in typing in credit card numbers or passwords. The criminals behind these attacks are based mainly in eastern Europe, it is believed, because law enforcement there is relatively slack and there is a plentiful supply of skilled but poorly paid programmers.

“It’s a classic low-risk crime,” said Ms Quinn. “We have seen some police action, however, and now we are getting phishing attacks coming from China.”

Threats have also been made to call-centre staff working in the financial services sector in Britain, in an attempt to force them to record and hand over customer account details. Many companies now prevent staff from using pens or paper when they sit at their screens.

The difficulty in penetrating banks has encouraged gangs to combine online techniques with strongarm tactics. The reported theft of computer backup tapes from US financial institutions while in transit to storage facilities has generated concerns about the security of millions of customers’ accounts.

An attempt earlier this year to steal ?220m by electronic transfers from the London headquarters of the Japanese bank Sumitomo was foiled, but it sparked alarm about criminals infiltrating banks to carry out insider robberies.

“Gary McKinnon appears to be an example of the type of hacking that people have moved away from,” said Felicity Bull of the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit, which investigates major computer crime in Britain. “We know that organised crime is now hiring IT-literate workers.”

Some law enforcement agencies now question whether the Computer Misuse Act needs to be overhauled, enabling it to be used to prosecute those involved in DoS attacks.

In Washington, the secret service is the force responsible for combating online fraud and hacking. “There are still plenty of script-kiddies out there bragging about what they’re doing,” one agent, Jim Dobson, told the Guardian. Some were still at high school, he said, adding: “There’s a huge amount of information out there.”

Other threats, such as gangs in Russia targeting financial institutions, or those in Asia carrying out intellectual property thefts, have eclipsed the old-style hacker community, he acknowledged.

The rise of mobile phone technology has provided fresh opportunities for a new generation of hackers.

Meanwhile, wireless computer networks have been found to be particularly vulnerable, said Paul Carratu, whose Surrey firm carries out penetration testing to assess security systems. “People are not using the encryption devices they should.”

Last month, two British hackers, Jordan Bradley, from Darlington, and Andrew Harvey, from Durham, who belonged to an Anglo-US group called the “Thr34t Krew”, pleaded guilty in Newcastle to computer crime offences. The TK worm they released exploited a weakness in web servers and caused up to ?5.5m damage to companies using the net. They now face possible prison sentences.

It may be too soon to write off the perverse ingenuity of British hackers.

The lingo and what to look out for

Trojan (horse) An innocent-looking program concealing destructive intentions.

Pharming Hijacking online bank customers by infecting web browsers. They are redirected to fake internet sites and asked to disclose account details.

Phishing Sending out emails telling online account customers they must reconfirm IDs and passwords. When they hit reply they are sent to a cloned web page.

Key logging Programs which record keystrokes and can be used to retrieve credit card and PIN numbers.

Malware Umbrella term for assorted malicious software programs which sabotage your computer.

Zombies Online computers that have been infected by trojans and can then be remotely controlled to churn out spam emails at targeted sites.

Bots Programs used to infect and control computers which are then turned into zombies.