Hacktivists outnumber regular hackers in data theft

Molly Wood Mar 23, 2012

It wasn’t that long ago on our program that we introduced the word “hacktivist” as part of our series of new tech vocabulary words. A hacktivist is someone who busts into a computer network motivated more by political ideology or in the service of a cause than just to steal something for financial gain. The hacking collective known as Anonymous is perhaps the best known of hacktivist groups, and in the last several months, their efforts have expanded and inspired many spinoff groups of like-minded mischief makers. Now, you can’t read about tech news for long without the word hacktivist coming up.

Verizon says it has the numbers to back that up. In a new report, the communications company says hacktivist hacks now outnumber traditional for-profit cybercrime attacks. “Crimes are not just about the money anymore,” says Verizon’s Bryan Sartin. “For the first time ever, hacktivism now represents the largest percentage of stolen records in our study. That’s a massive landscape shift.”

It’s important to note that Verizon’s report does not indicate that the shift in hacking motivation has not occurred as a result of traditional hacking being in decline. Rather, it’s a result of dramatic rise in a more dogmatic approach to breaking into computer systems.

So what are the hacktivists looking for when they break in? “The hacktivists are generally after anything they can get just to embarrass an organization by proving that their security was lax,” says Chester Wisniewski of the security firm Sophos. “So we’ve seen them publish everything from people’s personal emails to login credentials to log in to websites and even credit card information.”

Wisniewski is dubious about Verizon’s conclusion that there really is more hacktivism than regular hacking going around. “When a hacktivist steals data, their purpose is to make it public that they took these 100 million records from Sony,” he says, “whereas most criminals that are stealing data from networks are doing it for personal profit, and many companies are embarrassed by this and don’t actually report it to the authorities and it’s never made public. So, what we’re seeing here is simply the known public data breaches as opposed to the entire pie.”

Turning from Verizon’s reports on computers to Verizon’s approach to land line phones now. The company says it will stop allowing the practice of phone cramming. That’s when you get a little charge on your phone bill from some company you’ve never heard of for some service you never asked for and don’t want.

The U.S. Senate estimates cramming has cost Americans $10 billion in the last five years.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, is now asking AT&T and Century Link to follow Verizon’s lead. I asked her if cramming was illegal.

“It is illegal; it’s just that it’s happening so frequently in small amounts, when there are major thefts going on. It takes so much (in terms of) resources to go after these fly-by-night companies,” she says. “Sometimes they literally shut down and move somewhere else, and so the best way to do it is to require the big phone companies to actually be responsible for the companies that are using their service and putting the bills on their service.”

But going after land lines? Isn’t that like going after new rules for steam trains? “Well, I will tell you that between 2008 and 2010, 82 percent of cramming complaints were about landline phone bills and only 16 percent were from wireless, so it’s clearly going on more with landlines and that’s why Verizon started with the landlines.”

Also on today’s program, gamers playing the much-anticipated “Mass Effect 3” were peeved that the game only offered three possible endings, which were all pretty similar. So they asked Bioware, the company that made the game, if they would make new endings in exchange for a charitable donation. The company agreed and now everyone’s happy. Now if those gamers could just demand a new season of “The Wire” or a better ending to “The Wizard of Oz.”

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