Hack Hell

by on December 31, 2014 · 0 comments

2014 was quite the year for high-profile hackings and puffed-up politicians trying to out-ham each other on who is tougher on cybercrime. I thought I’d assemble some of the year’s worst hits to ring in 2015.

In no particular order:

Home Depot: The 2013 Target breach that leaked around 40 million customer financial records was unceremoniously topped by Home Depot’s breach of over 56 million payment cards and 53 million email addresses in July. Both companies fell prey to similar infiltration tactics: the hackers obtained passwords from a vendor of each retail giant and exploited a vulnerability in the Windows OS to install malware in the firms’ self-checkout lanes that collected customers’ credit card data. Millions of customers became vulnerable to phishing scams and credit card fraud—with the added headache of changing payment card accounts and updating linked services. (Your intrepid blogger was mysteriously locked out of Uber for a harrowing 2 months before realizing that my linked bank account had changed thanks to the Home Depot hack and I had no way to log back in without a tedious customer service call. Yes, I’m still miffed.)

The Fappening: 2014 was a pretty good year for creeps, too. Without warning, the prime celebrity booties of popular starlets like Scarlett Johansson, Kim Kardashian, Kate Upton, and Ariana Grande mysteriously flooded the Internet in the September event crudely immortalized as “The Fappening.” Apple quickly jumped to investigate its iCloud system that hosted the victims’ stolen photographs, announcing shortly thereafter that the “celebrity accounts were compromised by a very targeted attack on user names, passwords and security questions” rather than any flaw in its system. The sheer volume produced and caliber of icons violated suggests this was not the work of a lone wolf, but a chain reaction of leaks collected over time triggered by one larger dump. For what it’s worth, some dude on 4chan claimed the Fappening was the product of an “underground celeb n00d-trading ring that’s existed for years.” While the event prompted a flurry of discussion about online misogyny, content host ethics, and legalistic tugs-of-war over DMCA takedown requests, it unfortunately did not generate a productive conversation about good privacy and security practices like I had initially hoped.

The Snappening: The celebrity-targeted Fappening was followed by the layperson’s “Snappening” in October, when almost 100,000 photos and 10,000 personal videos sent through the popular Snapchat messaging service, some of them including depictions of underage nudity, were leaked online. The hackers did not target Snapchat itself, but instead exploited a third-party client called SnapSave that allowed users to save images and videos that would normally disappear after a certain amount of time on the Snapchat app. (Although Snapchat doesn’t exactly have the best security record anyways: In 2013, contact information for 4.6 million of its users were leaked online before the service landed in hot water with the FTC earlier this year for “deceiving” users about their privacy practices.) The hackers received access to 13GB library of old Snapchat messages and dumped the images on a searchable online directory. As with the Fappening, discussion surrounding the Snappening tended to prioritize scolding service providers over promoting good personal privacy and security practices to consumers.

Las Vegas Sands Corp.: Not all of these year’s most infamous hacks sought sordid photos or privateering profit. 2014 also saw the rise of the revenge hack. In February, Iranian hackers infiltrated politically-active billionaire Sheldon Adelson’s Sands Casino not for profit or data, but for pure punishment. Adelson, a staunchly pro-Israel figure and partial owner of many Israeli media companies, drew intense Iranian ire after fantasizing about detonating an American nuclear warhead in the Iranian desert as a threat during his speech at Yeshiva University. Hackers released crippling malware into the Sands IT infrastructure early in the year, which proceeded to shut down email services, wipe hard drives clean, and destroy thousands of company computers, laptops, and expensive servers. The Sands website was also hacked to display “a photograph of Adelson chumming around with [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu,” along with the message “Encouraging the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction, UNDER ANY CONDITION, is a Crime,” and a data dump of Sands employees’ names, titles, email addresses, and Social Security numbers. Interestingly, Sands was able to contain the damage internally so that guests and gamblers had no idea of the chaos that was ravaging casino IT infrastructure. Public knowledge of the hack did not serendipitously surface until early December, around the time of the Sony hack. It is possible that other large corporations have suffered similar cyberattacks this year in silence.

JP Morgan: You might think that one of the world’s largest banks would have security systems that are near impossible to crack. This was not the case at JP Morgan. From June to August, hackers infiltrated JP Morgan’s sophisticated security system and siphoned off massive amounts of sensitive financial data. The New York Times reports that “the hackers appeared to have obtained a list of the applications and programs that run on JPMorgan’s computers — a road map of sorts — which they could crosscheck with known vulnerabilities in each program and web application, in search of an entry point back into the bank’s systems, according to several people with knowledge of the results of the bank’s forensics investigation, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity.” Some security experts suspect that a nation-state was ultimately behind the infiltration due to the sophistication of the attack and the fact that the hackers neglected to immediately sell or exploit the data or attempt to steal funds from consumer accounts. The JP Morgan hack set off alarm bells among influential financial and governmental circles since banking systems were largely considered to be safe and impervious to these kinds of attacks.

Sony: What a tangled web this was! On November 24, Sony employees were greeted by the mocking grin of a spooky screen skeleton informed they had been “Hacked by the #GOP” and that there was more to come. It was soon revealed that Sony’s email and computer systems had been infiltrated and shut down while some 100 terabytes of data had been stolen. The hackers proceeded to leak embarrassing company information, including emails in which executives made racial jokes, compensation data revealing a considerable gender wage disparity, and unreleased studio films like Annie and Mr. Turner. We also learned about “Project Goliath,” a conspiracy among the MPAA, Sony, and five other studios (Universal, Sony, Fox, Paramount, Warner Bros., and Disney) to revise the spirit of SOPA and attack piracy on the web “by working with state attorneys general and major ISPs like Comcast to expand court power over the way data is served.” (Goliath was their not-exactly-subtle codeword for Google.) Somewhere along the way, a few folks got wild notions that North Korea was behind this attack because of the nation’s outrage at the latest Rogen romp, The Interview. Most cybersecurity experts doubt that the hermit nation was behind the attack, although the official KCNA statement enthusiastically “supports the righteous deed.” The absurdity of the official narrative did not prevent most of our world-class journalistic and political establishment from running with the story and beating the drums of cyberwar. Even the White House and FBI goofed. The FBI and State Department still maintain North Korean culpability, even as research compiled by independent security analysts points more and more to a collection of disgruntled former Sony employees and independent lulz-seekers. Troublingly, the Obama administration publicly entertained cyberwar countermeasures against the troubled communist nation on such slim evidence. A few days later, the Internet in North Korea was mysteriously shut down. I wonder what might have caused that? Truly a mess all around.

LizardSquad: Speaking of Sony hacks, the spirit of LulzSec is alive in LizardSquad. On Christmas day, the black hat collective knocked out Sony’s Playstation network and Microsoft’s Xbox servers with a massive distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack to the great vengeance and furious anger of gamers avoiding family gatherings across the country. These guys are not your average script-kiddies. NexusGuard chief scientist Terrence Gareu warns the unholy lizards boast an artillery that far exceeds normal DDoS attacks. This seems right, given the apparent difficulty that giants Sony and Microsoft had in responding to the attacks. For their part, LizardSquad claims the strength of their attack exceeded the previous record against Cloudflare this February. Megaupload Internet lord Kim Dotcom swooped to save gamers’ Christmas festivities with a little bit of information age, uh, “justice.” The attacks were allegedly called off after Dotcom offered the hacking collective 3,000 Mega vouchers (normally worth $99 each) for his content hosting empire if they agreed to cease. The FBI is investigating the lizards for the attacks. LizardSquad then turned their attention to the TOR network, creating thousands of new relays and comprising a worrying portion of the network’s roughly 8,000 relays in an effort to unmask users. Perhaps they mean to publicize the networks’ vulnerabilities? The group’s official Twitter bio reads, “I cry when Tor deserves to die.” Could this be related to the recent PandoTor drama that reinvigorated skepticism of Tor? As with any online brouhaha involving clashing numbers of privacy-obsessed computer whizzes with strong opinions, this incident has many hard-to-read layers (sorry!). While the Tor campaign is still developing, LizardSquad has been keeping busy with it’s newly-launched Lizard Stresser, a distributed DDoS tool that anyone can use for a small fee. These lizards appear very intent on making life as difficult as possible for the powerful parties they’ve identified as enemies and will provide some nice justifications for why governments need more power to crack down on cybercrime.

What a year! I wonder what the next one will bring.

One sure bet for 2015 is increasing calls for enhanced regulatory powers. Earlier this year, Eli and I wrote a Mercatus Research paper explaining why top-down solutions to cybersecurity problems can backfire and make us less secure. We specifically analyzed President Obama’s developing Cybersecurity Framework, but the issues we discuss apply to other rigid regulatory solutions as well. On December 11, in the midst of North Korea’s red herring debut in the Sony debacle, the Senate passed the Cybersecurity Act of 2014, which contains many of the same principles outlined in the Framework. The Act, which still needs House approval, strengthens the Department of Homeland Security’s role in controlling cybersecurity policy by directing DHS to create industry cybersecurity standards and begin routine information-sharing with private entities.

Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Tom Coburn, had this to say: “Every day, adversaries are working to penetrate our networks and steal the American people’s information at a great cost to our nation. One of the best ways that we can defend against cyber attacks is to encourage the government and private sector to work together and share information about the threats we face. ”

While the problems of poor cybersecurity and increasing digital attacks are undeniable, the solutions proposed by politicians like Coburn are dubious. The federal government should probably try to get its own house in order before it undertakes to save the cyberproperties of the nation. The Government Accountability Office reports that the federal government suffered from almost 61,000 cyber attacks and data breaches last year. The DHS itself was hacked in 2012,while a 2013 GAO report criticized DHS for poor security practices, finding that “systems are being operated without authority to operate; plans of action and milestones are not being created for all known information security weaknesses or mitigated in a timely manner; and baseline security configuration settings are not being implemented for all systems.” GAO also reports that when federal agencies develop cybersecurity practices like those encouraged in the Cybersecurity Framework or the Cybersecurity Act of 2014, they are inconsistently and insufficiently implemented.

Given the federal government’s poor track record managing its own system security, we shouldn’t expect miracles when they take a leadership role for the nation.

Another trend to watch will be the development of a more robust cybersecurity insurance market. The Wall Street Journal reports that 2014’s rash of hacking attacks stimulated sales of formerly-obscure cyberinsurance packages.

The industry had suffered in the past due to its novelty and lack of previous data to use to accurately price insurance packages. This year, demand has been sufficiently stimulated and actuaries have been familiar enough with the relevant risks that the practice has finally become mainstream. Policies can cover “the costs of [data breach] investigations, customer notifications and credit-monitoring services, as well as legal expenses and damages from consumer lawsuits” and “reimbursement for loss of income and extra expenses resulting from suspension of computer systems, and provide payments to cover recreation of databases, software and other assets that were corrupted or destroyed by a computer attack.” As the market matures, cybersecurity insurers may start more actively assessing firms’ digital vulnerabilities and recommend improvements to their systems in exchange for a lower premium payment, as is common in other insurance markets.

Still, nothing ever beats good old-fashioned personal responsibility. One of the easiest ways to ensure privacy and security for yourself online is to take the time to learn how to best protect yourself or your business by developing good habits, using the right services, and remaining conscientious about your digital activities. That’s my New Year’s resolution. I think it should be yours, too! 🙂

Happy New Year’s, all!

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