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Attacks/Breaches

5/3/2011
09:39 PM
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Five Stories Over Five Years That Shaped Security

Dark Reading commemorates its fifth anniversary with retrospectives on organized crime, USB sticks, the "soupnazi," and APTs

Five years ago, most organizations assumed they would not be hacked. Now even security companies assume they will be the next target.

When Dark Reading first went live in May 2006, there was still a naive sense of wonder in hunting down security bugs in Windows, and small companies for the most part were nowhere on the attacker's radar screen. The concept of organized crime getting into cybercrime seemed far-fetched, like something out of a Russian spy novel, and Microsoft rarely, if ever, talked publicly about security, much less to the press.

Today, nearly all malware and breaches are financially inspired, Microsoft is lauded for its secure development lifecycle (SDL) for secure coding and the software giant hands out its free SDL tools and blueprints like candy. And SMBs have become popular, easy prey for attackers.

To celebrate Dark Reading's five-year anniversary, we've selected five news events we covered over the years that we believe show how security has changed (or not). These are events that shaped our coverage. So take a stroll down memory lane with us -- with the benefit of a little hindsight:

1. Move over, drugs and prostitution.
In 2006, it was becoming increasingly obvious that hacking was no longer just for script kiddies: Organized crime groups of all sizes were starting to get into the game for another revenue stream. Site editor Tim Wilson examined how organized crime was becoming a major client of stolen electronic data in a seminal piece, "Stolen Data's Black Market."

It was no longer about hackers flexing their muscles: There was money to be made, and who better than crime syndicates to cash in on the opportunity to make money while hiding behind the Internet. "There is a growing interest from organizations, like the Russian or Italian mafias, which basically just see stolen data as another revenue stream, like drugs or prostitution," Chris Pierson, founder of the cybersecurity and cyber liability practice at law firm Lewis and Roca LLP, said in the article. "But when I say 'organized,' I don't just mean those groups. I also mean loose associations of people who may combine their efforts to make money from the data."

Attackers were also using extortion to squeeze an organization whose website they downed with a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack, and Pierson's firm had handled some legal cases involving companies paying ransom to get their servers back, for instance. But back then, it was a little easier to keep an attack hush-hush -- unlike today, when hacktivist groups, such as Anonymous, claim responsibility, or when data breach laws require disclosure.

Mafia, drugs, and cybercrime: Security had just gotten a lot sexier.

2. Users will pick up anything off the ground and plug it into their USB ports.
Dark Reading blogger Steve Stasiukonis' company, Secure Network Technologies Inc., is a social engineering and penetration testing for-hire firm. Stasiukonis, who has been a contributor to Dark Reading since Day 1, relaying the capers he and his team weave for their clients in order to test the limits of their physical and logical security. But the story of Stasiukonis' bold experiment scattering USB sticks in a credit union parking lot has become something of a legend.

The credit union, where password- and USB-sharing had become an epidemic among employees, in 2006 commissioned Stasiukonis and his firm to assess its network security and social engineering weaknesses. Stasiukonis and his team scattered 20 Trojan-laden USB sticks around the credit union's parking lot, smoking areas, and other gathering places outside the building. In ""Social Engineering, The USB Way," Stasiukonis revealed how the credit union's employees couldn't resist -- and plugged 15 of the USB drives into their company's computers.

The custom Trojan collected their passwords, logins, and machine-specific information, and emailed it all to Stasiukonis and his company. As Stasiukonis wrote then, and which still resonates today: "All the technology and filtering and scanning in the world won’t address human nature. But it remains the single biggest open door to any company’s secrets. Disagree? Sprinkle your receptionist's candy dish with USB drives and see for yourself how long it takes for human nature to manifest itself."

3. The "soupnazi" did it.
It was the battle of the breaches: First, TJX reported in 2007 that it had lost some 94 million customer records to attackers. Then in 2009, payment processor Heartland Payment Systems (inadvertently) one-upped TJX with the revelation that it had suffered a breach that spanned its 100 million credit and debit card transactions per month it executes for some 175,000 merchants.

Initially, no one -- not even our hot-shot reporters -- suspected that the historical hacks were the handiwork of a single mastermind. As the events unfolded, there came the stunning revelation that what initially appeared to be a wave of crime coming from all sides was instead the work of one Albert Gonzalez, also known as "segvec," "soupnazi," and "j4guar17," who conducted most of his dirty deeds during 2005 to 2008 while serving as a paid undercover informant for the U.S. Secret Service. Gonzalez called his cybercrime enterprise "Operation Get Rich Or Die Tryin," and in August 2009 was indicted, along with two Eastern Europeans for the hacks of Heartland, Hannaford Bros, 7-11, and Target. He was then already facing charges stemming from the breach of TJX, BJ's Wholesale Club, Barnes & Noble, and Dave & Buster's.

And in the latest twist, Gonzalez, who is serving a 20-year sentence for his crimes, is appealing his convictions, saying the government made him do it. In a habeas corpus petition filed with a U.S. District Court, Gonzalez claims that the U.S. Secret Service sanctioned his hacking crimes.

Not everyone thinks the record-breaker 20-year sentence handed down against Gonzalez was enough. "He was also a supplier, who made the tools and techniques" and sold them to others, CTO Michael Maloof says in this piece, "TJX, Heartland Hacker Hit With A Second 20-Year Prison Sentence."

"He was a cybercrime pusher and organizer," Maloff said.

Next page: Google, China, and security company hacks Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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