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 4. Google, China, and a slightly worn-out three-letter term.
When Google and Adobe voluntarily revealed in early 2010 that they had been breached by attackers out of China, as had Intel and more than 20 other U.S. companies, Credit card hacking suddenly seemed mild in comparison with the potential theft of Google's or Adobe's source code and intellectual property.

This brand of targeted attack, typically nation state-sponsored, was nothing new, however. The Defense Department and Defense contractor industry had long been battling ongoing attacks out of China that were all about spying for competitive gain. One source close to the so-called Operation Aurora investigation surrounding the Google hacks told Dark Reading in "Spear Phishing Attacks Out Of China Targeted Source Code, Intellectual Property" that this brand of targeted attack has actually been going on for about three years against U.S. companies and government agencies, involving some 10 different groups in China consisting of some 150,000 trained cyberattackers.

No -- this category of attack wasn't new, but it was now out of the shadows and in the news. And an old Defense term is now new again: the advanced persistent threat (APT) adversary.

5. Do as they say, but don't do as they do.
Super Bowl Sunday 2011 was a lousy day for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but it wasn't any better for HBGary founder Greg Hoglund. Hoglund learned just before kick-off that a targeted attack on HBGary Federal's systems had also led to the breach of his firm's (the two companies are separate entities) email servers. The hacktivist Anonymous group had infiltrated and dumped the contents of HBGary's and HBGary Federal's email messages and other sensitive information online, as well as commandeered HBGary Federal CEO Aaron Barr's Twitter account and potsed his Social Security number and address.

The attacks came in retaliation for Barr's research on the Anonymous group.

But by the time Hoglund was alerted that his servers had been hit, "they had been in the systems longer than that, after they had gotten everything they wanted," he said in an interview for the "Anonymous' Hacks Security Company, Researcher" piece.

But it wasn't until last month that HBGary issued an official statement to dispel misconceptions about the attacks, namely that the two companies are separate. "HBGary Inc. was a victim of circumstance, caught within the storm of a vengeful retribution attack against Mr. Barr for his claim that he had infiltrated the hacking group," the statement said.

The HBGary Federal and HBGary hacks were big news in that a security company had been seriously breached by a group of determined hackers. And in a very public, painful way, as the Anonymous group relentlessly posted email spools from both companies.

But that was just the beginning. While the buzz was all about speculating on Anonymous' next victim, security company Comodo 'fessed up that one of its resellers had been hacked, and nine Comodo-signed SSL certificates had been issued for fraudulent websites posing as domains for high-profile sites, including,,, An Iranian hacker claimed responsibility for the attacks, and shared his story with Dark Reading and other publications.

But wait -- there's more. Just a few days later, security mainstay RSA announced that it had been the victim of a targeted, APT-type attack that exposed its SecurID authentication technology.

And all of this transpired within the first five months of this year. Imagine what the rest of the year will bring.

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About the Author(s)

Kelly Jackson Higgins, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Editor-in-Chief 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 Magazine, Virginia Business magazine, and other major media properties. Jackson Higgins was recently selected as one of the Top 10 Cybersecurity Journalists in the US, and named as one of Folio's 2019 Top Women in Media. She began her career as a sports writer in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and earned her BA at William & Mary. Follow her on Twitter @kjhiggins.

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