Hard hacks to follow

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 August, 2011, 12:00am


Chris Rock once remarked that the world had truly gone crazy when Eminem became the best rapper, Tiger Woods the best golfer and Yao Ming the tallest player in the NBA.

It's similarly befuddling that, on Wednesday in Las Vegas, a hackers' 'Oscars' ceremony took place at the Black Hat USA computer security conference. The awards were founded in 2007 and are dubbed the Pwnies, pronounced 'ponies' (pwned is hacker slang for being controlled, or 'owned', by a hacker).

They recognise the great and the good of a year of hacking as well as the 'epic fails', usually committed by corporations with a cack-handed approach to cybersecurity.

The Pwnies come at a time when hackers, once shadowy and secretive, have come out of the basement and revel in their feats, daring and, lest we forget, crimes.

Global corporations and entire governments are left quaking in their cyberboots at the prospect of another assault on their servers, databases and websites.

It's a rather absurd turn of events and arguably the equivalent of Wall Street honouring its denizens with awards for 'best act of swindling the public purse' or 'best toxic asset repackaged as a top-rated investment'.

Yet in the public imagination, hacking has yet to register as anything more than nerdy kids having a lark. It's David taking on Goliath and occasionally winning. The perception persists that hackers are innocent babes, like Matthew Broderick in WarGames stumbling upon security blind spots at faceless corporations that have no bearing on our everyday lives.

The supposed innocence of hackers, or at least the belief in their inherent good intentions, has been given further varnish with the rising incidences of 'hacktivism'. Hacker groups such as Anonymous and LulzSec were up for the 'Epic Ownage' award for the most outstanding hack of the year - the prize went to Stuxnet for its nuclear centrifuge-destroying worm. Julian Assange's crusading Wikileaks collective has taken on companies and organisations it feels have wronged the public in some way and made it an aim to disrupt, embarrass and cripple the likes of the Arizona state police, the US Senate and the CIA. Rupert Murdoch (ironically no stranger himself to the issue), seems to be someone who particularly irks the hacker community, and his News Corp assets have felt the righteous fire of hacktivists, with Fox News, The Sun and The Times facing attacks on their websites. The Hong Kong Blondes, a now defunct hacker group, took on the Great Firewall of China to allow mainlanders access to censored websites.

Japanese electronics giant Sony is another company that has become the hackers' whipping boy; it's the winner (and was the sole nominee) for the 'Most Epic Fail' Pwnie for its repeated missteps with cybersecurity. However, the high-profile hacking of Sony's PlayStation Network and the theft of millions of users' credit card and personal details, and the hacking of the National Health Service in Britain, have made Joe Public realise he too is a target for unseen computer crime. The attacks on Sony could be the tipping point for public opinion and a realisation of the dangers hackers present.

The recent attacks have emboldened the authorities, with the FBI, Scotland Yard and Interpol arresting alleged members of Anonymous and Lulzsec. But the problem is unlikely to go away so easily. With every arrest, a score of new hackers take up the mantle, motivated to avenge their brethren with ever more daring feats.

The security issue has moved on to a governmental level, with countries such as the US, Britain and Israel setting up dedicated cyberwarfare units. China also recently revealed its own Blue Army - government-sponsored super-nerds ready for cyberbattle. And a coming cyberbattle is a very real possibility, as both Stuxnet and the hacking of the Pentagon showed how easy it could be for a dedicated hacking group, state-sponsored or not, to penetrate the most secure defences and cause havoc.

International efforts to co-ordinate intelligence on hackers and make tentative moves to control aspects of the internet to make hacking more difficult have met with little success and flamed the ire of hackers who have promised a full-scale revenge of the nerds if the authorities infringe the freedom of the internet.

With almost daily stories of audacious hacks leaving powerless authorities dumbfounded and increasingly the man in the street stripped of his most personal details, the future looks bleak. The open boasting and celebration of hacking through events such as the Pwnies reinforces the sense that we are all vulnerable to the whims of unseen entities that can be both friend and foe. The only defence might be to disentangle ourselves from the web of social media, internet shopping and gossip blogs and live like Luddites. A step backwards might just be the only way forward.