When you think of hackers your mind might go to one of two places – either the super high-tech wizard hacker operating out of Asia, or maybe the American geek in his Mum’s basement breaking into government computers for something to do. Despite these stereotypes though, it turns out that the most prolific hackers may in fact be located in Europe and fit neither mould.
European Hacking on the Rise
Asian hackers still dominate cybersecurity headlines throughout the world adding more fuel to the stereotype and they do tend to have the most high profile intrusions to their name. Furthermore East Asian hackers are growing in number with more attacks every year. However according to Tom Kellermann, vice president of cybersecurity at Trend Micro, it would be a ‘mistake’ to presume that these attackers presented the greatest threat to cyber security.
After extensive research, Trend Micro has ascertained that the biggest threat in fact comes from the forer Soviet Block which is generating more sophisticated and stealthy attacks than most of their East Asian counterpoints. Kellerman describes the East Europeans as ‘master craftsmen’ and particularly in the development of malware (malicious software). So good is Eastern European malware in fact the programs have been dubbed the ‘Faberge Eggs’ of malware.
While Eastern Europeans are focussed on zero-day exploits – which target previously unexposed weaknesses, ‘spear phishing’ (phishing scams aimed at businesses with the intention of compromising security) and basic malware/third party tools; hackers from Europe instead outsource the penetration to others, but then use their own highly advanced malware tools which are customized for their specific target. What makes them so deadly is their ability to hide from detection – exacerbated small size.
So where do these differences stem from? Well one possible explanation is the emphasis on maths and science education throughout Eastern Europe as well as the fact that they would previously have had to work with less powerful machines making them better at refactoring their programs to run as efficiently as possible. The nature of hacking in Europe is also different, with the hackers running as ‘independent mercenaries’ that need to succeed in order to find more work. They tend to work in small teams and a tight community further helps the development of new techniques and technologies and the trade of services. In comparison, Kellerman compares the East Asian Hackers as ‘foot soldiers’ – members of much larger groups who have less to lose should they be identified.
The Rest of the World
In the US meanwhile there is much less of a ‘hacking culture’ and there are far fewer high profile hacking cases. In the US hackers tend to operate mostly as individuals for personal gain or as a challenge and as such they will tend to stick to smaller-fry targets and be more likely to scam rather than write sophisticated software. ‘Wardriving’ is one example of a popular technique in the US and involves using WiFi to hack into unsecure retail networks where they can then steel and sell credit card numbers. The same is true of Western Europe on the most part. The most recent high-profile case in the UK being the aspergic Gary McKinnon, who carried out the ‘biggest military computer hack of all time’ in order to look for evidence of UFOs.
There are still communities for hackers in the US and Western Europe and there are still high profile cases, but there is less of ‘culture’ and issues tend to be acute rather than chronic – perhaps partly thanks to the wealth of opportunities available to anyone in the US with those kinds of coding skills.