Sunday, June 19, 2011

Update from the warzone: Its cyberwar

Do you remember that scene from the movie Independence Day where Jeff Goldblum plants a virus in the alien mothership's computer system? It was very sci-fi, especially if you consider how something designed for our systems could work with an alien one. Here's what I am taking about -

All very futuristic but hacking and cyber warfare is nothing new. In fact, I came across this article published a long time back in April 2001 expressing paranoia about attacks from China.

So what's the big deal now?

Since then, things have moved, to absolutely terrifying proportions. To give you an idea about where we are now, the video below demonstrates how the virus 'Stuxnet' is able to shut down nuclear power plants and electrical grids while hoodwinking security layers.

Stuxnet: Anatomy of a Computer Virus from Patrick Clair on Vimeo

While the video does not reveal the instigators behind Stuxnet, further reports have shown possible American and Israeli military links to the project. Clearly, warfare has truly gone beyond ballistics and explosives to the arcane realms of the digital world. There has never been a better time to be a white hat hacker.

If that looks bad, the problems facing corporates and organizations are far worse. The two main hacking groups terrorizing companies worldwide are Anonymous and Lulzsec. They are called grey hat hackers, whose activities fall somewhere between white and black hacking. These activities are commonly termed as 'Hactivism'. Between them, they have hacked major organizations and institutions like PBS, Sony, Nintendo, the CIA, NATO, Visa, MasterCard, Amazon, Gmail and loads more.

So what exactly is going on? Why are they doing this?

Anonymous' attacks seem to be politically motivated. After hacking NATO's systems, they left the following message -

"This is no longer your world. It is our world - the people's world." Read their entire message here. Clearly, this is a rage against the machine!

Lulzsec seems to have no political agenda and is probably just having a ball of a time. This excellent article breaks down their activities and shows us that they just want to brandish their skills while metaphorically giggling at the trouble they are causing to giant organizations.

Recently, computer security firm Black & Berg challenged hackers to hack into their website and modify the image on their homepage. The reward was a $10,000 prize and a job to anyone able to do so. LulzSec did it in no time, but refused the reward. This was the message they left -


They are also passionate about what they love. After some unknown hackers tried to break into Sega's systems, Lulzsec have declared war against these perpetrators and offered to track down and 'destroy' them. Their motivation?

"We love the Dreamcast, these people are going down."

Despite the various motivations behind cyberwar and hactivism, the message is very clear. This is war! The new war. So much so that the Obama administration has asserted "that computer sabotage coming from another country can constitute an act of war, a finding that for the first time opens the door for the U.S. to respond using traditional military force."

The biggest problem I can see here is; who are the enemies exactly and where are they? Anonymous consists of nearly 4000 hackers distributed across the world. And if you do track them down, how complicated will the legal prosecutions be?

All this can lead to a lots of possibilities; from massive changes to international criminal laws or frighteningly, limiting freedom on the internet itself.

In the long sprawling stand-off between the good and the bad guys, there has never been a phase as complex and sophisticated as this. The trouble is, none of the sides believe they are on the bad side.

Update (20/06/2011): Today, Anonymous and Lulzsec declared war on the world's corrupt governments and corporates (#antisec). Wow! Is this the moment in history that we the common people had been waiting for? The time when the people have enough power to try and set things right?
Or will it lead to strict controls and censorships on the internet instead?

I do hope things go down well; but I am pretty sure they wont. On one side I do want them to set things right, especially considering how bad things are in India. But at the same time, the collateral damage may be way to high to justify all the hactivism.