Hacker Threats to Your Company’s Systems

Computer hackers have been around for decades and continue to pose threats to legitimate companies. Only a few hackers, such as John Draper (also known as Captain Crunch) and Kevin Mitnick, are really well known. Many more unknown hackers are looking to make a name for themselves. They’re the ones you have to look out for.

In a world of black and white, describing the typical hacker is easy. A general stereotype of a hacker is an antisocial, pimply faced, teenage boy. But the world has many shades of gray and many types of hackers.

Hackers are unique individuals, so an exact profile is hard to outline. The best broad description of hackers is that all hackers aren’t equal. Each hacker has his or her own unique motives, methods, and skills. Hacker skill levels fall into three general categories:

  • Script kiddies: These are computer novices who take advantage of the hacker tools, vulnerability scanners, and documentation available free on the Internet but who don’t have any real knowledge of what’s really going on behind the scenes. They know just enough to cause you headaches but typically are very sloppy in their actions. However, they often need only minimal skills to carry out their attacks.

  • Criminal hackers: These are skilled criminal experts and nation states who write some of the hacking tools, including the scripts and other programs that the script kiddies and ethical hackers use. These folks also write such malware as viruses and worms. They can break into systems and cover their tracks. They can even make it look like someone else hacked their victims’ systems.

    Advanced hackers are often members of collectives that prefer to remain nameless. These hackers are very secretive and share information with their subordinates (lower-ranked hackers in the collectives) only when they are deemed worthy. Typically, for lower-ranked hackers to be considered worthy, they must possess some unique information or prove themselves through a high-profile hack. These hackers are arguably some of your worst enemies in information security

  • Security researchers: These uber-hackers are highly technical and publicly known IT professionals who not only monitor and track computer, network, and application vulnerabilities but also write the tools and other code to exploit them. You should follow security researchers via their blogs, Twitter, and articles. Following the progress of these security researchers helps you stay up-to-date on both vulnerabilities and the latest and greatest security tools.

There are good-guy (white hat) and bad-guy (black hat) hackers. Gray hat hackers are a little bit of both. There are also blue-hat hackers who are invited by software vendors to find security flaws in their systems.

A recent study at the Black Hat security conference found that everyday IT professionals even engage in malicious and criminal activity against others. And people wonder why IT doesn’t get the respect it deserves! Perhaps this group will evolve into a fourth general category of hackers in the coming years.

Regardless of age and complexion, hackers possess curiosity, bravado, and often very sharp minds.

Perhaps more important than a hacker’s skill level is his or her motivation:

  • Hacktivists try to disseminate political or social messages through their work. A hacktivist wants to raise public awareness of an issue. In many situations, criminal hackers will try to take you down if you express a view that’s contrary to theirs. Examples of hacktivism include messages about legalizing drugs, protests against the war in Iraq, protests centered around wealth envy and big corporations, and other social and political issues.

  • Cyberterrorists (both organized and unorganized) attack government computers or public utility infrastructures, such as power grids and air-traffic control towers. They crash critical systems or steal classified government information. Countries take the threats these cyberterrorists pose so seriously that many mandate information security controls in crucial industries, such as the power industry, to protect essential systems against these attacks.

  • Hackers for hire are part of organized crime on the Internet. Many of these hackers hire out themselves or their botnets for money — and lots of it!

These criminal hackers are in the minority, so don’t think that you’re up against millions of these villains. Like the spam kings of the world, many of the nefarious acts from members of collectives that prefer to remain nameless are carried out by a small number of criminals.

Many other hackers just love to tinker and only seek knowledge of how computer systems work. One of your greatest threats works inside your building and has an access badge to the building and a valid network account, so don’t discount the insider threat.

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