Hack Attacks Escalating? Here's a Reality Check

Hack attacks by LulzSec and Anonymous suggest an uptick in computer attacks, network break-ins, and data breaches

Hack attacks from online thugs such as Anonymous and LulzSec appear to signal a hacker Armageddon. Not only has Sony been relentlessly targeted by hackers this year so has the Central Intelligence Agency, Sega, PBS.com, the U.K. government, and dozens of other high-profile company and government agency Web sites.

But security experts say despite the uptick in reported computer attacks, network break-ins, and data breaches the volume of hack attacks is not rising. What has changed is that hacker groups such as Anonymous and LulzSec have gotten media savvy creating an illusion of an escalating cyberwar that in reality does not exist, says Graham Cluley senior technology consultant at the security firm Sophos.

LulzSec and Anonymous Love the Limelight

Social networking tools have made it easy for hackers to brag about their exploits - sometimes issuing press releases - where in the past hackers lurked quietly in the shadows, Cluley says.

"There's no reliable count of just how many hacks take place," Cluley says. "What has changed recently is that some of the hackers are getting more effective and keener to publicize their hacks."

Anonymous and LulzSec, Cluley says, have elaborate public relations components to publicize their hacking exploits. LulzSec uses Twitter frequently, while Anonymous has set up a blog which purpose is to issue press releases on its latest exploits. Anonymous also has several YouTube channels.

Such public display of their work is unusual, says SANS Internet Center's Johnannes Ullrich. "Usually, attackers try to avoid this kind of publicity," he said via an e-mail exchange. Better publicity means more news coverage, and thus the appearance of increasing hacks.

Chest Pounding Sounds the Alarm

The silver lining to public hack attacks is attention brought to security holes that exist across the Internet, says Jim Stickley, Trace Security's chief technology officer. The public needs to know when it's putting its personal information at risk, he says.

"There is no doubt these attacks have brought attention to a fundamental problem that most people would prefer to ignore," Stickley says. "It doesn't matter how much you spend on technology ... there is a very good chance hackers will be able to gain some level of access."

In fact Stickley says he wouldn't be surprised if many of us have already had our personal information exposed once or maybe several times in the past several years. Ullrich seemed to share those concerns.

"I do think the larger threat comes from attacks we don't hear about, and users should always be concerned about how well their data is secured," he said, "In many ways, the very public attacks performed by LulzSec may help improve some of these problems."

Even Odds on Hackers' Apprehension

With better context on the recent hacks, the next logical question for many is whether these hackers will ever get caught. Security researchers say the odds are about even.

"The problem is if they are just hacking for the fun of it and not trying to profit from it, then it is very difficult to find a direct trail back to them," Stickley answered. Ullrich added that it may be time consuming to pin down the hackers.

Ironically, hackers themselves seem to be aiding authorities. "Someone will be careless, someone will talk, or maybe a sizeable reward will be offered," Ullrich says.

On Tuesday U.K.'s Scotland Yard arrested Ryan Cleary on hacking charges. It's unknown if Cleary has direct ties to hacker group LulzSec as authorities suspect. Internet reports claim Cleary hosted online chats for LulzSec members and was not a member. That didn't stop LulzSec hackers from ratting out those who turn against it.

"The hackers would be sensible to stop now, or risk getting into even bigger trouble, Ullrich says.

On Sunday LulzSec issued a statement:

"Welcome to Operation Anti-Security (#AntiSec). We encourage any vessel, large or small, to open fire on any government or agency that crosses their path. We fully endorse the flaunting of the word 'AntiSec' on any government website defacement or physical graffiti art."

For more tech news and commentary, follow Ed on Twitter at @edoswald and on Facebook.

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