LulzSec, WikiLeaks, Murdoch: hacking's fourth wave

LulzSec is still the B-Team. What's the A-Team doing?

Wikileaks, hacking incidents like those attributed to LulzSec, and even the UK's News of the World voicemail scandal represent a fourth stage in the evolution of cybercrime, according to Dr Paul Nielsen, director and chief executive officer of the Software Engineering Institute (SEI) at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburg.

The first hackers simply tried to gain control a system for its own sake, and usually did little real damage, Nielsen told CSO Online. Later, nation states engaged in cyber attacks for intelligence-gathering and the like. The third phase saw the rise of organised crime online, with criminals seeking monetary gain.

"One thing that we've seen more recently, though, has been the rise of non-governmental organisations using cyber means to push their case," Nielsen said.

WikiLeaks' Julian Assange is a prime example. "He's not looking to make money, he just wants to expose government, in a certain sense, or expose some people because he doesn't agree with them," Nielsen said.

Similarly, the News of the World wasn't after money when it accessed people's voicemail, but raw material for its news operations.

"We're starting to see this proliferate into areas where it's not classic computer crime, to gain financial reward, but either exposing information, exposing people's private information, or trying to gain information for a news source." Nielsen said.

"It shows almost a little return to anarchy, where everybody gets to decide what they think is morally right or wrong, and can attack somebody or release somebody's information just 'cos they don't agree with them. And that's really a bad thing, because we should respect people's individual rights."

 The LulzSec attack on News International, parent company of News of the World, was relatively benign -- but only because LulzSec chose to simply vandalise the websites of The Sun and other News International properties rather than doing more serious damage.

"They had access. They could have done some bad things," Nielsen said.

Rather than posting an obviously fake story about Rupert Murdoch's death, what if LulzSec had posted more plausible stories, perhaps in an attempt to manipulate the share market?

"That really does get to something that I think we worry about a lot in the US," Nielsen said.

"When you have overt attacks, it's annoying, but at least you know what's going on," he said, pointing to large denial of service attacks or websites being taken down. "What's even more dangerous, both in the defence world, in the financial world, and in your personal world, are attacks that you don't discern, that have changed data."

In the defence context, rather than taking down a defence website, what if targeting coordinates were changed?

"You're trying to attack a known enemy command post, and instead your weapon flies very precisely to a hospital, to a school, to a mosque. This could be terrible, and you wouldn't have even known it," Nielsen said.

"Many of the attacks that we see today are sort of B-Team attacks. They're sophisticated attacks, they're hard, but they're seen. What is the A-Team doing?"

The A-Team is writing Stuxnet.

Dr Nielsen was in Australia for last week's launch of the SEI's Asia-Pacific operations in Adelaide at Carnegie Mellon University - Australia (CMU-A).

Contact Stilgherrian at, or follow him on Twitter at @stilgherrian


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Tags News of the Worldcyber attacksDr Nielsen director and chief executive officer of the Software Engineering Institute (SEI)securityLulzsecStuxnetnewsservice attacksWikiLeaks' Julian Assangehacking

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