The advanced security techniques of criminal hackers

InfoWorld talks with Digital Shadows' Rick Holland about the security tools hackers use to protect themselves while ripping you off

Staying secure online is an essential concern, for individual users, businesses, and cybercriminals alike. That’s right: Basic IT security applies whether you’re protecting sensitive data at an upstanding, ethical organization, or you’re in the business of stealing data from those same organizations.

After all, the business may be cybercrime, but cybercriminals are still operating a business, with all the associated worries. Criminals rely on operations security (opsec) to stay ahead of law enforcement and security researchers intent on dismantling their operations, but also to protect their criminal enterprises from competitors planning on sabotage.

I spoke with Rick Holland, former Forrester analyst and VP of strategy at Digital Shadows, at Black Hat about the security tools and techniques currently in use by cybercriminals. What Holland had to say was both illuminating and, when considering the business of cybercrime, not entirely unfamiliar.

“Opsec is a really good topic to be talking about in Vegas [Black Hat conference]. A lot of the things individuals are doing here, some of that applies to the bad guys,” Holland says.

Take, for instance, the fine line between increasing revenue opportunities and protecting yourself and your organization. In the legitimate business world, security measures can be an impediment to the nimbleness necessary to capitalize on some business opportunities. The same can be said in the criminal underworld. A seller on a carder forum doesn't want to sell stolen credit card numbers to someone an undercover law enforcement officer or to someone who won't pay. On the other hand, putting up a lot of barriers and identification checks will get in the way of making sales. Too much security can hurt the business.

“For cybercriminals, they want to make money. Opsec can be a barrier to making money, if they have too much,” Holland says. They have to find that right balance where they have enough opsec to keep themselves safe from law enforcement but free enough to be able to do business quickly.

A term from the military world, "opsec" refers to tactics used to protect privacy and anonymity. The irony is that criminals rely on many of the same tools that defenders and internet users on the good side adopt to stay secure online -- tools such as Tor and VPNs for network connectivity, bulletproof hosting, and Jabber and OTR protocol for online chats, according to Holland. Snowden popularized Tails, the Linux distribution for the paranoid, Holland adds.

“The majority of criminal threat actors are using commercial/open source tools,” Holland says. There is no need to create their own tools when there are plenty to choose from.

Technology aside, criminals rely on other opsec measures such as disassociating their criminal enterprise entirely from their personal identity. Mixing up the two, even once, can result in a shutdown. For example, law enforcement authorities were able to track down Dridex botnet operator Andrey Ghinkul because he associated his nickname Smilex with his real name. Failing to keep the personal life and criminal activities separate is a common opsec mistake, Holland says.

Or thinking the VPN is on when it actually isn't, as Sabu, Hector Xavier Monsegure from hacktivist collective Anonymous, learned to his chagrin when agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation showed up at his door.

Defenders can capitalize on weak attacker opsec to gain insights into the people, process, and technology the attackers are using. Lapses in opsec give defenders the clue they need to stop the attack. In the new world where everything is online, any break is helpful.

Knowing what malicious actors are using to cloak their movements and communications is key to hunting down the threats to your organization.

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