How to hack the hackers

M. Mitchell Waldrop in Nature:

Cybersecurity_illoSay what you will about cybercriminals, says Angela Sasse, “their victims rave about the customer service”. Sasse is talking about ransomware: an extortion scheme in which hackers encrypt the data on a user's computer, then demand money for the digital key to unlock them. Victims get detailed, easy-to-follow instructions for the payment process (all major credit cards accepted), and how to use the key. If they run into technical difficulties, there are 24/7 call centres. “It's better support than they get from their own Internet service providers,” says Sasse, a psychologist and computer scientist at University College London who heads the Research Institute in Science of Cyber Security. That, she adds, is today's cybersecurity challenge in a nutshell: “The attackers are so far ahead of the defenders, it worries me quite a lot.”

Long gone are the days when computer hacking was the domain of thrill-seeking teenagers and college students: since the mid-2000s, cyberattacks have become dramatically more sophisticated. Today, shadowy, state-sponsored groups launch exploits such as the 2014 hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment and the 2015 theft of millions of records from the US Office of Personnel Management, allegedly sponsored by North Korea and China, respectively. 'Hacktivist' groups such as Anonymous carry out ideologically driven attacks on high-profile terrorists and celebrities. And a vast criminal underground traffics in everything from counterfeit Viagra to corporate espionage. By one estimate, cybercrime costs the global economy between US$375 billion and $575 billion each year1. Increasingly, researchers and security experts are realizing that they cannot meet this challenge just by building higher and stronger digital walls around everything. They have to look inside the walls, where human errors, such as choosing a weak password or clicking on a dodgy e-mail, are implicated in nearly one-quarter of all cybersecurity failures2. They also have to look outwards, tracing the underground economy that supports the hackers and finding weak points that are vulnerable to counterattack.

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