Hackers linked by the U.S. government to North Korea embarrassed Sony after damaging the company’s networks in November. They stole confidential data, gleefully released it to the world, then made threats that played havoc with Sony’s holiday movie release schedule. Earlier in 2014, intruders dodged sophisticated JPMorgan Chase security systems, then spent two months siphoning off customer information before being discovered. Investigators said the attack originated in Russia. That was bad news that was really bad. Other bad news has turned out better. In April, Web denizens went into a panic after security researchers discovered Heartbleed, a software flaw that left passwords and other personal information on websites exposed. The actual damage? Only a little that anybody could document. In May, Target was beset by revelations about the theft of 40 million payment-card numbers. Mostly, though, the numbers were useless to the thieves because the PIN codes were encrypted and banks swiftly cancelled most compromised accounts. Experts issued stern warnings of more mayhem to come after a security company reported in June that cyber-attackers had disrupted a hedge fund’s high-speed trading network. On closer inspection? The attack never happened.
The first famous hacker was Robert Tappan Morris, the son of a National Security Agency computer scientist, who in 1988 unleashed an Internet attack that crashed thousands of computers. He said a research project got out of control. More than 20 years later, a computer worm called Stuxnet disabled almost 1,000 centrifuges at an Iranian nuclear facility. It was traced to U.S. and Israeli intelligence. Now hackers and the governments that hunt them buy programming code on the same global black markets. Talented hackers can make hundreds of thousands of dollars or more selling a single, well-crafted attack program. Still, breaches like Stuxnet are beyond the capacity of all but the most elite specialty hacker, usually state-sponsored, and the vast majority of threats can be blocked.
Sony was warned in late 2013 that hackers were stealing gigabytes of data several times a week, a pattern of lapses that foreshadowed the latest attack. Effective data security involves up-to-date technology, but also expensive human monitoring of voluminous logs and alerts. Technology can stop low- and medium-level threats. It can’t do much to neutralize inattentive people who use easy-to-steal rudimentary passwords. Symantec, the world’s biggest cybersecurity company, recently acknowledged something that security professionals have known for years: Its antivirus software no longer stops the most advanced attacks. Still, banks can reverse or block fraudulent charges instantly so consumers can keep spending. PIN codes are now so hard to steal that cybergangs employ Hollywood-style stunts to install special chips and software inside ATMs. Even in serious breaches, such as the hacking attacks on JPMorgan, consumer protections are likely to prevent individuals’ from suffering financial losses. So what is the current state of cybersecurity? It’s both the worst it’s ever been — and the best it’s ever been.
The Reference Shelf
- Bloomberg News articles describe U.S. military preparations for cyberwar and Chinese hacking into U.S. utilities.
- A Bloomberg Visual Data chart shows the scale of big data breaches since 2009.
- Bloomberg Businessweek chronicled a 2010 attack on Nasdaq computers and the U.S. government’s response.
- The New York Times traced the origin of the Stuxnet attack against Iran and the National Security Agency’s penetration of the Chinese network-equipment maker Huawei.
- The security expert Bruce Schneier blogs about cyberwar and online espionage.