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Hacking and intellectual property theft presage the new Cold War

26 Apr 2012
V3 reporter Shaun Nichols

The world is increasingly seeing moves to use IT as a weapon on a number of fronts, from industrial espionage to site defacements. Information and the denial of its access are becoming the newest way to destabilise a nation.

If the writing wasn't already on the wall, it should be now; the 21st century will see its own Cold War waged online. Governments and political factions will replace their guns and bombs with advanced persistent threats (APTs) and distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. It's a technological arms race.

The concept of weaponising the internet is nothing new. As far back as 2008, groups in Eastern Europe used DDoS attacks as a means to take down vital web services in rival nations.

Among the most disturbing traits of such attacks is that they can be done with little investment and risk, but can effectively disrupt an entire population. Simply mobilising a large group of end users or finding an individual with access to a sizeable botnet and then providing a target can render entire agencies incapable of functioning within a matter of minutes.

We have seen such a philosophy put into practice in the last year by Anonymous.

The hacktivist group has made headlines for its sophisticated data breaches, but the bread and butter of the movement has been the string of DDoS 'takedowns' carried out by its army of end users running a traffic generating tool known as 'Low Orbit Ion Cannon' or LoIC.

While Anonymous has been able to achieve notable results using at times tens of thousands of systems, the practice could be even more dangerous if put into practice by governments.

End users can also be weaponised as an economic tool. Piracy has been an issue dating back to the birth of commercial software, but the practice now has the potential to cause serious harm on rival nations.

Just last week two Chinese nationals were charged with software piracy and illegally exporting technology from the US to their home country, costing the US firms involved almost $100m in lost revenue.

Regions of Asia and Eastern Europe have long had a reputation as havens for pirated software.

Vendors both online and in real-world marketplaces have been known to sell unlocked and pirated copies of both operating systems and popular applications. In different ways, both criminal groups and government organisations can take advantage of such markets to spread spyware-laced software packages and cause financial losses.

Despite the danger posed by such threats, many government groups and security agencies are focusing on even more sophisticated attacks, particularly, the so-called advanced persistent threat (APT).

First pushed into the public consciousness with the discovery of the Operation Aurora attack, the APT seeks to infiltrate an organisation and steal as much data as possible. Corporate espionage has thus far been the most popular use of APTs.

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Shaun Nichols

Shaun Nichols is the US correspondent for He has been with the company since 2006, originally joining as a news intern at the site's San Francisco offices.

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