Familiarity is the enemy on the war on hackers and cyber crime

Familiarity is the enemy on the war on hackers and cyber crime

The revelation that a friend or local business has been hacked is old news nowadays.

A few years ago, the idea that unknown assailants might have successfully penetrated your social media account or compromised files in an office or hospital would have prompted gasps of trepidation and disquiet - not anymore.

Cybercrime is everywhere in 2019, and growing into an ever larger threat with each passing month. According to research conducted by Cybersecurity Ventures, it is estimated that online criminal activity will cost the world €6 trillion annually by 2021, up from €3 trillion in 2015.

Such is the growth of this illegal trade that it is predicted it will become more profitable than the accumulated profits of the combined global drugs cartels.

Major cyber-attacks are fastest growing in the US, where their size, sophistication and regularity continue to increase annually.

The major data breach at Marriott Hotels in 2018 is estimated to have exposed 500 million user accounts, while the Yahoo hack - the largest ever - was calculated to have affected 3 billion users.

The previous year saw similar patterns, with the Equifax breach compromising up to 150 million customers, joining the havoc caused by the WannaCry and NotPetya ransomware cyber attacks in 2017.

But while the obvious costs of cyber crime include stolen money, fraud, embezzlement and destroyed data, its destructive tentacles increasingly entail the more complex spectre of lost productivity, post-attack disruption, forensic investigation and, particularly, long-term reputational harm.

Ironically, it is the growing prevalence of the worldwide web, and all the significant benefits it has brought the world, that lies at the core of this major challenge facing society.

In short, the rate of internet growth is outpacing our ability to properly secure it.

The web was invented in 1989, with the first website going live in 1991 - today there are almost two billion sites.

In population terms, there were four billion online users in 2018 - almost half of the world’s population - up from two billion in 2015.

It is estimated there will be six billion internet users by 2022, representing three-quarters of the projected world population.

While many august and academic voices have joined the chorus of concern centred around the global menace of cyber crime, it is the observation of a famous 'poacher turned gamekeeper' that carries most impact.

Frank Abagnale, an FBI consultant for over 40 years on forgery and embezzlement, was once a legendary confidence trickster and the inspiration for the film 'Catch Me If You Can', starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Tom Hanks.

"I’m very concerned with cyber starting to turn very dark," he said.

Up until now it has just been a financial crime for the purpose of stealing money - or stealing data that is money - but we have the ability now to turn someone’s pacemaker off.

As the world swims in ever larger oceans of information, so too do the potential risks multiply.

Adding to the total amount of data stored in the cloud, which will be 100 times greater in 2021 than it is today, is the coming explosion of Internet of Things devices, projected to reach 200 billion in two years time.

Gartner forecasts that more than half a billion wearable devices will be sold worldwide in 2021, up from 300 million in 2017.

To cater to this endless avalanche of digital content, over 100 billion lines of new software code are written every year - creating a potentially fertile landscape for the criminal denizens of the 'dark web'.

Given that this vast underground universe of the internet is neither indexed, regulated or accessed by search engines, its dimensions defy evaluation - but some estimates calculate its size as far bigger than the worldwide web we all use on a daily basis.

"Every minute over 3,500 data records are stolen - that means that at some point in the past decade, you most likely have been victim of cyber crime. You may not have even noticed, or maybe you weren’t even informed, but somewhere along the line some of your details were stolen from a server by parties unknown."

So explains Ronan Murphy, group chief executive of Smarttech247, the Cork-based cyber security firm hosting the upcoming FutureSec 2019 conference offering a wide range of presentations, including the FBI, An Garda Síochána and the Data Protection Commission.

While the introduction of GDPR has helped to a degree, Irish companies still need to consider more employee training and best practice around security testing measures.

"We can no longer ignore the emails that tell us to change our password. If a burglar broke into your home and stole your keys, you would make sure to change the locks. Why wouldn’t you treat your online home in the same way?," said Mr Murphy.

Similarly, companies and nations need to realise that the global threat from the accumulation of personal data is very real, and ranges from military grade secrets to personal email logins.

"All that information has been collated and stored. The worrying question is - what is the end game?," he said.


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