By Thomas Claburn
December 20, 2007
Most people involved in computer crimes are nameless and faceless to the
organizations they attack, with the obvious exception of insiders. A few
become known as a consequence of getting caught.
There's Adam Sweaney, 27, of Tacoma, Wash., who pleaded guilty in
September to running a botnet. There's Azizbek Takhirovich Mamadjanov,
21, a Florida resident who was sentenced to 24 months in prison for a
phishing scheme that led to millions of dollars in losses for a
financial institution in the Midwest. There's Jason Michael Downey, 24,
of Dry Ridge, Ky., sentenced in October to 12 months in prison for
operating a botnet.
What's notable about these young men and other cybercriminals isn't so
much their identities as their community. "I don't think the hacker is a
loner anymore," said Don Jackson, senior security researcher at
SecureWorks. "People that author malware feel like they have their own
community now, their own social circles. They have their own social
In contrast to people like Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, who
schemed in isolation to blow people up, cybercriminals today have plenty
of support for their attacks and scams. They can buy automated attack
kits or information about undiscovered exploits. They can rent botnets
-- groups of compromised computers -- to spam, steal personal data, or
conduct denial-of-service attacks. Their questions about breaking into
other people's computers can be answered through IRC chats or Web
forums. They're part of a thriving underground economy that's expected
to grow in 2008.
And as cybercrime becomes an even bigger business, the profile of the
cybercriminals is broadening beyond young men with computer skills.
Jackson said that cybercriminals still appear to be predominantly male,
"but we see a lot more women and girls involved in hacking."
One explanation for that may be that malicious hacking in the name of
nationalism is tolerated, or even encouraged, in some parts of the
world. It's socially acceptable.
"I've been really amazed at the way people defend their actions,"
Jackson said. "I've had people argue that it's not a bad thing."
Jackson recounted an article he'd had translated from a small-town
Russian newspaper that lauded two local hackers for sticking it to
"those Capitalists." Russian nationalism appears to be the motivation
behind the massive distributed denial-of-service attack that hit Estonia
in April. Attacks traced to China are also often attributed to
nationalism. But more often than not, the real motivation is money.
Dave Marcus, security research and communications manager at McAfee
Avert Labs, said that before 2000, the profile of the hacker was
different, more "the pimply kid in the basement." Today, there's more
professionalism, he said, because there's money in hacking in many
While Marcus couldn't say whether more women were getting involved in
criminal hacking, he did note that those in the security field tended to
be exceptionally talented. "Most of the women in security and malware
tend to have a lot higher skills than the guys do," he said. "They're
considered much more elite."
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