Sophisticated and coordinated attacks can take down websites of some of the largest organisations in the world. From the infamous ‘Anonymous’ group to North Korea’s widely feared army of hackers, cyber warfare has become a recurring phenomenon. Such attacks don’t always target governments and organisations. In fact, in most cases, they are aimed at the average web surfer, people like you and me.
What started with emails from a Nigerian Prince, asking for help and some money for which you will be rewarded, has escalated into a full-fledged industry involved in crimes ranging from identity and data theft to industrial and other forms of espionage. Engin Kerda, a professor at the Northeastern University and cyber security expert, carried out extensive research and analysed targeted attacks on Non-Governmental Organisations like the World Uyghur Congress (WUC). What he learnt was startling. The research team found that they repeatedly encountered ‘zero-day malware’ i.e. malware that hadn’t been seen before.
A multi-billion dollar industry, involving hackers bankrolled by the richest and hired by the most powerful countries is threatening to take away our online safety. Data theft has become commonplace, but the most worrying bit is that even experts don’t always see it happening. Even the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal needed a whistle-blower to tell the World what was going on. In the absence of such benevolent men, when even experts are left bewildered by continuously evolving malware, our security and that of everyone on the internet, is being compromised.
Our search history and browsing data, worth millions, is being stolen and then sold to large corporations. So, the next time you think you ‘coincidentally’ spotted a targeted advertisement for something you were looking for, think again. These ads are shown to you by algorithms, designed to select ads deemed relevant to you based on your browsing patterns, a blatant invasion of your privacy.
Professor Kirda acknowledged that his research was merely a beginning and wouldn’t solve anything in isolation. Instead, he saw it as a first step, an attempt to understand the nature of the problem before we can even hope to counter it.