Software Development

Malicious hackers and their victims

What motivates an attack? Who are the players? How can you reduce your risk? While the questions are clear, the answers are elusive. This article hopes to serve as an introduction to the world of hackers and their intended victims.

The Cast and Crew

Taken as a whole, the hacking spectrum encompasses everyone from the truly brilliant to the truly inept. A relatively few numbers of individuals are capable of defeating virtually any protective measure out there. These people do not make headlines, they do not frequent police line-ups or courtrooms, and you will likely never know it even if you do encounter one of them. Take comfort in the fact that these are not the people defacing websites or destroying systems due to malice or a lack of skill.

In the middle, we find the rank and file of the hacking ethos. This category encompasses security professionals as well as security enthusiasts. Skill levels will vary greatly within the ranks, as will ethical slants. Here you will find philosophy, morals, and ethics come into play. People may identify themselves as Black Hat, White Hat, or Gray Hat hackers indicating their ethical leanings towards the art of hacking. Targets will typically be chosen with care and reason. The results of the attack may go unnoticed for long periods of time, of the effect may be immediate and devastating depending on the desired result.

At the bottom of the spectrum, we have enthusiastic beginners. Say what you will, but this is the group that gets the most attention from the media and they deserve your attention. They are brash, loud, and oft-times clumsy in their endeavors. They get noticed, they go to jail, and they do damage. Attacks tend to be the kind that gets attention, such as website defacements. Skill levels will vary, but most people starting out do so with methods based on the work of others such as scripted attacks that are readily available on the net.

Likely Targets

Becoming the victim of an attack can as happenstance as a lightning strike or as focused as a moon landing. You may or may not have drawn the attention to yourself, just as you may not have even been the primary target. Attacks may be initiated to garner attention, information, or power. In the cases of website defacement, the motive could be an embarrassment, bragging rights, political, or completely random. Attacks can be focused on nothing more than acquiring greater amounts of bandwidth or accounts from which to launch further attacks. Information-related hacks are typically focused on gaining corporate knowledge, customer information, and proprietary assets. Resource attacks are usually personal. DDOS attacks gain the attacker nothing but can put your business on hold.

Risk Reduction

Unfortunately, you can not control who is going to take an unwanted interest in your information assets. The attack motive can be triggered by a bewildering array of factors, from someone simply taking offense to your website, to someone actively opposed to your corporate ventures. Some reasonable steps you can take include:

1. Target hardening: lockdown your operating systems and utilize a layered defense including both host-based and network-based firewalls and intrusion detection systems. Isolate internet-connected systems from your production network, and stay up to date on threats to your platform by keeping abreast of vendor alerts. In short, make the target as unattractive as your budget allows and avoid trust relationships between internet-facing systems and production networks.
2. Budget for defense: this should go without saying, but if you do not have the monetary and human resources to adequately protect your systems, get them off of the net. You do not want to be an internet stepping stone en route to a serious attack on someone else's network.
3. Be a decent netizen: seriously, people think this bit of advice is silly but it does have merit. Sites are often attacked for what amounts to nothing more than irritating the wrong person. Someone has a bad day, visits your site, and gets bombarded with pop-up ads and bad animations. Game on, there are people who will try to take you out for nothing more than this. You must understand, too many people you are nothing more than an uninvited corporate interloper on their playground! Try to play nice on the net, the rampant commercialization of what started as a means to communicate really does irritate some people to the point of launching an attack.
4. Be prepared: when it comes down to it, all systems are potentially vulnerable. Many people consider internet-connected systems as sacrificial hosts, and rightly so. Make sure you have tested backups and a plan in place to deal with a total system compromise. Business continuity plans should detail your plan of recovery from a successful attack. You should have plans in place to deal with the publicity of such an event, documentation in place allows for the quick recovery of affected systems, etc. Finally, be prepared to learn from such an event so you can take steps to prevent it in the future.


If you are the unfortunate victim of an attack, the first thing you will want to do is get back on your feet. Planning and documentation are your best friends here. You will want to preserve evidence if you intend to pursue legal options, and you certainly will want to close the hole that allowed the attacker in. Having a well documented and tested recovery plan will save you time, money, and frustration. Take the time to get your shop in order now and your efforts will pay dividends when, not if, the time comes.

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