Thursday, October 22, 2015

Hacking a Hack

I joined America On-line in 1995. My account “name” was a series of numbers – you couldn’t personalize yet. I had a whole series of local phone numbers that the modem would try to connect to. After busy signals, the worst thing was the dreaded blue progress bar. The best thing was “You’ve Got Mail” calling out to you when you were connected. When spamming began a few years later I would naively reply back to each email with a polite “no thank you” or “remove.” Today my various accounts attract some 1,000 spams a week. AOL was responsible for moving the United States forward onto the information superhighway - at one point in the late 1990's half of all American's on the Internet came via AOL. The company was part of the largest merger in American history that nearly toppled and destroyed its acquirer/partner Time Warner. A variety of sales have occurred since then, the latest being Verizon buying the company in May 2015 for $4.4 billion. Today 2.1 million Americans continue to access the World Wide Web via AOL’s dial-up service even though using one’s phone actually connects to sites faster. Several of those users were embarrassed this week (10/20/15) with not only having an AOL account, but the disclosure that their accounts had been hacked.

CBS reports: “The personal emails of two of the highest-ranking national security officials have been hacked. CIA Director John Brennan and Homeland Security Secretary Jay Johnson.” Late night comedians, radio show hosts, pundits and bloggers have run amuck with the rich irony that the leaders of two such important government security institutions have themselves been victimized. It’s like the landscape architect who has brown grass and rocks in their garden or the financier who’s in bankruptcy. The irony is amusing.

IBM has reported that in 2015 there have been more than 600 data breaches and the average cost of a breach is $3.8 million. So there is a direct cost of $2.2 billion to the economy in a partial year. The study further identified that in 2014 25.33% of the attacks were on finance and insurance. Retail “took a hammering” with a 30% increase in attacks.

Willie Sutton, the original ‘slick Willie’ and famous bank robber was asked by reporter Mitch Ohnstad why he robbed banks. According to Ohnstad, he replied, "Because that's where the money is." He later claimed the story was made up by the reporter, but the simplicity and humor of the answer is as true for today’s hackers. It’s where the money is.

In the hack of the emails of the CIA and Homeland Security chiefs the perpetrator, claiming to be a high school student, tweeted: "We are not doing this for personal satisfaction, we are doing this because innocent people in Palestine are being killed daily.” Then, taunting officials the hacker asked: “Anyone know who we should target next?!” On CNN the allegedhacker said he was “probably high” when he did it. Newsflash: A high teenager breaches American Online’s email system.

In the 1990’s I learned the hard way what spam mail was. My defense of that naivete is that I wasn’t alone and the entire world learned at the same time. Two decades later you’d think that the leading security experts for the United States would have a more secure way of handing personal emails than AOL. I don’t know which is the bigger bunch of hacks – the guys who breached their privacy or the schmucks running the CIA and Homeland Security with their accounts on outdated technology.

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