The Hacker Psyche: Decrypting the Mystery

Government and private organizations are waking up to the gravity of cyber threats and expanding their security budgets. It’s becoming clear that to stay safe from malicious threats and hackers, it is important to understand how and why such attacks are planned.

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In the most cyber attack incidents, hackers show a fearless attitude and an utter contempt for law, as revealed in a recent report by Thycotic, a password protection software company. According to the report, 86 percent hackers think that they will never get caught. Two reasons behind this belief could be slack laws and their confidence in their skills.

This finding has been witnessed in a number of cases. Christopher Weatherhead, a young hacker, when caught in January 2013 for unleashing DDoS attacks on PayPal, Visa, and MasterCard, was surprised because he was certainly not prepared for it.

The other interesting outcome of the survey was the motive behind such attacks. Surprisingly, only 18 percent of them said that they do it primarily for money.

While one percent of them look for notoriety, most of them do it just for the fun part. Also, close to 29 percent of hackers called themselves ‘hacktivists’ working to reveal the hidden truth.

One of such ‘hactivism’ acts involved breaking into the St. Louis County Police systems to reveal the hidden tapes containing the details of the killing of an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown.

In an interview with CNET, Jonathan Cogley, CEO and founder of Thycotic, stated that the numbers clearly reveal that these hackers don’t agree with the notion that they are hurting anyone. They believe that if they don’t profit from the attack, they are not guilty. Also, when caught, most of them claim that they did it out of curiosity.

The good old hacking methods of spoofing and phishing still seem to be one of their favorite, as accepted by 99 percent of respondents. A recent report by Kaspersky confirms this finding.

According to Cogley, most hackers don’t resort to complicated tools for basic attacks and are happy using the old methods that were used a decade ago.

When questioned about the type of employees targeted in an attack, about 40 percent of hackers opted for a contractor account to extract the company’s login credentials. Most contractors enjoy unlimited access to sensitive documents, as we have seen in the case of Edward Snowden, an NSA contractor.

IT administrators are also high on the susceptibility list, as 30 percent of the respondents accepted that they would crack the username and password of an IT administrator to gain access to the company database. This would give them control over all privileged accounts.

Another significant finding shows the rising distrust among the hacker community. About 88 percent of respondents said that their own data is at risk from the other hackers.

As the IT industry moves forward, cyber attacks become more complicated and well-planned. From ‘hacktivists’ working to reveal the hidden information for the public good to notorious attackers behind the hacking of major websites including Neiman Marcus and Target, all sorts of hackers have managed to make the headlines.

Cogley furthers adds that while the hackers’ purpose behind their act can be confusing at times, most attacks cause irreparable damage to government and private organizations. He believes that cyber security companies must try to understand the hacker’s psychology to set up adequate security features. A lot of thinking must go into encrypting and protection of all the login details and passwords. With the IT administrators and contractors being the biggest targets for hackers, the security of their systems must be given special attention.

Thycotic shares some key points to be kept in mind to avoid hacking incidents:

1. Uncompromised Privileged Access – It is important to strengthen the security of privileged accounts such as those of IT administrators and contractors. Passwords should be changed after every contract, and there should be a specific time frame in which the contractor can access the system. After that, the current password should expire.

2. Frequent Changes in System Password – In most cases, system level passwords are used to protect the most crucial data in databases, service accounts, and servers. The passwords for these accounts must be changed frequently.

3. Vault Protected Credentials – Careless practices such as storing the login credentials in an easily accessible excel file is a bad practice. Instead, organizations should encrypt the network’s database or store the login credentials of important accounts in a physical vault that is inaccessible to unsecured entities.

The survey was conducted at Black Hat 2014, and 127 self-identified hackers took part in the study at the condition of anonymity.