Nation states and hacktivists: the rising online threats

Banks and even states are increasingly coming under attack from hackers that aren’t in it for the money but have much grander ambitions. Experts talk about the aspirations of cybercriminals bent on corporate espionage, political activism or causing reputational damage

Online attacks have dominated the headlines in 2012, with activist groups such as Anonymous and Lulzsec swiftly achieving worldwide notoriety.

In the past, online crime was mainly perpetrated by elusive criminal groups eager to make financial gains, but recent months have seen an alarming new trend become apparent: sophisticated high-level attacks without a financial motive by politically motivated non-state organisations – ‘hacktivists’ – and nation states.

In January, the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange in Israel was subject to an online attack by a Saudi hacker group. It followed a string of tit-for-tat attacks between Arab and Israeli hackers over the previous weeks.

A rival Israeli group had published the credit card details of 400 Saudis days before the Tel Aviv attack, in retaliation for 400,000 Israeli credit card details being posted online at the beginning of the month.

The central bank of Lithuania was also hacked into in January in order to interrupt the functioning of its website; a group of Brazilian hackers brought down Banco Bradesco’s online activities later in January; and a Pakistani activist attacked the United Bank of India in March. Financial institutions around the globe are falling victim to attacks on a weekly basis.

The rise in these politically motivated attacks has changed the nature of the threat facing financial institutions. “Traditionally, organised crime – though it has many flaws – is economically rational, so if they’re not making money from an attack, they’ll stop,” points out Stephen Bonner, London-based partner in KPMG’s information protection and business resilience business.

“However, activists will quite often do things that take a lot more time and effort than you get out of it directly in terms of financial returns; activists are willing to put in the extra time because they’re doing it for some other, broader purpose.”

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