The antihero can access everything from the cellphone conversations and medical records of passers-by to computers that control traffic lights.
Once relegated to the shadows of the digital underground, hacking has gone mainstream. Hardly a day goes by without the announcement of a major cybersecurity breach, sometimes conducted by groups, such as Anonymous and LulzSec, that are virtually becoming household names. Hacking has become so prevalent that it has even been allegedly used by major news organizations in the United Kingdom for news gathering. This year alone, there have been a number of high-profile attacks on major companies, such as Sony; international organizations, such as NATO; and even entire governments, as was the case most recently with Syria. Although the major players are becoming more familiar, to many, their methods are as opaque as they've always been. In this slideshow, explore some of the techniques used by hackers to exploit and overcome cybersecurity vulnerabilities.
Eavesdropping and Other Passive Attacks With a passive attack, computer systems and networks are monitored in order for a hacker to gain some information. One technique involves eavesdropping, where a hacker listens in on a network. The point isn't to cause damage to the computer system itself, but to harvest information as it's transmitted. This technique is also known as sniffing or snooping. Eavesdropping is not only a concern for computers, but also mobile devices as they become ubiquitous.
Viruses, Worms and Other Active Attacks Active attacks, such as viruses and trojans, are techniques where a hacker manipulates or deletes data to create the desired result. Computer viruses were first seen in the late 1980s just as home computers were growing more popular. As its name suggests, a virus is a piece of code attached to a seemingly innocuous program and passed between computers. Once inside a system, the virus spreads and can bring down a computer. Like a virus, a Trojan horse is simply a computer program. As the name implies, a Trojan horse fools the user into thinking it's another kind of program, and once installed, releases a malicious code. Another cousin of the virus is the computer worm. Worms burrow into network security holes to pass and install malicious code from user to user. One of the most severe cyber-attacks of all time was through the accidental use of a worm by a graduate student in 1988, who was looking to determine the size of the Internet. Software used for a variety of functions from disrupting a system to gaining access to a network is often called malware. Spyware serves to collect information on users and may or may not be malicious. Not all spyware is malware and vice versa. There are also more niche subcategories of malware, such as ransomware, a term used for an attack meant to scare the user into paying what is essentially a form of blackmail, or scareware, a product falsely sold under the premise that it will protect your computer from outside threats.
Denial of Service A denial of service attack is a technique intended to impede normal operations of a website or network. The basic idea is to overrun a computer or server with requests from outside a network to overwhelm the system's available resources. By flooding the intended target with requests, hackers incapacitate the site. These attacks often employ botnets, also known as zombie computers, which are systems that are taken over, sometimes unknowingly though occasionally voluntarily, by a hacker. This technique was most notably employed by the hacking group known as Anonymous against various websites, including Mastercard, Visa, Paypal and others, in the wake of the controversy surrounding the online whistleblower Wikileaks.
Going In The Back Door Earlier this year, hackers shut down Sony's PlayStation Network and stole the personal information, including some credit card data, from nearly 100 millions users. According to a letter by Sony following a Congressional inquiry into the matter, the company asserted that the heist was the result of two groups of hackers: the first launched a denial of service attack while the second stole the data. Before this series of attacks took place, however, Sony itself was accused of slipping malicious code -- a rootkit -- into one of its firmware updates for the PlayStation 3. A rootkit, also known as a back door, is software that gives a hacker access to a computer or network, often without an administrator's knowledge. Gaming security experts, however, dismissed the rumors as false.
Phishing and Sidejacking Behind almost all secure data both online and off is a username and password. If a hacker can gain user information and crack a password, that attacker can access a network and create, modify or delete data maliciously. Different techniques, however, are used to steal a user's password. One of the most popular methods is known as phishing. It starts when a hacker sends an electronic communication to an unsuspecting user under the illusion that the message is from a trusted institution. The user is duped into supplying his information, which may not only include a username and password but also a social security number and bank account information. Another method, known as sidejacking, session IDs, which can be unencrypted data in a URL or cookie, to gain access to an account. Other automated attacks simply guess passwords using predetermined dictionaries and often exploits systems without lockout policies for successive login failures.
Keylogging Keylogging is a technique that could be used for password cracking, but goes a step further. It allows hackers to monitor every stroke of the key entered by a user, which could include other information besides passwords, such as social security numbers, credit card data and much more.
Spoofing With spoofing attacks, hackers pretend to be a user designated to access a particular system or network by mimicking that person's IP address. Once a hacker is inside the system, that attacker can steal or delete data, or access other resources within a particular network.
Hacker-themed video game "Watch Dogs" makes its hotly anticipated debut on Tuesday in a world grappling with real-life fears about privacy in the Internet era. France-based Ubisoft's new title features a protagonist who controls the world around him by hacking into systems and has generated intense buzz for eerie parallels with the storm about US surveillance.
Games typically use weapons ranging from guns and swords to lasers to special powers to defeat enemies, overcome obstacles or simply score points. But in "Watch Dogs", the player-controlled antihero can access everything from the cellphone conversations and medical records of passers-by to computers which control traffic lights, to advance through the game.
"We knew we had a relevant topic," Canadian Ubisoft developer Dominic Guay told AFP as the game was previewed at the E3 video game trade show last year. "I turned on CNN, and the first sentence I heard was 'invasion of privacy,' switched channels and on Fox they were (talking about) 'surveillance,' and I said to my creative director, 'Those are all our key words.'"
Set in Chicago, the game centers on Aiden Pearce, who uses his smartphone to access the city's Central Operating System, which controls everything from power grids and traffic management technology to bank accounts and phone networks. That kind of hacking evokes the stunning revelations about electronic surveillance by US authorities, revealed by ex-government contractor and whistle-blower Edward Snowden, who is in hiding in Russia.
The documents suggest the US National Security Agency (NSA) has gathered call log records for millions of American phone subscribers and targeted the Internet data of foreign Web users. The debate was also fueled by interest in putting more surveillance cameras on streets in the aftermath of last year's deadly Boston marathon bombings.
Ubisoft said the game, originally set for release last year, has seen strong pre-orders, suggesting it will be a big seller. "The teams have worked tirelessly to ensure that players will enjoy a top quality game with enormous scope, and we can’t wait to get the game into their hands," Ubisoft senior vice president of marketing Tony Key said Friday.
The antihero can access everything from the cellphone conversations and medical records of passers-by to computers that control traffic lights.UbiSoft
Guay said technology is now making it possible to foresee a world not unlike that in British writer George Orwell's novel "1984," in which Big Brother watches and controls everything.
Orwell "had an extreme view of that dystopian world at that time," he said. "I think we're seeing a time where the technology has caught up to his views" where the technology would enable his dystopian world to exist.
In "Watch Dogs," Pearce starts off seeking revenge for a loved one, but as he finds out more about the city, through hacking into its systems and inhabitants, he becomes a "vigilante," according to Montreal-based Guay.
"Most of the hacks that we have in the game are based on stuff that's happened in the real world," Guay said. "We just happened to give them all to a single player."
He pointed out the rise of "smart cities" in which traffic, utilities and other systems are optimized by centralized computing networks. Guay was adamant that the game makes no value judgment on the complex and sensitive issue.
"We're not trying to be moralistic about it," he said. "But we're hoping that players, when they've finished the game, maybe start a conversation," he added.
Versions of "Watch Dogs" have been tailored for play on Sony's new-generation PlayStation 4 and Microsoft's Xbox One as well as the previous generation of those consoles.
The game, priced at $60 in the US, can also be played on computers powered by Windows software.
Ubisoft added the ability for people playing "Watch Dogs" on consoles to take on in-game challenges from friends using a companion application on smartphones or tablets.