The New Amateur Hackers: How professional hackers are enabling a new wave of novices

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A few years ago, I helped respond to a ransomware attack on a hospital. It wasn’t the intended target of the amateur hackers responsible, but when they tried to undo the damage they caused, their decryption tool didn’t work – instead of unlocking the data, it was destroyed. Amateurs can wreak just as much havoc as professional hackers, whether accidentally or on purpose.

Hacking was once a hobby, but now it is 6 trillion dollar industry. A growing portion of this business sells cybercrime-as-a-service (CaaS) suites that offer hacking tools, ransomware, stolen credentials, and even inside information. As with any ecosystem, it’s not only the hackers who make profits, but also the teams who build and update these tools and services.

Just as reputable software developers thrive by creating user-friendly programs and providing regular updates and user support, so do the bad guys. This professionalization of hacking and the dark web has started a new cycle and enabled a new wave of amateur hackers who can disrupt businesses without deep technical knowledge. Just as word processors supported amateur writers and blogging software gave citizen journalists an easy route to publication, these tools make illegal hacking easy, cheap, and accessible.

Suppose hacking is available to anyone to “try”. When this happens, every business is at risk of attack, whether it’s from someone trying to make some money off of ransomware, or even as a testing ground for a new breed of “script kiddies” to play with their new souped-up pro kits too hack and ignore the consequences.

The Rise of Hackers.Inc

In many ways, CaaS is identical to the legitimate technology industry. It operates across multiple industries, has both B2B and B2C offerings, and has dedicated product teams ready to help destroy industries upon request.

This new industry has matured into a software-as-a-service model and has learned from legitimate predecessors. One example is Darkside, which promises guaranteed turnaround times, offers real-time chat support, creates press releases, and even includes a corporate social responsibility statement that promises not to target certain locations. In 2021 she gave one Explanation after being accused of shutting down a vital US fuel pipeline with ransomware – it looked like a press release from a legitimate company. Darkside and its competitors value brand reputation as much as profits.

Who are the amateur hackers?

Amateur hackers fall into different groups. Some are already involved in criminal activities. Many criminal gangs are undergoing their own digital transformation, shifting from dangerous hands-on activities to ones that can be carried out at a distance. This virtualization has also allowed criminals to expand their targets globally, evade foreign jurisdiction and be safe from extradition agreements. CaaS means that it is possible to make this switch without any technical background.

Another group are the script kiddies, a term used by the cybersecurity community to mock amateur hackers who don’t write their own programs. They are often assumed to be teenagers, they can be any age, but what they have in common is their use of kits, scripts and disregard for the consequences of their actions.

The professionalization of these services means amateur hackers may be able to launch attacks with the same level of sophistication as some Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) groups. This is a big problem for security teams because they don’t know how to assess the threat level of an attack. Is it a random attack by someone testing a kit in their bedroom, or part of an elaborate ongoing campaign using multiple zero-day vulnerabilities?

Because they often don’t fully understand the consequences of their actions, script kiddies can be incredibly dangerous when testing tools for everything from small businesses to critical national infrastructure. However, their naivety and curiosity also makes them easier to catch.

Now everyone is a target

This new democratization of hacking tools means no business is safe anymore. The high cost of hacking — sophisticated tools, expertise, and the risk of being caught — meant only high-value targets were likely to fall victim.

Reducing costs and lowering barriers to entry means almost anyone with access to the dark web can deploy dangerous malware without the cost. earlier this year, Kaspersky discovered a trojan designed to steal credentials that cost as little as $40. Deploying this type of threat required a high level of technical sophistication. No longer.

Now that every business is a target, thinking you’re too small to matter to hackers isn’t an option.

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