Hacking and hackers

"They are here to stay."



That news about the P167 million lost by UCPB reportedly to a hacking syndicate has again shocked an already exhausted public six months cooped out under a nationwide lockdown.

At a time when almost everyone, government included, is grasping at straws scrounging around for funds just to stay in place, this heist is truly disheartening. The culprits have to be brought to justice and the cash, at least whatever is left of it, returned. Having said that, we should put everybody on notice that this UCPB caper will probably not be the last.

No matter how condemnable this incident is, some groups are saying: We told you so. Others are even going to the extent of insinuating that this could not have happened without any insider help. In fact, as the narrative goes, it could have been simply an inside job considering the internal problems rocking UCPB, which has seen its top officials resigning en masse.

In any event, this heist should serve as a wake-up call not only for banks. This is also for regulators, government agencies and other companies doing essential and sensitive services. The incident reminds them to double their efforts in securing their digital systems and devices.

After all, activities that seek to compromise digital devices, even entire systems, for financial or state gains or just plain “gotcha” moments have become such lucrative, even highly sought and developed undertakings in the past few years. Hackers are lurking just around the corner and hacking operations can be activated in no time at all. Indeed, they have become part of everyday life.

What makes these activities dangerous is when these are done in such a brazen and wayward manner as what happened to UCPB which can unhinge the banking system. Or, to companies providing essential goods and services such as those in food manufacturing or in power and utilities which can immobilize entire communities.

Still, the worst and most insidious hacking operations are done to subvert political processes and undermine societies. The controversy over the Russian interference in the 2016 US elections in favor of then-candidate Donald Trump lingers. In fact, it remains a key issue against Trump all over again in the run-up to the November elections, with the Democrats and a number of US security experts insisting that the Russian hackers are back in the incumbent president’s corner. And this time around they are joined by Chinese and Iranian hackers presumably in Democratic challenger Joe Biden’s side given the sanctions imposed and high profile bashing these two countries have been getting from the Trump administration.

In the case of the Russian operations for Trump’s re-election, the reports coming out not just of the security establishment but of Microsoft itself is that Russian military hackers have targeted 200 US organizations (political parties, think tanks, consultants and even the main Democratic fundraising platform) for cyber attacks. Microsoft vice president Tom Burt has been quoted as saying that the initial failed attempt on Biden’s campaign was “...specifically targeted by the Russian hackers via phishing attacks against the campaign’s communications advisors, SKDKnickerbocker...”

The US tech giant advised that this particular Russian hacking group called Strontium is widely known as Fancy Bear or APT28 and is believed to operate out of Russia’s military intelligence agency, GRU. Apparently, these continuing attacks mimic the “sustained hacking and information warfare carried out in the 2016 presidential race in favor of then candidate Trump against his Democratic rival, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s campaign.”

Microsoft has also spotted state-sponsored hackers in China and Iran, targeting individuals involved in both presidential campaigns but more intensely against the Trump organization.

But experts say Moscow is the adversary that worries them the most, given Russia’s lengthy track record.

An expert, John Hultquist, senior executive of the cybersecurity firm FireEye, has raised alarm bells over the Russian hackers noting that while multiple cyber-espionage actors have targeted organizations associated with the upcoming election, the experts are “most concerned with that of the Russian military intelligence unit..which poses the greatest threat to the democratic process.. as this hacking group has been responsible for some of the most provocative and aggressive cyber operations of all time.” 

If these latest hacking attempts on otherwise secure organizations in US soil involve the most hotly contested electoral race in the planet, using as they do the most sophisticated methods available, it is not farfetched to think that the same can be done anywhere at any time and against any perceived adversary. Given such an environment, the security and stability of nations and societies as well as the integrity and standing of companies and institutions of note can indeed be easily undermined by a click of a finger Grabe.

Topics: Jonathan Dela Cruz , Hacking , hackers , UCPB
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