Posts Tagged: Richard Clayton


29
May 20

Career Choice Tip: Cybercrime is Mostly Boring

When law enforcement agencies tout their latest cybercriminal arrest, the defendant is often cast as a bravado outlaw engaged in sophisticated, lucrative, even exciting activity. But new research suggests that as cybercrime has become dominated by pay-for-service offerings, the vast majority of day-to-day activity needed to support these enterprises is in fact mind-numbingly boring and tedious, and that highlighting this reality may be a far more effective way to combat cybercrime and steer offenders toward a better path.

Yes, I realize hooded hacker stock photos have become a meme, but that’s the point.

The findings come in a new paper released by researchers at Cambridge University’s Cybercrime Centre, which examined the quality and types of work needed to build, maintain and defend illicit enterprises that make up a large portion of the cybercrime-as-a-service market. In particular, the academics focused on botnets and DDoS-for-hire or “booter” services, the maintenance of underground forums, and malware-as-a-service offerings.

In examining these businesses, the academics stress that the romantic notions of those involved in cybercrime ignore the often mundane, rote aspects of the work that needs to be done to support online illicit economies. The researchers concluded that for many people involved, cybercrime amounts to little more than a boring office job sustaining the infrastructure on which these global markets rely, work that is little different in character from the activity of legitimate system administrators.

Richard Clayton, a co-author of the report and director of Cambridge’s Cybercrime Centre, said the findings suggest policymakers and law enforcement agencies may be doing nobody a favor when they issue aggrandizing press releases that couch their cybercrime investigations as targeting sophisticated actors.

“The way in which everyone looks at cybercrime is they’re all interested in the rockstars and all the exciting stuff,” Clayton told KrebsOnSecurity. “The message put out there is that cybercrime is lucrative and exciting, when for most of the people involved it’s absolutely not the case.”

From the paper:

“We find that as cybercrime has developed into industrialized illicit economies, so too have a range of tedious supportive forms of labor proliferated, much as in mainstream industrialized economies. We argue that cybercrime economies in advanced states of growth have begun to create their own tedious, low-fulfillment jobs, becoming less about charismatic transgression and deviant identity, and more about stability and the management and diffusion of risk. Those who take part in them, the research literature suggests, may well be initially attracted by exciting media portrayals of hackers and technological deviance.”

“However, the kinds of work and practices in which they actually become involved are not reflective of the excitement and exploration which characterized early ‘hacker’ communities, but are more similar to low-level work in drug dealing gangs, involving making petty amounts of money for tedious work in the service of aspirations that they may one day be one of the major players. This creates the same conditions of boredom…which are found in mainstream jobs when the reality emerges that these status and financial goals are as blocked in the illicit economy as they are in the regular job market.”

The researchers drew on interviews with people engaged in such enterprises, case studies on ex- or reformed criminal hackers, and from scraping posts by denizens of underground forums and chat channels. They focused on the activity needed to keep various crime services operating efficiently and free from disruption from interlopers, internecine conflict, law enforcement or competitors.

BOOTER BLUES

For example, running an effective booter service requires a substantial amount of administrative work and maintenance, much of which involves constantly scanning for, commandeering and managing large collections of remote systems that can be used to amplify online attacks.

Booter services (a.k.a. “stressers”) — like many other cybercrime-as-a-service offerings — tend to live or die by their reputation for uptime, effectiveness, treating customers fairly, and for quickly responding to inquiries or concerns from users. As a result, these services typically require substantial investment in staff needed for customer support work (through a ticketing system or a realtime chat service) when issues arise with payments or with clueless customers failing to understand how to use the service.

In one interview with a former administrator of a booter service, the proprietor told researchers he quit and went on with a normal life after getting tired of dealing with customers who took for granted all the grunt work needed to keep the service running. From the interview:

“And after doing [it] for almost a year, I lost all motivation, and really didn’t care anymore. So I just left and went on with life. It wasn’t challenging enough at all. Creating a stresser is easy. Providing the power to run it is the tricky part. And when you have to put all your effort, all your attention. When you have to sit in front of a computer screen and scan, filter, then filter again over 30 amps per 4 hours it gets annoying.”

The researchers note that this burnout is an important feature of customer support work, “which is characterized less by a progressive disengagement with a once-interesting activity, and more by the gradual build-up of boredom and disenchantment, once the low ceiling of social and financial capital which can be gained from this work is reached.” Continue reading →


28
May 20

UK Ad Campaign Seeks to Deter Cybercrime

The United Kingdom’s anti-cybercrime agency is running online ads aimed at young people who search the Web for services that enable computer crimes, specifically trojan horse programs and DDoS-for-hire services. The ad campaign follows a similar initiative launched in late 2017 that academics say measurably dampened demand for such services by explaining that their use to harm others is illegal and can land potential customers in jail.

For example, search in Google for the terms “booter” or “stresser” from a U.K. Internet address, and there’s a good chance you’ll see a paid ad show up on the first page of results warning that using such services to attack others online is illegal. The ads are being paid for by the U.K.’s National Crime Agency, which saw success with a related campaign for six months starting in December 2017.

A Google ad campaign paid for by the U.K.’s National Crime Agency.

NCA Senior Manager David Cox said the agency is targeting its ads to U.K. males age 13 to 22 who are searching for booter services or different types of remote access trojans (RATs), as part of an ongoing effort to help steer young men away from cybercrime and toward using their curiosity and skills for good. The ads link to advertorials and to the U.K.’s Cybersecurity Challenge, which tries gamify computer security concepts and highlight potential careers in cybersecurity roles.

“The fact is, those standing in front of a classroom teaching children have less information about cybercrime than those they’re trying to teach,” Cox said, noting that the campaign is designed to support so-called “knock-and-talk” visits, where investigators visit the homes of young people who’ve downloaded malware or purchased DDoS-for-hire services to warn them away from such activity. “This is all about showing people there are other paths they can take.”

While it may seem obvious to the casual reader that deploying some malware-as-a-service or using a booter to knock someone or something offline can land one in legal hot water, the typical profile of those who frequent these services is young, male, impressionable and participating in online communities of like-minded people in which everyone else is already doing it.

In 2017, the NCA published “Pathways into Cyber Crime,” a report that drew upon interviews conducted with a number of young men who were visited by U.K. law enforcement agents in connection with various cybercrime investigations.

Those findings, which the NCA said came about through knock-and-talk interviews with a number of suspected offenders, found that 61 percent of suspects began engaging in criminal hacking before the age of 16, and that the average age of suspects and arrests of those involved in hacking cases was 17 years old.

The majority of those engaged in, or on the periphery of, cyber crime, told the NCA they became involved via an interest in computer gaming.

A large proportion of offenders began to participate in gaming cheat websites and “modding” forums, and later progressed to criminal hacking forums.

The NCA learned the individuals visited had just a handful of primary motivations in mind, including curiosity, overcoming a challenge, or proving oneself to a larger group of peers. According to the report, a typical offender faces a perfect storm of ill-boding circumstances, including a perceived low risk of getting caught, and a perception that their offenses in general amounted to victimless crimes.

“Law enforcement activity does not act as a deterrent, as individuals consider cyber crime to be low risk,” the NCA report found. “Debrief subjects have stated that they did not consider law enforcement until someone they knew or had heard of was arrested. For deterrence to work, there must be a closing of the gap between offender (or potential offender) with law enforcement agencies functioning as a visible presence for these individuals.”

Cox said the NCA will continue to run the ads indefinitely, and that it is seeking funding from outside sources — including major companies in online gaming industry, whose platforms are perhaps the most targeted by DDoS-for-hire services. He called the program a “great success,” noting that in the past 30 days (13 of which the ads weren’t running for funding reasons), the ads generated some 5.32 million impressions, and more than 57,000 clicks.

FLATTENING THE CURVE

Richard Clayton is director of the University of Cambridge Cybercrime Centre, which has been monitoring DDoS attacks for several years using a variety of sensors across the Internet that pretend to be the types of systems which are typically commandeered and abused to help launch such assaults.

Last year, Clayton and fellow Cambridge researchers published a paper showing that law enforcement interventions — including the NCA’s anti-DDoS ad campaign between 2017 and 2018 — demonstrably slowed the growth in demand for DDoS-for-hire services.

“Our data shows that by running that ad campaign, the NCA managed to flatten out demand for booter services over that period,” Clayton said. “In other words, the demand for these services didn’t grow over the period as we would normally see, and we didn’t see more people doing it at the end of the period than at the beginning. When we showed this to the NCA, they were ever so pleased, because that campaign cost them less than ten thousand [pounds sterling] and it stopped this type of cybercrime from growing for six months.”

The Cambridge study found various interventions by law enforcement officials had measurable effects on the demand for and damage caused by booter and stresser services. Source: Booting the Booters, 2019.

Clayton said part of the problem is that many booter/stresser providers claim they’re offering lawful services, and many of their would-be customers are all too eager to believe this is true. Also, the price point is affordable: A typical booter service will allow customers to launch fairly high-powered DDoS attacks for just a few dollars per month.

“There are legitimate companies that provide these types of services in a legal manner, but there are all types of agreements that have to be in place before this can happen,” Clayton said. “And you don’t get that for ten bucks a month.” Continue reading →