Hack Back - When A Cyber Attack Victim Turns 'Digital Vigilante'

German authorities, like their counterparts elsewhere, have proven unable to protect certain businesses and individuals from cyber crimes. Now, more and more are taking digital justice into their own hands.

In our hands? (arkangel)
In our hands? (arkangel)
Ulrich Clauß

BERLIN - What with malware able to easily cancel out whatever security measures are in place on a computer, the cyber-crime phenomenon is in full developmental swing.

That's the word from a new report on the dark side of the information technology revolution in the current issue of "Bundeslagebild Cybercrime," published by Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office. Meanwhile, the UK's domestic intelligence service MI-5 says Internet crimes have now reached "industrial-scale" proportions.

What we know is that cyber attacks are aimed at both businesses and governments; they threaten both public and private sector data; and research and academic facilities are hardly spared. "The extent of what is going on is astonishing," says MI-5 head Jonathan Evans.

This, of course, only pertains to the attacks the police know about. Internet security experts estimate cyber crime levels are much higher. Businesses in particular are known to be reluctant to divulge what they may have experienced, in order to protect their image.

But silence is not just a question of image. The fact is that in no other area are the forces of law and order as helpless as they are when dealing with cyber crime. According to most experts, the discrepancy between the technical know-how and equipment of the perps and that of the cops is vast – and the bad guys have the upper hand.

"In what is often called "cyber war" but should be called "cyber crime," the forces of order are not as well equipped as the attackers," says IT expert Max Mühlhäuser, who heads the Telecooperation Lab at Darmstadt's Technical University. "And the growing professionalism of attackers means that action is urgently needed."

In Germany, since it has become publically known that the police couldn't even manage the "Bundestrojaner" – the "federal Trojan" spyware allegedly used by the government to access the computers of suspects in criminal investigations -- without the help of outside service providers, more and more have begun to circumvent the authorities and take on cyber-thieves directly.

Cyberwar researcher Sandro Gaycken, of the Institute for Computer Science at Berlin's Freie Universität, confirms that "digital vigilantism" is the new trend, particularly in sectors strongly affected by efficient cybercriminals such as the financial industry, development companies, and research groups. In those areas, the amount of manipulation and spying is "frightening," he says -- "and absolutely nobody is going to go public when something like that happens to them."

The tendency is to deal with it in-house, says Gaycken. "They don't involve the police. They build up their own unit, or hire outside help. And the new hype with those guys is hitting back. Attacking the attacker."

Data trap

One such "Enterprise Strikes Back" service provider is CrowdStrike, a California company that describes itself as "the stealth-mode security start-up." It provides companies with "hack back" solutions to fight private wars on the web, and minces no words when it comes to criticizing the kinds of security strategies used until now to fight cyber attacks.

"The industry's mistake was to focus on the tools the attackers were using," says Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder and Chief Technical Officer, who espouses a kind of hand-to-hand combat strategy. "You have to concentrate on the attacker himself, not on the weapon used but on the tactics."

Shawn Henry, a former cybercrime specialist with the FBI and now president of CrowdStrike Services, puts it this way: "We don't only put out the fires, we light them too." Its range of hack-back services is wide, and includes everything from figuring out how to dodge attacks all the way to ruining the attacker financially.

For example, CrowdStrike can set up a data trap that will lure attackers into believing they have hit on something of value although it is actually worthless data that can't be copied. But it will keep the attackers busy for a while, and waste a lot of their time. There are also very clever ways of ascertaining attacker identity and sending disinformation or malware to their computer.

Not surprisingly, no company has thus far publicly admitted to using these or other hack-back tactics – attacking IT systems, even in counter-attack, is after all illegal in most Western countries. In Germany, Paragraph 202 (known as the Hacker Paragraph) of the Criminal Code outlines the acts relating to data espionage and phishing that are punishable with imprisonment or a fine.

According to those familiar with the sector, that doesn't stop many companies from using these methods against cyber attackers, particularly as frustration is growing among enterprises that realize how much is at stake, and that legal methods simply do not work.

"One of the reasons for using illegal means is that the state just isn't efficient. The prosecutors aren't good enough, partly because they have cheap, ineffective tools to work with. Investigators need more means, and more highly qualified people, to be able to work in a more targeted fashion," says computer scientist Gaycken.

Another problem is that states are bound to their own laws and territoriality – a factor that limits their radius of action. "From that perspective, vigilantism could seem justified. It's that way with self-defense: if the state is not there, and I'm attacked, I can hit back." But that's only part of the story, Gaycken believes. Investigations hampered by data protection legislation and national borders often appear cumbersome and indeed unnecessary to companies that have been attacked.

The latest cyberwar developments have only strengthened the aggressive self-help trend. The discovery that worms like Flame, Stuxnet and Duqu had been working away, sometimes for many years, in computer systems - including the uranium enrichment centrifuges of the Iranian nuclear program - was a massive defeat for the computer virus protection industry.

For Mikko Hypponen, the founder of F-Secure, a security firm, Flame malware marks nothing less than the "failure of the antivirus industry," and as such a turning point in IT security.

US and France have more leeway

Neither the German Minister of the Interior nor the Federal Office for Information Security Technology (BSI), which are responsible for security across the web in Germany as well as for government computers, had any comments on these latest developments. Paired with the trend towards vigilantism, however, the issue begs answers, particularly as it touches not only on the law but also civil rights. The bottom line is that the state has a monopoly on the use of force.

Says IT expert Mühlhäuser: "My impression from a number of indicators is that the German federal government sees defending the German economy against cybercrime and cyber-intelligence as far less important a sovereign function than, for example, the United States or France do," he said.

Mühlhäuser notes that both those countries have legitimized state-organized economic espionage in the past in the interests of keeping their own economies in good shape. But in Germany, for lack of effective enforcement, more and more businesses and institutions have no choice but to take matters into their own hands. Time will tell whether this will bring a measured, practical response, or if people will come out with all guns blazing, Wild West style.

Read the original article in German.

Photo - arkangel

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport


Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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