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Cyberattack, hackers, cyberespionage – these words plague headlines all across the globe. But what is actually going on? Most people are aware that their email inbox is where phishing attacks are likely to happen and that they are risking a malware attack if they download a suspect application.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the dark and shady world of the cybercriminal. Have you ever considered the possibility that money stolen from your bank account by a hacker could be being used to fund Kim Jong-un’s regime? Sounds a bit farfetched? Welcome to hacking on a global scale.

The birth of hacking culture

In the 1990s the World Wide Web was made available, and hacking culture was hot on its tail. According to JargonFile, a hacker is “A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and stretching their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary.” Hollywood movies such as The Matrix gave kudos to the skill and interest groups for hacking enthusiasts started to pop up all around the globe. Russia and North Korea, in particular, were quick on the uptake and located the weaknesses of the internet in its early stages. The result is the hacking superpowers that they are today.


In Russia, a magazine called Hacker gained a lot of popularity in the ’90s. The magazine would provide all the information a budding hacker would need to get started, including how-to articles and even access to software. Hackers would send in stories about their activities, whether they were spamming, spreading malware or hacking into banks, to the magazine and very little would be done about it. In fact, Russia’s secret service, the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, would use the magazine to engender a positive relationship with hackers, helping them via a Question & Answer section to determine the difference between what was legal and illegal.

North Korea

North Korea in the ’90s was especially clued into the effect cybercrime could have in this new digital world. The Reconnaissance General Bureau is North Korea’s main intelligence organisation, and they established a system in the ’90s that they still use today. They identify children with an aptitude for maths or engineering and provide them with specialised training. After this initial training, they then either become software engineers or join the government’s cyber army.

The most talented students are sent abroad to universities in Asia to complete their education at a higher level. They then stay abroad to launch cyber attacks on global financial systems and 80% of the hackers’ loot goes straight to the North Korean regime. Although hard facts are hard to come by, experts believe there to be some 3,000 or so North Korean hackers embedded in countries such as China, Kenya and New Zealand.

Cyber attacks today

Russia declaring cyberwarfare

Russia’s primary aim today is to be recognised internationally for being a cyber superpower.

“It was only this year that Vladimir Putin finally captured the American mind, and he owes the feat not to flashy images of Russian missiles and tanks parading through Red Square, but to the quiet actions of people armed with computers.”

– The Moscow Times, Dec 2016

This is a cyber operation with the purpose of letting other countries know not to mess with them. In 2008, during the Russo-Georgian War, Russian hackers committed cyberwarfare, attacking president Mikheil Saakashvili’s website, redirecting Georgian internet traffic, taking control of Georgian internet servers and essentially cutting off Georgia’s ability to communicate with the world.

Russia’s most infamous hacker group, known as Fancy Bear, is believed by cybersecurity experts to be made up of Russian secret service agents who are attributed with hacking the last US election as well as the following cyber attacks:

  • Attacks on prominent journalists in Russia, United States, Ukraine, Moldova, the Baltics, and elsewhere
  • German attack (2014)
  • U.S. military wives’ death threats (February 10, 2015)
  • French television hack (April 2015)
  • Root9B report (May 2015)
  • EFF spoof, White House and NATO attack (August 2015)
  • World Anti-Doping Agency (August 2016)
  • Dutch Safety Board and Bellingcat
  • Democratic National Committee (2016)
  • Ukrainian artillery
  • Windows zero-day (October 2016)
  • Dutch ministries (February 2017)
  • IAAF hack (February 2017)
  • German and French elections (2016–2017)
  • International Olympic Committee (2018)
  • Swedish Sports Confederation
  • United States conservative groups (2018)
  • The Ecumenical Patriarchate and other clergy (August 2018)

source: Wikipedia, August 2018

This year, Microsoft has already detected evidence of Fancy Bear attempting to hack America’s mid-term elections. The method of choice this time is phishing attacks targeting specific candidates, which harps back to the cyber attacks during the 2016 election campaigns.

“All wars in future years will be computer wars” – Kim Jong-il

North Korea’s goal is monetary based. Their cyberattacks largely consist of credit card fraud, hacking into online casinos and bank heists. According to North Korean hacker testaments, it is clear that in the past their operations were inferior, with low-skilled coders working simply to survive in dingy warehouses occupied by men sleeping in cots and posters of Kim-Jong-un hanging on the walls. But recent movements from North Korea suggest more proficient hackers are steering the latest cyber attacks.

North Korea has been perfecting its training regime over time and it now seems to be, literally, paying off. Their coding abilities have dramatically improved, allowing malicious code to lie undetected by cybersecurity software, and they have the capabilities to notice vulnerabilities in systems within a matter of days. They are even constructing the code so that it appears as though other countries committed the attack. Banks are still their primary target, as well as point-of-sale systems.

While criminal hackers, as well as legitimate software engineers, hone their skills all around the globe, it can feel as though the modern business is always playing catch-up. But sophisticated enterprise-grade IT security combined with user training and robust security policies can immensely lower the risk of being the victim of a severe cyber attack. With the right cybersecurity provider on your side, you can rest assured your business assets are protected.

Worried your enterprise’s IT security isn’t up to scratch? At Unity, we provide managed IT security services tailored to your specific needs. Get in contact with us today to discuss your options!