Tyee Books

Beware the Internet Underworld

Cyberthieves and deviant hackers abound in Misha Glenny's grim portrait of organized crime online.

By Tom Sandborn 24 Nov 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Tom Sandborn covers labour and health policy beats for The Tyee. He welcomes feedback and story tips here.

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Inside the secret life of your home computer.

Fair warning: Read Misha Glenny's remarkable new book on cybercrime and you will never again be entirely comfortable facing a computer screen.

Glenny, a veteran war correspondent, Balkan expert, and author of McMafia -- an impressive 2008 study of what the end of the century and the Cold War did to create new and global forms of organized crime -- has moved on to exploring the dark side of the Internet, focusing on cybercrime, cyber espionage (both state sponsored and corporate) and cyber war.

In a world where an estimated 65 per cent of computer users are eventually victim to some form of cybercrime, Glenny's fact-based thriller takes a compelling, sobering look at the Internet as a kind of 21st century Hell's Kitchen, a festering, uncharted cyber-domain so riddled with crime and covert war operations that no one is safe -- even if one does have the good sense to delete email offers of multimillion dollar bank transfers from Nigerian civil servants, and ads for the implausible expansion of intimate body parts.

Identity theft, credit card fraud and electronic bank robbery are only some of the dangers the naive computer owner faces every day. Online, corporations watch their proprietary information bled out to competitors. Indeed, the gunboat diplomacy of the 19th century has been upgraded to feature massive cyber attacks on enemy computers, like those launched by the Russian government against Estonia in 2007 and Georgia in 2008.

Glenny paces his richly researched account like a thriller, taking us deep into a world where criminal conspiracies can exist entirely on the Web, involving cyber accomplices spread out from the Ukraine to the U.K., from Germany to Turkey and from Cyprus to California.

This is the Phantom Kingdom of the Geeks, where socially inept computer nerds can transform their talent for writing computer code into fortune, by hacking into secure data banks or designing and building diabolical hardware like the "skimmers" that fit into ATMs and steal key data from credit cards.

It is a world of true crime adventure that rivals anything imagined by William Gibson, the Vancouver-based science fiction genius who invented the cyberpunk genre with 1984's Neuromancer.

A market for cyberthieves

The Dark Market of Glenny's title was a website, a thieves' market that flourished from 2005 to 2008. It was a kind of cyber bazaar where hackers could buy and sell credit card information, custom-built viruses and worms (programs designed to damage or loot computers they enter -- sometimes known as "malware") and felonious equipment, like skimmers.

In its heydey, Dark Market was a cyber campus for illegal computer studies, a place to buy and sell loot, and a secure site where the hacker kings could meet other anonymous pirates of cyber space, polish their online personas (complete with colorful and typographically odd pseudonyms like Iceman, JilLsi, and Cha0) and boast about their exploits.

There was only one small flaw; one of the key figures in the Dark Market cabal, Master Splynter, was actually FBI agent Keith Mularski, who managed to infiltrate the site and for some time functioned as one of its trusted leadership figures -- a kind of Donnie Brasco in cyberspace. Mularski is one of the heroic figures in Glenny's book, along with Turkish cybercop Bilal Sen.

Glenny also traveled the world to interview many of the master hackers associated with Dark Market and other cybercrime sites and heists, and he makes these shadowy villains of cyberspace come alive as fascinating, complex characters worthy of Dostoyevsky.

When war goes online

The result is a book more exciting than The Godfather and more informative than Wikipedia. Glenny not only tells the tale of Dark Market's rise and fall, he sketches in the history of earlier crime resources online, like CarderPlanet. He provides just enough disturbing information about the emerging realities of online warfare and subversion to suggest that we have entered a new era of international relations, one in which the pen may not be mightier than the sword, but where the keyboard and high speed connection can do more damage than a dive bomber or an infantry brigade.

Take Stuxnet, for example -- the super virus developed by Israel, probably with American assistance. The virus, introduced last year into the computer systems that control Iran's nuclear labs, was custom designed to disable the centrifuges necessary for the production of high grade nuclear material. Glenny cites its creation as a significant moment in the evolution of cyber war, one that could have led to a nuclear explosion. (In an interesting intersection of high-tech cyber warfare with old-fashioned spy tradecraft, Stuxnet had to be hand-loaded into the Iranian system by an agent or dupe who managed to obtain physical access to the system, which is not connected to the Internet.)

In a recent interview with TV pundit Charlie Rose, Glenny said the Iranians are not the only ones who have seen their military hardware or infrastructure subject to cyber infection. When Israel bombed a suspected nuclear site in Syria in 2007, a computer virus that disrupted the Syrian air defenses played a key role in the success of the Israeli raid.

American bomber drones have also been found to be infected with computer viruses, as has much of the American electrical power network, which Glenny said is laced with currently-inactive Chinese "sleeper viruses" that could potentially be activated to damage the entire North American power distribution system.

The secret life of your home computer

One of the most disturbing revelations of the book, at least for this reviewer, is the way cyber criminals can use their custom-designed virus programs to colonize an otherwise innocent home or office computer, turning it into an element in a "bot net" of surreptitiously-colonized computers that figure in multimillion unit spam distributions, or attacks on company or government computers.

Not all cybercrime is committed in the service of profit or national interests. Although Glenny does not address this phenomenon, cyber anarchists like the Anonymous collective can use the methodology of sites like Dark Market to shut down the systems of corporations or governments (and have recently threatened to make the city of Toronto disappear from the web if the Occupy Toronto organization is attacked by police!)

Although Glenny's book is bound to make computer users who read it uneasy, it is required reading for anyone who wants to understand what's going on in the world today. Full of unsettling facts, and prompting well-founded anxieties that your home computer has a secret life as part of a criminal bot net, DarkMarket works both as a thrilling read and as a primer for cyber self-defense. Highly recommended.  [Tyee]

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