20 Apr 2015

State-level hacking: who’s got your back?

“If you take a rabbit from the hole, you can’t push it back inside”. Delivered with a heavy Russian accent this maxim from Eugene Kaspersky, chief executive of one of the world’s largest anti-virus companies, sounds like a bad line from a crime movie.


But the rabbit he’s referencing in our interview is an analogy for a new breed of high-tech threat: malicious software created at great expense by governments and unleashed online as a method of spying on and disrupting other nations, their industries and politicians.
 Stuxnet (a virus reportedly created by the US which crippled an Iranian nuclear reactor) has been joined by a growing list of exotically-named online nasties including Regin, a virus which hit a Belgian communications company and which some reports claim has been used by GCHQ.
It’s the cutting edge of espionage, but if you think such malicious software (or malware) is the digital equivalent of a precision missile, think again. It’s more like carpet-bombing, with innocent users caught up in the storm.“There are companies that develop commercial malware for Interpol, or for national police forces,” says Kaspersky. “We find these tools, even though they’re made for watching things like drug cartels, we find them on the computers of innocent people who are not in criminal gangs.”Bear in mind these viruses are often designed to take complete control of a computer, giving police and intelligence agencies access to its webcam and microphone. So who’s going to protect you from getting accidentally hit by the cyber spies? No-one, according to Kaspersky.“On cybercrime states co-operate, even though it’s a turbulent geopolitical situation, Russia is talking to the United States, etc, there’s still co-operation to fight cybercrime. When it comes to espionage, forget it”

It’s a bleak outlook, and one that’s starting to cause schisms among the companies who ensure our online safety. Some have reacted by throwing in their lot with one country: some US anti-virus firms, for example, have opted to focus their attention on Russia and Chinese cyber activity.

For the moment, many anti-virus makers are happy to expose spy software whatever the suspected source, even if it hails from the country in which they’re based. But as this type of government-level espionage continues (and morphs into state-sponsored sabotage), it will get progressively harder for such companies to remain on neutral ground, even in the virtual world.

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