Hacking Horizons: The Unfolding Evolution of Cybercrime
In present-day terminology, and particularly in the media, the word hacking has taken on numerous meanings, from a person who enjoys learning the details of computer systems and how to fully exploit their capabilities to a malicious individual who tries to discover information by using illegal means. Cybercrime’s evolution can be easily traced and coincides with the evolution of the Internet itself. The Internet provides a rich environment for criminals, ranging from fraud to human trafficking to intellectual property theft.
The Early Years
The roots of cybercrime are in telecommunications, more specifically in "phone phreaking". This kind of cybercrime peaked in the 1970s and it describes people who exploit the frequency and hardware vulnerabilities of telephone signaling. Penetrating telecommunication systems was not (and is not) illegal in and of itself, but exploiting this technique to get cheaper phone rates is illegal. As landline networks became more security robust, phone phreaking became less and less common.
The time computer security turned real was on November 2, 1988. That night, a malicious virus, called “Morris Worm”, was propagating at an extraordinary speed on the Internet. This worm altered the way people understood networks and the Internet changed forever. It was one of the first digital worms distributed on the Internet and the first to receive high attention. This type of self-replicating program was launched by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) and quickly transformed itself into the world’s first big-scale Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attack. Systems globally were overwhelmed, and around 10 percent of the world’s computers malfunctioned. Apart from privately owned computers, the worm took down computer servers in hospitals, government facilities, military bases, and many others. The actual damages were difficult to calculate, but it is estimated that the episode resulted in multi-million-dollar losses.
The 90s to 2000s
Although there was cybercrime at the start of the Internet’s creation, the first big wave of cybercrime came with phishing emails in the 1990s. Phishing is a type of social engineering attack (the practice of fooling people to obtain valuable information). Phishing has made it very easy to send numerous scams and viruses to people’s email inboxes. Phishing emails frequently mimic a reliable source, such as an ISP or a telecommunications company (National Cyber Security Center, 2019). To deceive the user, they frequently employ similar-appearing visuals, email accounts, identities, and fake websites. Criminals send this kind of email to steal passwords and bank account numbers, or to infect systems with viruses and malicious software.
Cybercrime was no longer dominated at the turn of the century by hackers who broke into computers for attention or amusement. The expansion of the digital economy has drastically altered the criminal environment. Criminal organizations introduced a professional element into the world of cybercrime. Cybercrime had become so popular that well-organized gangs of criminals started collaborating to pull off massive heists over the Internet (Heussner, 2011). Below are some forms of cybercrime which appeared at the beginning of the 21st century and still exist today.
Cyber extortion: This type of cybercrime occurs when threat actors steal and hold electronic files of an individual or a business until a demanded ransom is paid. Cyber extortion includes actions such as Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attacks, ransomware, email campaigns, and many others.
Attacks against critical infrastructures: Commonly attacked critical infrastructures include the water, energy, supply, and health sectors. Transportation, public sector services, and telecommunications are also, to a great extent, vulnerable. Such attacks draw the attention of several law enforcement agencies and pose an exaggerated risk.
Cyber-terrorism: There has been a great deal of concern over the possible threat that cyberterrorism poses. Many cybersecurity professionals, organisations, and politicians have made public statements expressing their concern about terrorists hacking into public and private computer networks. Cyber-terrorism has the capability to cause severe damage to any country’s military, financial, and service sectors.
Online Human Trafficking: This kind of cybercrime is a serious and highly growing problem. Digital technology and the Internet are fuelling a worldwide growth in human trafficking and modern slavery. The Internet provides traffickers with enormous potential to seek out and groom vulnerable individuals. Sexual perpetrators can scan the Internet to find marginalized people.
Exploitation of children: There is also a very real and nasty side to cybercrime. Almost every day, criminal gangs are being caught with child pornography. Never before has it been so easy for pedophiles to come into contact with children. This kind of material can be found all over the Internet, including the notorious Dark Web.
What is the origin of cybercrime?
Cybercrime finds its roots in telecommunications, notably with "phone phreaking," where individuals exploit vulnerabilities in telephone signaling for various purposes, including obtaining cheaper phone rates.
How did the Morris Worm impact the evolution of cyber threats?
The Morris Worm, unleashed in 1988, marked a significant turning point by being one of the first digital worms on the Internet. It transformed into a large-scale Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attack, overwhelming systems globally and causing widespread malfunctions.
What characterized cybercrime in the 1990s and 2000s?
The 1990s witnessed the rise of phishing emails, a form of social engineering attack. Criminals exploit emails, mimicking reliable sources to deceive users and steal sensitive information or infect systems with viruses.
How did cybercrime evolve post-2000?
The post-2000 era saw a shift from individual hackers to organized criminal groups. Cybercrime has become more professionalized, leading to diverse threats, including cyber extortion, attacks on critical infrastructures, cyber-terrorism concerns, online human trafficking, and child exploitation.
How does the article explore the challenges posed by evolving cyber threats in the digital age?
The article delves into the multifaceted challenges posed by the ever-evolving landscape of cyber threats, exploring the professionalization of cybercrime and its impact on our understanding of cybersecurity in the contemporary digital era.