Editorial: Hackers making troubles, authoritarian can’t get a good night’s sleep | Apple Daily HK

2021.05.12
Editorial Hackers making troubles authoritarian can t get a good night s sleep Apple Daily HK

By Koo Lap

Last weekend, hackers from the former Soviet Union hacked into the computer system of Colonial Pipeline, a U.S. company. It made it clear that it was all for money and not for the regime. This group of hackers under the name of The DarkSide is rampant and strange. It has a website, interviews with the media, and has listed their “successes” – stealing information from more than 40 institutions, paralyzing the operation of any institute for an average of 21 days, and donating to charitable organizations – all in the name of “legitimate business”. In the Internet age, it is not difficult for hackers to extort “protection fees” as a part of the “normal” everyday fare.

Colonial Pipeline, extorted this time by The DarkSide, operates the economic lifeline of the Eastern U.S. Its 8,800-kilometer pipeline runs from the oil-producing and refining town of Houston in the Southwestern U.S. to transport fuel and natural gas to the highly populated East Coast. The Hackers got the operating data of the company, but did not interfere with its operations; however, if the pipeline company does not company, they have threatened to make public the information; this means that its doors are wide open and the hackers can do whatever they want. Based on safety concerns, the company closed the pipelines, causing a 45-percent fuel supply cut on the East Coast. If operations cannot be resumed within a short time, it could be anything from paralysis of traffic to communication services being affected. The consequences could be disastrous. The Biden administration, therefore, declared a state of emergency and relaxed controls on oil trucks and tankers to ensure fuel supply.

These are, of course, preventive measures. The U.S. East Coast has sufficient backup fuel stored, so there is currently no danger of a supply shortage. What is worrying is that neither the law enforcement agencies or Interpol seem to know what to do about these hackers’ extortion. Take the U.S. for example, just in the last year, the amount of blackmail by hackers soared by 311% to US$350 million, and the average amount per case was US$312,000. How is it that there’s nothing to stop the hackers?

In the Internet age, hacker activities are inevitable, and there are two major technical reasons. 1. Regardless of whether it is a pipeline company or a medical system, no organization can operate effectively independent of an information network; networks are open on both ends, and therefore are naturally good targets for the hackers. 2. Although there are traces to every transaction with Bitcoin-like electronic currency, its inherent design allows the holder to hide the identity, therefore law enforcement agencies are unable to lock down the final destination of the extorted money. Moreover, the hackers adhere to “principles” that are not meant to go to the extreme. For example, The DarkSide asked for something between US$200,000 and US$2 million, which is an amount the target is able to handle, therefore it is almost like a “protection fee” that one is willing to pay in exchange for peace.

Up till now, hackers are only mostly targeting Western democracies, and the former Soviet Union, North Korea, and even China have rarely been victims. The reason could be that these hackers are protected by the regime, or are even simply tools of the regime. In fact, when Obama was in office, he had spoken with Xi Jinping about hacker activities and received the promise that they would be curbed; what followed, however, is another topic for discussion. On the other hand, when information is not transparent, even if an extortion incident occurs, the outside world would not be able to find out. Unlike the West where information is transparent, it is almost instantaneous that hacker activities are exposed. For this reason, there is the illusion that countries with centralized power are not victims of cyber blackmail.

In theory, the Internet was created by Western countries led by the U.S. Main software platforms and even mobile phone operating systems were all created in Silicon Valley. Yet hacker activities seemed to be “monopolized” by the former Soviet Union and its allies. This discrepancy could be very well explained by the idea that Western tech talents are able to seek legitimate opportunities instead of going to the sidelines. With the rise of many large-scale multinational companies in China in recent years, who is to guarantee that former Soviet Union or other countries’ hackers would not start targeting these organizations and throw some unexpected, unpredictable attacks?

Meituan is an online company that followed closely behind the rise of giants such as Alibaba and Tencent. Its owner, Wang Xingxin quoted from the Tang Dynasty poet Zhang Jie’s “Book-burning pit” – “Smoke from the burning of the books dissipate, and so goes the dynasty of the great Qin. The rivers and the hills surround, but are unable to protect the home of the First Emperor. Ashes from the burning of the books have not cooled, and the rebels of Shandong have risen. Turns out that the leaders, Liu Bang and Xiang Yu, both don’t read!” – to describe the unpredictability of the market. However, some thought he was comparing the attack on Internet organization to the burning of books and burying of intellectuals, which caused a bit of a stir.

Boss Wang was not wrong though, “Ali had his eye on JD.com, yet he eventually came out on top. Meituan Waimai’s competition seemed to be Ele.me, but what could overturn Waimai could be a company or model that has not even yet been discovered…the most dangerous opponents are often the least expected ones.” Unless countries can join forces to ban electronic currency, or go back on the whole era but banning Internet activities, there is no way hackers could be stopped from making trouble, and those who try to ban this and that in order to keep their power forever will never get a good night’s sleep.

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