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The evolution of espionage and hacking

A FEW WEEKS AGO I visited the global control room of a company called Akamai in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The scene could have come straight out of a James Bond movie, with operators monitoring giant screens showing the performance of their internet servers located all over the world. 

 

Akamai provides much of the high volume plumbing for the modern internet. Wherever you are on the planet, if you want to access a large or very popular file, whether from Microsoft or Apple, the New York Times, or the BBC, it is quite likely that Akamai will already have a copy of it located somewhere near to you which can be supplied instead, saving huge amounts of global internet traffic.

 

Although most of this global monitoring centre was very dramatic, the really interesting screen was a small nondescript one at the side of the room – for this plotted, in real time, the ‘dark net’. At most of their sites around the world Akamai have installed an internet server that has no identity – nobody should ever be accessing these machines as there is absolutely no reason to – but they are in fact subject to regular random requests for information. 

 

This screen maps the ‘phishing’ attacks on computers around the world trying to find out all sorts of random information that might, possibly, be of some value. It showed that the most numerous source of these attacks, over 50% of them, originated from China, followed by Russia and Romania.

 

Much of this traffic is suspected to be espionage. It was recently claimed that Chinese ‘spies’ had hacked into global defence company BAE Systems, stealing top secret details of the hi-tech F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft. In February this year, NASA reported that during 2010-11 they had experienced 5,408 computer security incidents that had resulted in the installation of malicious software on or unauthorized access to its systems. In fact last year a Romanian hacker posted on his internet page a list of the files held on a ‘secure’ NASA computer in Maryland. 

 

Robert Mueller, the head of the FBI said recently at a Security Conference that there are only two types of companies: “those that have been hacked, and those that will be”.

 

Anybody who is really experienced in doing business with China these days takes extreme precautions to protect their information. Last February, the New York Times reported that when Kenneth Lieberthal, a China expert at the Brookings Institute travels to that country he leaves his mobile phone and laptop at home and instead takes ‘loaner’ devices, which he wipes clean before he leaves and again when he returns. 

 

In China he disables Bluetooth and Wi-Fi on his laptop, never lets his phone out of his sight, and takes the battery out when he is not using it, just in case someone is eavesdropping. He never, ever, types in a password from a keyboard, choosing instead to cut and paste them from a password protected USB drive as “the Chinese are very good at installing key-logging software on your laptop”.

 

It’s just been announced that William Boyd is to write a new James Bond novel. He may have to come to terms with the fact that espionage is no longer done by seducing cool blonde Russian spies on the Orient Express. These days real espionage seems to be undertaken by spotty geeks in airless subterranean rooms, hacking away at their computers, and infiltrating our servers from the safety of their boltholes somewhere on the other side of the world.

 

 

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