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Savvy ex-Soviets out-hack East Asian arrivistes

Custom cracks versus strength of numbers

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An analysis of the hacking communities in Eastern Europe and Asia has concluded that citizens of the former Soviet bloc are still top dogs at cracking complex systems.

"While East Asian hackers dominate cybersecurity-related headlines around the world with high-profile intrusions and advanced persistent threats (APTs), it would be a mistake to conclude that these attackers are the sole or greatest criminal threat to the global internet today," said Trend Micro's VP of cybersecurity Tom Kellermann, in the report.

"After conducting extensive research into the nature of the East Asian and East European underground," he wrote, "Trend Micro has concluded that hackers from the former Soviet Bloc are a more sophisticated and clandestine threat than their more well-known East Asian counterparts."

The two groups have very different modes of operation, Kellermann explained. Eastern European hackers typically operate in small groups and write specifically designed malware for custom jobs. The code is tight, highly automated, and the target is attacked only after extensive reconnaissance work.

Once the hack attack is launched, the Europeans are typically after data that can be rapidly converted into cash or used internally for further attacks, and the attack itself is designed to be as stealthy as possible to avoid alerting the victim. The attackers also tend to own and operate their own servers, ensuring they are covered at every stage of the attack.

By contrast, East Asian hackers tend to use off-the-shelf malware that exploits existing vulnerabilities or reverse-engineered patches for recent flaws. Once inside a network they grab as much data as possible in large-scale attacks using multiple people, and export it all back to base, often making little effort to hide what's been done.

The difference in attacking styles is down in part to the relative maturity of the European hacking market. The Eastern Europeans were one of the first groups to turn a profit from the trade in the mid-1990s, after large numbers resorted to hacking in the wake of the post-Soviet economic meltdown, and they remain highly financially motivated.

This is also reflected in their code. Most hackers in the region started out using outdated hardware and so write very tight code that maximizes effectiveness without requiring too much in the way of hardware support or additional applications. Third-party tools are also uncommon.

"There's a flourishing online arms bazaar and the greatest weapons are coming from Eastern Europe," Kellermann said. "They're the equivalent of a custom made automatic rifle with a laser scope rather than one shot weapons made to be discarded."

While there are some highly skilled Asian hackers who use similar techniques, the vast majority of attacks from that region use malware that's either bought as-is, or that has been cobbled together from various different sources. Asian malware users are much less concerned about elegant code, preferring to stick with whatever works to get them into a target system.

Part of these differences between the two groups also stems from the motives behind the attacks, Kellermann explained. Whereas Europeans chase the money, Asian attacks are much more likely to be looking for corporate data that can be used or resold for competitive advantage in commerce.

"Asian corporations in sovereign boundaries can hack outsiders for comparative advantages with very little attention – they're not after money," Kellermann told The Register. "These corporations either hack for data themselves or use mercenaries for hire."

Such tactics mean that the Asian hackers have far more job security than their Eastern European counterparts, so long as they have a reliable backer. By contrast European hackers operate as individual mercenaries or in small groups, and are only as good as their last job.

"You need to be trusted as someone who is good to their word in deals, show you're not collaborating with any authorities and your code has to function as advertised," Kellermann explained. "Lose any one of those three features and you'll be ostracized from the community." ®

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