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Ever since the invention of computers, there have been hackers. However, in the early history of computers, “hackers” weren’t seen as shadowy, havoc-wreaking figures, but simply as enthusiasts. These early hackers tinkered with computers, and ended up creating some of the earliest computer programs. But as computers rapidly gained popularity in the 1980s, cybersecurity cracks were starting to show, and skilled individuals took advantage. In 1989, Joseph Popp created the first ransomware device: A floppy disk sent to world health professionals disguised as medical research. When inserted, the disk locked the user’s computer, and demanded the victim mail $189 to a PO Box in Panama .
While this early example of hacking is easy-to-understand, modern hacking and ransomware is far more complicated, not just from a technological standpoint, but from an organizational standpoint as well. Gone are the days of individual, hoodie-clad loners furiously typing on their computers in the dark. Today, the people who carry out the world’s worst hacks are part of hacking groups. After all, hackers are smart, and realize that they can do more damage working together, rather than alone. Most of the world’s worst hacks have occurred at the hands of a few hacking organizations, committed to causing chaos around the globe.
These groups have the money and manpower to cause digital devastation on a global scale:
Bureau 121 & Lazarus
North Korea has long been a mysterious, yet aggressive nation, and its state-sponsored hacking group is no exception. Although not much is known about Bureau 121, cybersecurity experts have tied the group to the North Korean government. However, because of the country’s poor infrastructure, experts believe that Bureau 121 plans and executes its operations in Shenyang, China, a city just 100 miles from the North Korean border . The organization mostly targets South Korean businesses, unsurprisingly. One of its biggest attacks was a ransomware attack on South Korea’s Hydro & Nuclear Power Company, resulting in a massive data breach.
While North Korean hackers mostly focus on their South Korean neighbors, it gained worldwide notoriety when Lazarus Group, an affiliate of Bureau 121, attacked Sony Pictures. First, the group leaked thousands of emails between Sony Pictures executives, and leaked unannounced, upcoming films from the studio. More concerningly, the group threatened to commit acts of terrorism at movie theaters unless Sony’s film “The Interview,” a comedy whose plot includes the assassination of Kim Jong-Un, North Korea’s leader, was pulled from theaters . The United States quickly tied the hack to North Korea, but because of the countries’ icy relationship, no arrests have been made.
Syrian Electronic Army
The Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) was formed during the Arab Spring, a series of anti-government protests and uprisings in the Middle East in the early 2010s. It was created to protect controversial Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from Syrian dissidents during the widespread protests . Interestingly, cybersecurity experts are unsure if the group is sponsored by the Syrian government, or is simply a group of pro-Assad hackers . In either case, the SEA is a vehemently pro-Assad organization that has two goals: Punish media organizations that are critical of Assad, and spread Syria’s state-sponsored narrative .
One of the SEA’s most famous hacks occurred in 2013, when the group hacked into the Associated Press’ Twitter account and falsely reported that then-President Obama was injured in an explosion at the White House . This single Tweet caused stocks to plummet, highlighting just how much damage can be caused from hackers thousands of miles away. In addition to this notable AP hack, the SEA has hacked Western media organizations, including Facebook, Microsoft, and The New York Times.
Although this group may have a cuddly name, its actions are anything but soft. Cybersecurity experts widely believe Fancy Bear to be a Russian-sponsored hacking group responsible for a variety of hacks to advance Russian interests . The group has committed attacks on Germany’s Parliament, French President Emmanuel Macron, and a variety of other Western governments . The group typically uses well-disguised phishing emails to gain access to restricted information.
Fancy Bear used this strategy to pull off its most daring, consequential hack: an attack that leaked thousands of Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails in 2016 . The cyberattack resulted in the public reveal of thousands of DNC emails, many of which were seen as controversial or simply embarrassing. While many countries spy on others during elections, this was one of the first times a foreign country was able to successfully meddle in a United States election. Although it’s impossible to determine if the 2016 Presidential election would have been different if Fancy Bear didn’t commit the attack, this hack showed how valuable, and devastating, cyberattacks can be before elections.
Perhaps the most famous hacking organization in the world, Anonymous is unlike any other group. Anonymous is decentralized, with no leader or physical hub. While this may sound like a disadvantage, this organization ensures that the group can continue its activities even if members drop out or are apprehended. Anonymous is a “hacktivist” group, and does not have specific goals or enemies. However, Anonymous certainly has a broad aspiration to promote freedom of speech and diminish government control .
Anonymous gained notoriety during its 2008 cyberattacks on the Church of Scientology, when the group managed to shut down the Church’s website. Following this attack, the organization gained popularity around the world, expanding the group’s hacking capabilities (and potential targets). The group targeted Tunisia’s government during the Arab Spring protests, Visa and MasterCard for declining to do business with WikiLeaks, and Bank of America for its shady mortgage practices .
Since 2008, Anonymous has continued to attack governments and organizations that break the group’s core beliefs. However, the long-term impact of these attacks are often negligible. Anonymous’s main strategy is a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack. While DDoS attacks are successful in shutting down websites and gaining notoriety, once the website is back up, there are few long-term effects of Anonymous’s involvement. So although Anonymous is one of the most notorious hacking collectives in the world, more organized groups are able to cause greater long-term effects with their cyberattacks.
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