Caution: What you’re about to read may make you want to turn off your computer, bury it, sprinkle it with holy water and return to a pre-1990s lifestyle that was devoid of all things cyber.
De-bunking popular misconceptions about cybersecurity can be a wake-up call for casual computer users that your machine is quite vulnerable to those with bad intentions. Spammers, phishers and those who like to spread viruses for the “sport” of it are just some of the individuals that your unit needs to be protected from in cyberspace. The recent hacking of the Target computer network – which has led to the breach of credit and debit card information for an estimated 40 million of the company’s customers and other personal data (email addresses, phone numbers, etc.) of up to 70 million others – has sparked concern and outrage from the public.
But what kind of risk do people face with their home computers? Do hackers have any interest in your computer? The answer is yes.
Today, Wise Words launches a 3-part series devoted to the topic of cybersecurity. Part I focuses on the myth that hackers are not interested in your personal computer because you don’t have any top secret information on it. In Part II, we will explore other common misconceptions of cybersecurity.
But don’t worry. In Part III, Wise Words, through the insight of Lisa Lancor, chairwoman of Southern’s Computer Science Department, will offer steps that the average computer user can take to minimize their exposure to hackers. Southern recently revamped its M.S. degree program in computer science to place increased emphasis on cybersecurity and software development.
Many people believe that because their machine is only for personal use, hackers have little or no interest in trying to compromise their unit. After all, we frequently hear about incidents involving hacking into computers belonging to government agencies, businesses, large institutions and political entities. Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, trade secrets, candidate strategies and classified documents can be at stake.
But what would anyone want with a computer filled with pictures of someone’s family dog, Little League schedules and the latest standings of their Fantasy Football league?
“Hackers value your computer for its resources, regardless of whether it has valuable information or not” says Lisa Lancor, chairwoman of Southern’s Computer Science Department.
“In fact, they will secure your computer after they have compromised it so that no other hacker can own your machine. It’s a sad state of affairs when hackers start patching and securing your system for you.”
What Makes Your Computer so Attractive to Hackers
Lancor points to several purposes:
- Storage devices – Hackers may want to store their bootlegged movies, illegal pornography and other contraband on your hard drive. “This way, you run the risk of getting caught with the illegal content and not them,” she says.
- Processing power – Hackers may want to use your processing power for a variety of reasons. Some examples include using it to help solve computationally difficult problems, such as finding the next prime number (millions of digits long); generating Bitcoins, a decentralized, globally recognized e-currency that requires significant computer processing power; and folding proteins to help researchers understand diseases. “Solutions to computationally difficult problems can provide a big payout,” Lancor says. “And producing Bitcoins can be big business since one Bitcoin at today’s market price is currently worth about $950. Learn more about how bitcoin work via bitcoinogg.com.”
- Service provider – Your computer could be become an unwitting “spam machine.” The hacker may have set it up to deliver spam messages.
- Use as part of a bot network – Bot is a shortened name for Web robot, a program that conducts repetitive functions automatically. Like many things on the Internet, a bot can be used for good or ill. Hackers sometimes take control of others’ computers to become part of a gigantic botnet composed of thousands or millions of compromised computers that are controlled by a “bot master,” or a “command and control” server located anywhere around the world. “Underground Web-based storefronts sell botnets of 1,000 U.S.-only compromised computers for the current market price of about $1,000,” Lancor says.
- Launching pad – Hackers are usually savvy enough not to use their own computer to launch an attack. That’s what your computer can be for, just in case law enforcement traces the attack back to the launching point. “The FBI might come knocking on your door because an attack was launched against the White House or National Security Agency from your IP address,” Lancor says.
- Free ride into your bank – Those who do some online banking or make other financial transactions via a compromised computer, watch out! Your machine can include a keylogger, a piece of surveillance software that records every key stroke on a machine and can be used to decipher even the most secure passwords.
- Ransom — Believe it or not, some hackers have taken to encrypting your photos and documents and holding them “hostage” with a key that only they know. They tell you to deposit Bitcoins into their anonymous e-wallet in exchange for decrypting your files.