Trading Bullets and Missiles for Sore Fingertips

As Chinese president Hu Jintao chooses to visit Bill Gates before George Bush on a US trip and the Russian mob eclipses the infamously popular Italian mafia in relevance and effectiveness, it’s interesting to reflect on how technology is affecting the worlds of war and crime.

It was quite a while ago that the Chinese government decided to base their operations on a custom version of Linux rather than the more ubiquitous and commercial Windows operating system.

The Americans took this as an affront and Microsoft despaired as the world’s last remaining untapped market shrivelled up and blew away. China’s direction was probably guided as much by security concerns as politics and economics, however.

After all, Windows is pretty much the single most complex piece of software ever written. No one person really comprehends the full breadth of its capabilities. Windows may have some pretty major “features” that remain undocumented.

As a growing world power, China probably suspects that Microsoft is operating on some level with US security forces to enable Windows with stealth functions beneficial to the FBI and CIA. The accidental security flaws are bad enough. What about the intended ones?

Which is why the president of a foreign power would want to chow down and get all chummy with the dude wielding this mighty weapon. Who knows? If Gates and Hu happen to share a hankering for Brussels sprouts, the Director of Global IT might be inclined to customize a Chinese version of Windows for his new weird-food buddy.

It might be, though, that nothing can sufficiently plug the holes in the sinking boat that is Windows. After all, the Russian mob has turned the software’s flaws into a multi-billion dollar industry.

The US Secret Service broke up the domestic “ShadowCrew” hacker ring a few years back with its Operation Firewall when they managed to land a couple of dozen basement geeks in jail. While they did shut down a criminal operation that was worth tens of millions of dollars, their success had an unfortunate side effect: they publicized the fact that hacking pays.

And if a bunch of schmucks who live with their grandparents in Jersey can steal all that money in their spare time, what might an organized crime ring be capable of?

Enter the “HangUp Team”. Based in a small town in northern Russia, this mob-based group of hackers and gangsters rakes in millions every month. Of course, it also helps when you base a business like this in a country almost governed by criminals.

Computer viruses and worms aren’t just annoying. They’re the goods bought and sold daily in a criminal marketplace that operates like eBay. Once a computer is infected with a piece of mob-designed software, it goes on the block. Perhaps it will just be used, along with thousands of others, to bombard the internet with spam. Perhaps keystrokes will be monitored to harvest passwords and credit card numbers. If it’s a really valuable computer, say a server in a major corporation, it might fetch top dollar as a source of information about the company’s customers.

The Russians’ modus operandi is simple: infect as many computers as possible with custom hacker software, then sell access for whatever use a client might require. It’s a brilliant business model that’s guaranteed success as long as Windows remains such an insecure environment.

Once planted, malware can go undetected for months. During Operation Firewall a major server at American cell provider T-Mobile was compromised for almost a year. Hackers monitored not only Paris Hilton’s dirty camera-phone pics, but also US Secret Service communications and documents.

Now compare the Russians’ cutting edge tactics with the handwritten notes of Mafia don Bernardo “The Tractor” Provenzano.

This old guy refused to even handle a mobile phone, much less aspire to go global with a massive hacking workforce. Instead he chose to terrorize women and children in a little Sicilian town by gunning down their husbands and fathers in the streets. Then he hung out with farmers in mud huts to evade police.

You’d think that when these tactics didn’t work for Saddam Hussein he would’ve clued in.

It’s no surprise, then, that “The Godfather” video game is meeting with such lukewarm reviews. Guns, horse heads and silk ties don’t cut it no more. Now it’s all about being the biggest geek with the best bag of tricks and a laissez faire post-Soviet government.

Mafia maniacs like Michael Corleone might make good movie fodder. But nowadays a killer rootkit will rock the house way more than a tawdry tommy gun. Once the heads of the world’s superpowers figure this out, instead of massive civilian casualties, major injuries in future wars will be repetitive stress-related.

First published in the Yukon News on Friday, April 21, 2006.

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