It’s been 40 years since Lisa Donnan has queued for gas. But last month the cybersecurity expert found herself joining the long lines of cars across the east coast of the US looking for fuel after the latest in a series of cyber-attacks had shut down the pipeline that provides fuel to 45% of the region.
“The last time I did that was in the Iran crisis,” she said. “My dad had to wait with me.”
The hack of the Colonial Pipeline was just one of a series of cyber-attacks that have hit the US and elsewhere recently. Hackers have taken down JBS, the world’s largest meat processor, disrupting the global meat market, closed schools in Iowa and hit hospitals in Ireland in what experts say is a dangerous escalation of a crime wave that has swelled from the small-scale blackmail operations of a few years ago to major assaults that threaten the livelihoods – and potentially lives – of millions.
Many of the recent attacks have been sourced to operations in Russia and US officials say that Russia’s responsibility for ransomware attacks carried out from its territory would be a central issue when Joe Biden meets Vladimir Putin in Geneva next Wednesday.
“One of the things that President Biden will make clear to President Putin, when he sees him, is that states cannot be in the business of harboring those who are engaged in these kinds of attacks,” the secretary of state, Tony Blinken, told Congress this week.
Eric Green, the senior director for Russia and central Asia in the national security council, said that one of the expected outcomes from the Geneva summit was a routine dialogue between senior US and Russian officials aimed at bringing greater stability and predictability to the relationship. One of the issues in the dialogue would be ransomware attacks.
“When we talk about strategic stability cyber will also certainly be on the agenda,” Green said in a recent discussion organised by the Centre for a New American Security. “The recent ransomware attacks remind us that the cyber domain is prone to misperceptions and that there are dangerous escalation risks.”
US officials say America will be pushing for Nato to expand its involvement in cyberdefence at the alliance summit in Brussels. But the unanswered question is how to respond to ransomware attacks by criminal groups for whom their host countries deny responsibility.
“Putin will deny interfering in US politics or conducting cyber-attacks, asserting that Washington has no proof, while rejecting the legitimacy of US concerns about what happens within Russia,” said Steven Pifer, former deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“Biden should not waste time arguing. He should aim instead to ensure that Putin has a clear understanding of what conduct is out of bounds.”
The pressure for Biden to act is rising. There has been a 62% increase in ransomware globally since 2019, and 158% spike in North America, according to the 2021 SonicWall Cyber Threat Report. Alongside that rise, the nature of the crimes and their targets are also changing.
“We are seeing more attacks, more sophisticated attacks, bigger attacks and the scary thing is we are seeing them more on supply chains,” said Donnan. “It used to be about financial exfiltration, stealing money, and reputational damage. It’s now in a life-threatening environment. That is a dramatic change.”
Now a partner at the cybersecurity private equity investor Option3Ventures, Donnan says she doesn’t expect to see any let-up in attacks. Nation states including Russia, China and North Korea are getting more ambitious in their attacks and the criminal enterprises that operate under their wings are getting more brazen.
“The landscape is ripe and ready for attack from a perfect storm of hackers, nation states and the average cybercriminal,” she said.
Part of the recent surge is down to the pandemic, which has helped the hackers by accelerating the digitization of business and giving them more access points as people and businesses have moved to work remotely.
On top of that there has been an explosion in software development, much of which was not built with security in mind from the beginning, said Donnan. “We still have a culture of get to market, be first. We are designing code without security in mind,” she said.
Lastly there are few consequences to cybercrime. Cryptocurrencies are the preferred payment for ransoms and are as hard to track as the origins of the hack. With the authorities unlikely to crack the case anytime soon – if ever – for many targets not paying is a difficult choice. Joseph Blount, Colonial’s chief executive, told Congress last week that he decided to pay the $4.4m bitcoin ransom to get the pipeline back online after he saw “pandemonium going on at the markets”.
Politicians hit out at Blount for the company’s failure to stop the hack. But the government itself has also failed to stop numerous hacks and not paying the ransom can be more expensive than paying up and potentially leave companies open to further assaults. JBS paid $11m in bitcoin to its hackers, even though it had mostly fixed its problems, hoping the payment would prevent further issues arising from the attack.
In 2019 Baltimore was hit with a cyber-attack that seized control of parts of its government. The hackers demanded $760,000 in bitcoin but the mayor, Bernard “Jack” Young, refused to pay. The cost of rebuilding its systems has now reached $18.2m.
Publicly the FBI advises victims not to pay a ransom in order to discourage perpetrators from targeting more victims. But privately they will tell targets that they understand if they feel the need to pay.
In the Colonial case the FBI managed to seize the majority of the bitcoin payment – a hopeful sign that may discourage some attackers, according to experts – but the fact remains that most of these crimes go unpunished.
“It’s very difficult to prosecute, it takes a long time, it takes cooperation geopolitically because most of these attacks come from offshore,” said Donnan. “The government only has so many resources. It doesn’t take a lot of tools or brain capacity to do these things,” she said. “You can buy a tool kit on the dark web.”
One irony of the current wave of hacks is that the US is under attack by tools developed by its own National Security Agency (NSA). In 2016 an online group called the Shadow Brokers claimed to have infiltrated the Equation Group, the NSA’s own private hacking group, and obtained malware used by the US to target its enemies.
In June 2017 the same cyber-attack tool developed by the NSA, called EternalBlue, was used to launch a series of attacks on Ukraine, affecting the government, banks and transportation systems and taking the radiation monitoring system at Chernobyl offline. That attack then spread around the world, hitting companies that had offices in Ukraine including FedEx, the advertising agency WPP, pharmaceutical company Merck and consumer goods maker Reckitt Benckiser.
The escalation in cases comes even as spending on security is rising dramatically. The US is the number one country for cybercrime and also spends the most on cybersecurity.
In 2015 the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM) announced it was hacked in 2015, one of the largest data thefts in history. Since then the US has spent $115bn on cybersecurity and the White House is asking Congress to commit roughly $10bn to civilian government cybersecurity next year – a jump of nearly 14%. Industry spent $41bn on cybersecurity in 2019 and is expected to have spent $53bn in 2020.
Even after all that money has been spent, said Donnan “we are still exposed because there is no consequence.”
But there are rewards.
Three years ago Paul Ferrillo, a partner at New York law firm Seyfarth Shaw who specialises in cybersecurity, says he was settling ransomware hacks for five bitcoin (about $6,000 per bitcoin then and currently around $36,000 each). “Now you are lucky if it’s 75 bitcoin or 100. I heard of one demand recently for $140m,” he said.
“If this is the new normal, they are winning,” he said. “These criminal actors are well-funded and smart whether they are state-funded or not. We need to be as smart as they are.”
Ferrillo said there was no silver bullet that would solve the crisis and that everyone from the government to the private citizen had to play a part. Companies have to get better at managing their data, storing backups offline and making sure it is harder to get into their systems.
He also wants to see more transparency from industry. Companies have often hidden hacks because they don’t want to look like “doofuses”, he said. “But when industry shares information, we all get smarter. We understand where we should look and how we should do better.”
But tackling this explosion in hacking will take action from everyone, he said, from government to private citizens. “Cybersecurity is a shared responsibility. We are all in this together,” he said.
Google, Apple and Microsoft reported record-breaking quarterly sales and profits on Tuesday night as the firms continue to benefit from a pandemic that has created a “perfect positive storm” for big tech.
Apple made a $21.7bn (£15.6bn) profit for the three-month period that ended in June, its best fiscal third quarter in its 45-year history, boosted by strong sales of the iPhone 12 and growth in its services business.
Alphabet, Google’s parent company, reported second-quarter revenue of $61.8bn (£44.5bn), a 62% increase on the same period a year earlier, and a profit of over $18.5bn (£13.3bn), more than twice its profits for the same period last year. The company’s advertising revenues rose 69% from last year.
Microsoft, too, beat expectations, reporting revenues of over $46bn (£33bn) for the quarter – a rise of 21% compared to the same quarter last year.
The results come after Tesla reported a record profit on Monday in one of the busiest ever weeks for quarterly US earnings results. The big tech blowout earnings continue with Facebook on Wednesday and Amazon on Thursday.
Collectively, the market value of Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook is now worth more than a third of the entire S&P 500 index of America’s 500 largest traded companies, as their share prices have soared during the pandemic.
Thomas Philippon, an economist and professor of finance at New York University, said big tech firms have been the biggest economic winners from the pandemic as global lockdowns have pushed more businesses and consumers to use their services.
“They were already on the rise and had been for the best part of a decade, and the pandemic was unique,” Philippon said. “For them it was a perfect positive storm.”
Analysts at Morgan Stanley reckon Alphabet is on course to achieve full-year net income of $65bn, a 59% increase on 2020. Its annual sales are, the bank reckons, on track for $243bn – a $60bn increase on last year.
Alphabet’s shares have risen by 75% in the past year to a record $2,670, but analysts predict they could climb higher still despite regulators around the world threatening to curb its dominance of the internet search market. Morgan Stanley said the stock could reach as high as $3,060, and even under a worse case scenario is unlikely to fall below $1,800.
Morgan Stanley analyst Brian Nowak said pandemic lockdowns had boosted Google as consumers spent more time online researching potential purchases. He said survey data showed that 54% of retailers ranked Google search products, including YouTube, as “their first place to go to research products online, up from 50% in past surveys”.
“Google websites growth is likely to rebound in ’21 as we believe there are several underappreciated products driven by mobile search, strong YouTube contribution, and continued innovation, such as Maps monetisation,” Nowak said in a note to clients.
Apple has been making so much money that over the past eight years it has bought back $421bn worth of shares, but it still has about $80bn of cash sitting on its balance sheet.
When Microsoft reported a 31% rise in profits at its last quarterly results, its chief executive, Satya Nadella, said it was “just the beginning” as the shift to digital technology was “accelerating” fast.
The share price rise of the big tech firms has made billions for their super-rich founders and early investors. Forbes magazine calculated recently that there are now 365 billionaires who made their fortunes in technology, compared with 241 before the pandemic.
Collectively, the world’s tech billionaires hold personal fortunes of $2.5tn, up 80% on $1.4tn in March 2020. Amazon’s founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, remains the world’s richest person with an estimated $212bn fortune, and is closely followed in the league table of the wealthy by Tesla co-founder Elon Musk with $180bn, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates with $151bn, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg with about $138bn.
Zuckerberg believes the internet will take on an even bigger role in people’s day-to-day lives in the future, and instead of interacting with it via mobile phones people will be immersed via virtual reality headsets.
He said Facebook would transition from a social media platform to a “metaverse company”, where people can work, play and communicate in a virtual environment. Zuckerberg said it would be “an embodied internet where instead of just viewing content – you are in it”.
The Tech Support Scams YouTube channel has been erased from existence in a blaze of irony as host and creator Jim Browning fell victim to a tech support scam that convinced him to secure his account – by deleting it.
“So to prove that anyone can be scammed,” Browning announced via Twitter following the attack, “I was convinced to delete my YouTube channel because I was convinced I was talking [to YouTube] support. I never lost control of the channel, but the sneaky s**t managed to get me to delete the channel. Hope to recover soon.”
To fool Browning, the ruse must have been convincing: “I track down the people who scam others on the Internet,” he writes on his Patreon page. “This is usually those ‘tech support’ call frauds using phone calls or pop-ups. I explain what I do by guiding others in how to recognise a scam and, more importantly, how to turn the tables on scammers by tracking them down.”
Browning has made a name for himself with self-described “scam baiting” videos, in which he sets up honeypot systems and pretends to fall for scams in which supposed support staffers need remote access to fix a problem or remove a virus – in reality scouring the hard drive for sensitive files or planting malware of their own.
“I am hoping that YouTube Support can recover the situation by 29th July,” Browning wrote in a Patreon update, “and I can get the channel back, but they’ve not promised anything as yet. I just hope it is recoverable.”
Whether Browning is able to recover the account, and the 3.28 million subscribers he had gathered over his career as a scam-baiter, he’s hoping to turn his misfortune into another lesson. “I will make a video on how all of this went down,” he pledged, “but suffice to say, it was pretty convincing until the very end.”
Tech support scams have been going on for about as long as people have needed technical support, but a report published by Microsoft last month suggested the volume may be declining. The same report found that the 18-37 age group was the most likely to fall victim – and that 10 per cent of those surveyed had lost money to a scammer.
YouTube was approached for an explanation of how deleted accounts could be restored and what precautions it has in place to prevent its users – even those with considerable experience in the field of con-artistry – from falling victim to tech support scams, but was unable to provide comment in time for publication.
Browning did not respond to a request for comment. ®
A member of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group spotted the humpback whale while out conducting a survey on marine life off the Donegal coast.
Marine mammal observer Dr Justin Judge described the moment he spotted a lone humpback whale off the coast of Donegal as “a dream sighting.”
Judge spotted the whale at 9.30 on the morning of 9 July while representing the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) on board the Marine Institute’s RV Celtic Explorer.
The group of researchers and observers was out on the waters around 60 kilometres north-northwest of Malin Head when they saw the whale. They were carrying out the annual Western European Shelf Pelagic Acoustic (WESPAS) survey.
“This is a dream sighting for a marine mammal observer,” Judge said. He explained that the creature would be nicknamed Orion – which had a personal meaning for Judge and his family.
“The individual humpback whale ‘Orion’ has been named after the Greek mythological hunter, since the whale was moving with the fish stocks for food. It is also my son’s middle name so fitting on both fronts,” Judge said.
He added that the team had also observed “a lot of feeding action from a multitude of cetacean species that day, including bottlenose, common, Risso’s and white-sided dolphins, grey seals and minke whales.”
To date, the IWDG has documented 112 individual humpback whales in Irish waters since 1999, many of which are recorded year after year. Humpback whales are frequent visitors to Irish waters as they are an ideal feeding area for humpback whales stopping off in the area on their migration across the Atlantic.
The beasts are identifiable thanks to the distinctive pattern on the underside, which is unique to every individual whale.
“Observing any apex predator in its natural environment is exciting but a new humpback whale for Irish waters, this is special,” WESPAS survey scientist, Ciaran O’Donnell of the Marine Institute said.
The Marine Institute’s WESPAS survey is carried out annually, and surveys shelf seas from France northwards to Scotland, and west of Ireland. WESPAS is the largest single vessel survey of its kind in the Northeast Atlantic, covering upwards of 60,000 nautical miles every summer. The survey is funded through the European Maritime Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund under the Data Collection Programme which is run by the Marine Institute.