Hacking Pays Off in Russia

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Nando Times

(fair use blah blah posted 11:25 MST 2000/03/05)

"Hacking pays off in Russia


MOSCOW (March 5, 2000 10:18 a.m. EST http://www.nandotimes.com)

Alexei Rayevsky understood early on how lucrative computer hacking can be. In his teens, he broke into corporate networks, then confronted the companies with his exploits - and offered his expertise for making their systems more secure.

Unlike their counterparts in richer countries, most Russian hackers are not just motivated by the subversive thrill of cracking code and embarrassing corporate titans or government agencies - they're driven by empty pockets.

Sure, Russian hackers still sometimes sabotage systems for fun or political reasons, and advertise their antics on irreverent Web sites. They don't broadcast how they spend the rest of their time: making money, usually illegally, sometimes with global fallout.

Some of the world's biggest computer crimes have involved Russians, including break-ins at multinational banks and the Pentagon. The majority of Russia's hackers, however, are software pirates working on the country's thriving black market.

Recent computer attacks on major U.S. Internet companies including Yahoo! and Amazon.com have heightened security fears among American businesses and politicians.

"The threat can come from anywhere. The specific danger from Russia is that financial motivation," said John Vranesevich, a U.S. computer security consultant. His Pennsylvania-based company, AntiOnline, saw its Web site hacked last August from Russia.

Rayevsky is among a few Russians who have found a legitimate way to turn their hacking background into cash: He works for Aladdin Knowledge Systems in Moscow, testing the security of clients' computers.

"All hackers have that drive to prove you know everything. But Russian hackers are also professionals. It's their job," Rayevsky said. "Looking at our economy, it's understandable why many hackers work illegally."

Sharp computer students in the United States are inundated with high-paying job offers. Many launch their own Web-based businesses while still in school. U.S. hackers are routinely recruited by computer security companies.

In Russia, lucrative jobs are scarce, particularly since the country's financial markets collapsed in August 1998. Most Russians have no access to the Internet, and few have home computers. Computer science students make do with outdated hardware and extremely poor phone lines.

Yet Russian computer talent is abundant, thanks to a strong tradition of science education and technical training.

A gregarious 22-year-old Moscow student who goes by the name Radon claims to have disabled dozens of government Web sites. Among his more frivolous escapades, he said, was placing pornographic banners on Russian police department sites.

Asked how he earns money, he lowered his voice and said, with a mischievous glint in his eye, "I work with Gorbushka."

At Gorbushka, an outdoor market sprawling through a park in western Moscow, tables spill over with videos, CDs and computer software - nearly all of it bootleg. About 80 percent of the software in use in Russia is pirated, according to the Interior Ministry's department for computer crime.

Radon, who spoke on condition that only his online pseudonym be used, said he can earn up to $200 for a day's work copying a new program from a company like Microsoft. His copies are then sold for a few dollars each at Gorbushka, a fraction of what they cost legally.

His earnings are stunning in Russia, where the average official income is about $55 a month, according to recent government figures.

Russian law enforcement agencies have tried to crack down on piracy and more sophisticated computer crimes, but observers say they lack the experts, money - and even the computers - they need.

That has made Russian hackers surprisingly bold, Vranesevich said. "They're not even trying to cover up their identity," he said. "They use their real names to set up Western Union accounts."

In other dramatic computer scams involving Russians:

A mathematician from St. Petersburg, Vladimir Levin, transferred $12 million from Citibank accounts by hacking bank workers' passwords. A Florida court sentenced him to three years in prison in 1998.

Last month, a 19-year-old Russian stole credit card numbers from an Internet retailer and demanded a $100,000 ransom. When denied the money, he posted 25,000 of the numbers on a Web site.

A group of hackers including two Russians broke into the Pentagon computer system in 1997 and stole software that coordinates the military's Global Positioning System, which is used to target missiles.

Russia still sees its share of political hackings. Both sides in the Chechnya war have seen their computers sabotaged.

Hackers have had fun resisting efforts by the KGB's main successor, the Federal Security Service (FSB), to step up surveillance of the Internet. Some have reached unusual targets, such as attacks earlier this month on real estate company Web sites in Florida and Colorado, signed "Anti-FSB."

-- firefly (forest@calm.dot), March 05, 2000

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