Do you know how Russian hackers accessed Obama’s email?

It’s lamentable that Russians managed to hack the email account of the most powerful man in the world. That not even the White House was protected against that kind of intrusions says a lot about how vulnerable we are in cyberspace. Watch Trend Micro‘s Dave Abramowitz talk about how it was done with Bloomberg‘s Alix Steel:

Isn’t it time that governments and businesses worldwide protect themselves against hackers. That the White House get outsmarted by Russian hackers is deplorable. And the list doesn’t stop there. Is there any major institution or company in the world that has not been hacked?

Pentagon hiring hackers

Personally am of the opinion that it’s excellent that the Pentagon is hiring 3000 hackers to fend off malicious attacks. Vulnerabilities, like the ones in the White House’s system, have to be found and plugged. And considering that the salaries the Pentagon is paying hackers range from US$42,399 to US$132,122  “white hat” hackers should be interested.

Following in Israel’s footsteps

The Israelis have since the 1990s presented hackers with the choice of working for the government or going to jail. You can read more about it here and that was the start of defense unit 8200 that is believed to be behind the Struxnet attack.

Cyberwar more likely than nuclear conflict

Sweden, Finland and Israel are supposed to be best prepared for cyber attacks. Better even than the United States, Germany and Britain, which is alarming since the latter three are more likely to be targeted than Sweden and Finland. India, Brazil and Mexico on the other hand, rank near the bottom. Read more about the cyber arms race going on here.

Catarina Alexon, Catarina's World, The White House, Russian hackers
Countries all over the world should hire hackers to increase their cyber security

That Sweden is supposed to be best prepared for cyber attacks is also scary considering that the authorities in Sweden consider themselves to be very vulnerable to malicious attacks. And it happens all the time, unfortunately. The Swedish police are not even capable of investigating online crime due to lack of know how. They should also hire hackers in order to frame people who are robbing others online.

Society can benefit from gifted nerds

It was an unemployed youngster in Southern Sweden that found a way to block computers and demand ransom to unblock them. He now lives and works for a criminal syndicate in Russia. Interpol has a warrant for his arrest but unless he leaves his new homeland he will continue with cyber crime. Would it not have been better if unemployed young IT nerds like him were employed in the public sector to help us cope with cyber attacks. Instead they are not able to find a job and turn to crime. Unfortunately they come up with a lot of clever and sinister ideas. By the way, a Swedish teenager hacked the Pentagon a long time ago. His parents couldn’t believe what he had done when he was caught. These kind of guys have an important role to play in society. Teachers know who they are so all countries should find and educate them for the good of society instead of letting them feel let down and decide to grab as much from others as their skills allow them.

It seems to me that, all in all, governments worldwide are turning a blind eye to the problem of malicious hacking hoping that someone else will solve the problem. But considering that it’s not going to happen wouldn’t it be a good idea for all countries to follow in Israel’s and the Pentagon’s footsteps and hire hackers.

Do you agree with me that it’s time for authorities and businesses worldwide to thoroughly protect themselves against malicious attacks? Should IT nerds, such as the young Swede who could not get a job, be found and trained by governments to benefit society? Would that stop them from turning to crime? Do you also have a feeling that most people in leading positions are hoping the problem of hackers will simply go away? If not, why are they not doing more than they are? Are you also of the opinion that when it comes to cybercrime and cyber warfare we ain’t seen nothing yet?

Video: Bloomberg Business – Picture: Zodman

40 thoughts on “Do you know how Russian hackers accessed Obama’s email?

  1. Great post, Catarina. I'm sorry I'm just reading this now. When I worked at MIT, the Pentagon had a cyberattack, and they hired one of MIT's smartest grad students (yes, a grad student – probably a professor by now). Also, you mention Israel and cybersecurity – one of the top experts at MIT at that time is now also a professor in Israel – she's Israeli. And she's a she! She did not get there by promoting a woman just because she's a woman … she is really, really, really smart. And she had smart graduate students and postdocs around her – she nurtured them as well. So, a few points: Israel and the U.S. are working on cybersecurity together via universities. We need to encourage even more smart students. I would love if more STEM programs were geared toward teenage girls. But the boys need the encouragement as well! But I think girls learn differently than boys, so we could have more than one kind of program.

    Too often the people in charge, in the U.S. government and elsewhere, are not the smartest in the room. So they might not be making the best choices about who to put in charge of security and safety (I'm thinking of the Amtrak incident as well).
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    1. Excellent feedback. Leora! The problem category, however, are young men with hacking skills that seldom make it to university. How can we find them at an early age and, hopefully, turn them into white hats?

      1. Catarina, making the bad guys into the good guys sounds like a good idea, but unfortunately, I don't think it is very realistic. Also, if you know anything about web security and hacking, you know that you don't have to be all that bright to be a bad guy hacker. In fact, that is how web security is taught – they teach young people to break into systems. Now to stop a hacker, especially with servers that have too many security holes, that takes more brains.

        I keep wanting to learn more and more about web security … always more to learn.
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        1. Yes, that's lamentable, Leora. But don't you think it would make some difference if guys from a bad background were found when they are young and turned into white hats? That doesn't change the fact that companies and authorities worldwide have to take online security seriously.

          1. " But don't you think it would make some difference if guys from a bad background were found when they are young and turned into white hats? " – of course, it would! It would be wonderful! But doesn't sound realistic or attainable. "companies and authorities worldwide have to take online security seriously" – much more realistic goal, in my opinion. Still very hard.

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          2. Absolutely, Leora, to solve this kind or problems is enormously difficult. But everything that can be done needs to be done. Even if just 5% of potential black hats are found and turned it would make a difference. An abundance of poor guys all over the world turn to cybercrime. Same thing applies to companies and authorities taking online security seriously. It's time for the world to wake up to this fairly new issue. Considering that a global law is unlikely every little counts:-)

  2. Very interesting post, Catarina! Yes, I agree that governments should employ the most talented IT people possible, and if that means finding the 'nerds' you speak of, so be it. The sensitive comm'ns of our leaders need to be protected and secure.
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  3. The thing about "bad guy" hackers is they will always be motivated to stay one step ahead of "good guy" hackers. That being said, of course greater measures need to be taken to protect everyone's online security.

    1. That's why hackers need to be found at an early age, Jeri. And for the ones that need a challenge quite a few companies worldwide are paying white hats to hack their websites. And those guys are not only taking on a challenge, they are well paid too. Hacking is a new phenomena that the world, so far, has not found was of handling. To just give up and say crime is the name of the game is definitely not going to work. On the contrary. Then we would all need to get into cybercrime:-)

  4. Catarina, I found this post fascinating and a bit scary. It’s a whole new way of spying, isn’t it. I agree that governments, the military, financial businesses, and any other business that could provide damaging information to the wrong people need to do something about and right now. Your idea of hiring hackers is excellent. You stated that teachers know who they are – I think that is the time to approach these young people, while still in school. At that time they may still be impressed when approached by leaders to work for them. Once they’re out in the workforce or looking for work, the dollar may become more important and they are more prone to go to the highest bidder.

    1. Glad you agree with me, Lenie. Just don't forget that we also need to protect our computers and websites. If not our computers could be used by hackers to say hack the Pentagon:-)

  5. My view is that governments are treating cybercrime in much the same way as they're treating climate change. They know it's happening, and it will get worse, but it's difficult to quantify accurately and expensive to address properly, so rather delay it and let "the next government" have the problem…

    I agree that the 'poacher turned gamekeeper' concept is a great one, and that those involved with hacking should be shown they can make a good living and have even more challenges by putting up defenses against other hackers.

    Governments really need to start being concerned about problems that will arise beyond their current term of office (climate change, massive deficits, hacking, etc…) but I suspect this won't change, unfortunately.

  6. I thought they didn’t access his account, but accessed people that got email from his account. So they got emails he sent but not through his account but via State Department accounts (the State Department IT has been messed up for a long time).

  7. It is very scary that the government is so vulnerable to being hacked. I remember seeing a news report on the threat of hackers to the Presidency some years ago. I'm not sure what the answer is. I do feel that whoever we choose to be helping on the side of good, it is important to have a thorough character assessment as well as evaluate their technical skills. It is an uphill battle, but we need to fight to continually stay ahead of the bad guys so things like this don't happen. .

    1. Glad you agree, Erica. Don't you think nerds get into crime when they can't get a job and are shunned by society. When they discover that they can make a fortune through criminal activity they go for it. What would have happended if they had been given a job?

  8. Catarina, I agree hacking is a problem that authorities and businesses need to deal with. And the hackers get more and more sophisticated. Hiring the gifted hackers to become “white hats” is one way to deal with this, but I don’t think it will completely solve it. Can a government find and hire all the potential hackers? And then do they need to monitor them for the couple of bad apples that might actually turn out to be double agents? And it doesn’t deal with the issue of the organizations and governments willing to provide financial backing to hackers in order to serve their own malicious purposes. I don’t know how one addresses the more systematic issues.

    1. Absolutely, Donna. But the world needs to start somewhere. When someone is already a black hat it's too late. Then they can only be presented with the Israeli option of going to jail or work for the government. But as it is governments worldwide are ignoring the issue hoping it will go away. By the way, the US government also hacks websites all over the world too. Like with humanity throughout history you will have some criminals. There's no avoiding it. But we can at least make hacking a profession and find gifted hackers at an early age to at least try to stop them becoming criminals.

  9. I'm not sure that there are people in leadership positions who simply hope hackers will go away but I'm pretty sure there are many who think hackers are someone else's problem. They are in fact thieves and like pre-digital thieves every time you put up a security wall there is someone who will discover a new vulnerability.

    1. The bottom line, Ken, is that people in leadership positions need to start taking hackers seriously. There is no excuse for the White House not hiring people that can stop intrusions.

  10. Hackers are the scourge of the earth – But I find it hard to believe that the US government – well any of the western governments for that matter, do not have the resources available to stop hackers. It's ludicrous that we should leave ourself and our security to the hands of hackers. They seem a particularly unscrupulous lot.
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    1. For some reason governments worldwide are ignoring the problem, AK. Isn't it unbelieveable that the White House isn't thoroughly protected. It's a really difficult issue to solve, but the world needs to try harder.

  11. Catarina, For the most part, I agree with everything you are saying. This is a huge problem and much more needs to be done to solve it and I like your suggestions.

    However, what I seem to get stuck on, is the constant referral of these IT people as “nerds/nurds.” Am I the only person that thinks the labeling of these highly intelligent kids throughout high school and college this way is part of what has led them to be anti-social and unable to interact with others? And then we wonder why they turn to a life of cybercrime…where they can finally get noticed and BE somebody important. Even if important is in a negative way. Maybe it’s just me, but that’s my two cents. Let’s make them important -hackers working for good for the government, using their intelligence, and not continue to label them as nerds.

    1. Agree with you, Susan. But don't you think the anti-social guys that know how to hack are the ones that are problematic? They are often natural talents and many of them have not been to high school and definitely not university. The fact that their skills and intelligence is not recognized is a huge problem. We need to make hacking a well paid profession in order to avoid them turing to cybercrime. The guy I mentioned in Sweden that's now in Russia fits the profile I'm describing.

  12. The island hopping technique – attacking the spokes rather than the hub is brilliant, although I hate to compliment that sort of activity. Hackers are so clever, always staying a step ahead. I guess hiring them is a way of getting into their predatory minds. That won’t work for the ones who just want the prestige, of course.

    1. They should be hired and hacker should be a profession, don't you think, Beth. It's still a fairly new phenomena that society still hasn't found enough ways of handling and benefitting from. Don't you think there would be less hackers that felt the need to prove themselves when it's a recognized profession? As it is they are often shunned by society.

  13. I completely agree that cybercrime is probably just in its infancy, and that it poses a greater threat than other forms of aggressive acts. Technology is changing so quickly and governments are not known for moving at lightning speed, so I think hiring hackers is a good move, but there’s also room for so much to go wrong.

    1. Glad you agree with me, Meredith. Apart from hiring hackers and make hacker a profession, what can be done? Global cyberlaws would go a long way but it's virtually impossible to achieve.

  14. Yes, organisations do need to protect themselves against hacking. It is extremely concerning that Russians were able to hack into Obama's account. What chance does anyone else stand?

  15. Well at least the emails were unclassified. I agree with Jeanette…these guys always seem to be one step ahead. And they do make more money being on the wrong side. I'm not sure you can appeal to their patriotism! Hackers will be the only ones who can stem this; governments need to find a way to get to the nerds early and turn them. It's a bane on every government and will soon affect the general public in very real ways. We've seen a few, but unless we can stem the tide it will get much worse.

    1. Exactly, Jacqueline, governments worldwide need to find hackers when they are still young. It's too late when they have already turned to crime. Then what the Israelis do apply i.e. go to jail or work for the government.

  16. Where you end your post is where my thinking starts Catarina: we haven't seen ANYTHING yet, and that is frightening. Certainly most of us have heard this.

    I don't think governments are turning a blind eye as much as they still think in their ivory towers that they have somehow the power to overcome this because many of them are criminal in other ways. That causes them to do less than a thorough job to find the best computer security techs who know just as much as the hackers do on their side. They have to.

    I'm NOT saying Russian hackers accessed Obama’s email because he is a gangster at all, so please don't misinterpret. My thinking is these crimes are happening more and more frequently because our world leaders, in general, commit crimes more and more. Whether it's them or their staff. So maybe, it's karma. The hacker realm is payback just enough to drive all of us to distraction. Then, we can't get ahead of them kind of spinning our wheels in the muck of it all.
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    1. Not all hackers were criminals to start with, Patricia. Look at the guy in Sweden who is now in Russia. It was a completely normal guy from a normal background who could not get a job. He suddenly discovered that he could make a lot of money by using his skills. Don't forget that nerds often have huge problems interacting with other people. Mark Zuckerberg is a case in point. The guy in the corner who didn't participate in the conversation. What would have happened to him if he had come from a poor background? Those are the guys that need to be found by governments to use their skills for the good of society. Hacking needs to become a profession.

      1. Hmmm. Not sure I even implied that all hackers were criminals to start with? How is it that was your take away?

        My point, there are bad things that happen because there is bad in the world. And one person's bad actions will attract another KIND of bad action, whether it's from an inherently bad person or a person who for some reason is now doing bad.

        But until the government officials act on more than their own behalf and let go of their greed, it's more of a stalemate that some evil, will go unchecked. It's LOA in action.
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        1. Kind of yes, Patricia. Politicians worldwide need to stop acting to further their own interest and stop implementing neoliberalism. The latter has robbed the world on behalf of the top 0.1 percent of the population. Sure they set a bad example and the poverty and unemployment they have created on a global scale is staggering. And that affects IT nerds that can't get a job to some degree. Sometimes I'm at campus and meet up with some of them. A few are nice and friendly and they are doing well in society. It's the ones that are anti-social, to put it mildly, that are most likely to become problematic. They can't get a job because they are not able to interact with others. It's those that need to be found in order to stop them from turning to cybercrime. It's actually very much in the interest of corporate donors to do something about cybercrime. So it shouldn't be too difficult for politicians to make corporations cooperate and give jobs to gifted nurds. It will actually save them a lot of money. But the problem of that category of nurds we would have had even if politicians behaved better. We can't erradicate greed. It has always existed and always will. So until we sort out global laws that govern cyberspace the problem o nurds turning to crime will exist. And there will always be some. But less if they are found at a young age.

  17. Catarina — the U.S. government and private security teams have hired hackers but the "bad guys" are always one step ahead of the "good guys." Also, it is more lucrative to be on the wrong side of the law. They can make a lot more money through criminal endeavors. And a lot of hackers don't do it for the money. They want the prestige in the hacker community that comes with hacking important accounts such as the President of the US or the Pentagon.
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    1. Yes, Jeannette, the US followed in Israel's footsteps. But I'm sure you miss a lot of nerds who can't get a job and end up as black hat hackers. And it's also not enought that the United States has started doing what Israel does. All countries in the world must do so as well. Look at the young Swede I mentioned. He alone has caused a lot of trouble on a global scale. What's done in the United States to find gifted nurds at an early age and make sure they don't end up as criminals? White hats could be as inventive as black hats provided they have the incentive to do so. What incentives do white hats working at, say, the Pentagon have to do so?

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