THE BLOG
22/08/2012 07:27 BST | Updated 22/10/2012 06:12 BST

The Rise of Cyber Crime Ambition

If you haven't been the victim of an attack just yet, it doesn't necessarily mean that you're not vulnerable to it. Exercising more common sense and a bit more self-awareness can go a long way. Learning from the misfortune of others means that you might think that little bit more carefully about safeguarding your own personal freedom rather than handing it over to the bad guys. And with attackers becoming more ambitious with their targets, the more we can do to hinder them, the better.

The origin of spam is somewhat odd and author Mark Forsyth offers a great explanation of the word's arrival into the English language in his book The Etymologicon. It started with a harmless can of SPAM in 1930s America and quickly turned into a 1970s Monty Python sketch that mocked the popularity of the processed food during the Second World War. The sketch sees two people thrown into a dingy British café, where everything on the menu contains SPAM. A group of Vikings in the same café begin to sing a little ditty, the words of which were "SPAM, SPAM, SPAM...."

This sketch soon found its way to the early computer programmers, who wrote clever programs to show off their technical skills to peers. One of the more popular programs was a simple prank, with the first command being to generate and type the word SPAM on the computer screen. The second command was to repeat the first. And so the user's screen would be filled with the lyrics of Monty Python's song. By the 1990s, SPAM became programmer's slang for anything unwanted on the Internet, and so our modern meaning of 'spam' was born.

Since then, spam has truly evolved from its earlier, primitive desktop PC form to reaching the palm of the consumer. The 21st century ushered in a truly digital era, where the 'Internet of Things' sees consumers increasingly using Internet-connected devices such as smartphones, tablets and personal gaming devices. These devices have not only brought us closer to our nearest and dearest, but they have also connected us to cybercriminals, who exploit the proliferation of these devices for their own personal gain.

As we become more digitally inclined, so do cyber crime syndicates. This is highlighted by the recent string of attacks against high-profile companies, which hit headlines in July. But where will this ambition stop? What will be the next target for attackers? And how can consumers protect themselves against these increased efforts?

This summer was a prime time for online security breaches with Dropbox, Lastfm, eHarmony, LinkedIn and Yahoo being thrust into the limelight for all the wrong reasons - as the latest victims of the scamming community. The attacks themselves weren't particularly complex, but exploited the lack of awareness and common sense of consumers navigating these websites. The common thread linking all these attacks was passwords, as Dropbox and Yahoo both cited poor password strength as one of the main reasons why they were left open to attack.

Of course, it's not always the consumer's fault - while password strength plays a key role in gaining access to your LinkedIn profile or Dropbox folder, hackers are adept at finding loopholes and hidden gateways into company networks and systems. As a result, not only is it necessary for consumers to do their part in securing personal data with strong and varied passwords or PIN numbers, online companies also need to take additional security measures. These measures, which can take the form of security questions or secure card readers, are there to protect both the consumer and the company, rather than stand as an obstacle or hinderance and as such should be encouraged and embraced by the consumer.

From these attacks, we can see that as tech innovators try to level the competitive playing field by releasing the latest gadget or service and we rush to become the early adopters, the scammers will follow. We are inadvertently increasing the number of attack vectors available, allowing the bad guys to raise the stakes with their crime.

With cyber criminals mirroring our every move, what does the future of cyber crime look like? What's next on the hacker's bucket list? The 'Internet of Things' has undoubtedly become a double-edged sword. As Misha Glenny suggested in DarkMarket: CyberThieves, CyberCops and You, "the benefits of living in a digital, globalised society are enormous; so too are the dangers."

We've recently had a glimpse into the future, thanks to the annual Black Hat USA 2012 conference last month. The future sees hackers turning their attention to medical devices, smart meters, cars and even hotel key cards. Some information security professionals have gone as far to suggest that cyber intrusions into everyday, household items such as fridges and small appliances could potentially wreak havoc on our privacy, personal well-being and purse strings. There's no end to the possibilities, as scammers see the digital world as a playground waiting to be discovered. However, if left to their own devices, the repercussions of their new-found confidence could be grave. We can still continue to enjoy the many innovations and conveniences provided by the digital realm, but as individuals we cannot turn our back on the responsibility we have in upholding our own cyber protection through Internet best practice.

According to a recent report by Experian, consumers have an average of 26 online accounts but only use around five different passwords. When it comes to passwords, always think variety and strength. The easier your password is to guess, the easier it is for hackers to steal your personal information. Using many different passwords with a mixture of upper and lower case letters, numbers and punctuation marks will keep your accounts more secure. If a provider company, such as LinkedIn, is hacked, regardless of whether you have been a victim or not you should change your password for your profile. If you're using that same password elsewhere, you should look to change that too. If not, you're making it very easy for attackers to infiltrate other accounts.

If you're looking to download apps, make sure this is from a reputable app store. If you're not sure, err on the side of caution and choose a store that you are comfortable with. The same goes for websites - read the terms of use and familiarise yourself with their Internet policies. If something seems awry, ask your service provider for assistance.

If you haven't been the victim of an attack just yet, it doesn't necessarily mean that you're not vulnerable to it. Exercising more common sense and a bit more self-awareness can go a long way. Learning from the misfortune of others means that you might think that little bit more carefully about safeguarding your own personal freedom rather than handing it over to the bad guys. And with attackers becoming more ambitious with their targets, the more we can do to hinder them, the better.