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Computer hacking is when someone mucks about in a computer or system they aren't supposed to. "Hacking" also often refers to the methods by which computer hackers gain unauthorized access to a computer. While computer hackers in movies and media come across as pretty innocuous, the reality is that international crime rings are rapidly replacing the lone hacker as the source of computer hacking woes.
And hacking today results in real crime: phishing schemes collect personal data used in identity theft, social engineering gains passwords that expose tens of thousands of credit card numbers, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. What are the effects of computer hacking? How about half a billion dollars a year in the United States alone? That's $559 million last year.
We can break down two broad categories of computer hacking: computer hacking focused on obtaining data and computer hacking focused on destroying data or slowing networks.
Image Credit: sqback at sxc.hu
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Effects of Computer Hacking Focused on Obtaining Data
Social engineering is the most common computer hacking method, hands-down. It sounds complicated, but all "social engineering" means is manipulating other people to gain information that gives you access to computers or networks. Think of a hacker calling up a bank, telling them they're with IT and need the administrative login password to the server to perform maintenance. It sounds silly on paper, but experienced social engineering hackers know how to persuade people to reveal information.
The most notorious social engineer ever is Kevin Mitnick. Once the most wanted hacker in the world, he spent five years in prison in the late 1990s after being convicted of computer fraud, phone fraud, and hacking networks to steal software. Mitnick claims he gained access to computers through social engineering alone. Mitnick's escapades weren't very malicious (in fact, they don't appear to have resulted in measurable damage at all, but I hesitate to go that far), and did not cost his victims large measureable amounts of money in lost productivity or repairs, but his preferred computer hacking method- social engineering, which often boils down to pretending to be somebody of importance and getting people to tell their passwords- has been adopted by malicious computer hackers worldwide to cause $billions in damage.
What are the effects of computer hacking that's focused on obtaining data?
- trade secrets may be compromised
- personal details of individuals or customers, such as address information, social security numbers, bank account data, and credit card numbers may be used for identity theft, a $50 billion problem
- keystroke loggers — software or sometimes hardware that records every key press on a computer's keyboard for the hacker to access — may reveal passwords and other important security information
Once a hacker has such access to a computer, the computer might be turned into a zombie. Sure, it sounds amusing, but the description is apt: a zombie computer is controlled by the hacker, either directly or through a program, to engage in computer hacking itself by sending spam or phishing emails.
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Computer Hacking Focused on Destroying Data or Slowing Networks
One crude yet highly successful method of slowing networks and taking websites down is the DOS (denial of service) attack. The damage from DOS attacks is fairly easily quantified: according to Richard Power of the Computer Security Institute, "If you're conducting e-business and you're counting on $600,000 an hour in revenue, like Amazon, and your service is disrupted by a denial of service attack, you can start with the figure $600,000 for every hour that you're down. If you're Cisco and you're making $7 million a day online, and you're down for a day, you've lost $7 million."
Viruses (a term I'm using generically for viruses, trojans, and worms) leave no question as to what are the effects of computer hacking. They may perform some of the data-obtaining functions mentioned above, such as key logging but they're best known for destroying and overwriting data, and slowing networks with overwhelming activity. Here are some of the most destructive viruses in computer hacking history:
- Melissa (1999) — spread via email, cost up to $600 million in damage
- Blaster (2003) — spread over networks, cost up to $10 billion in damage and infected hundreds of thousands of computers
- Sobig (2003) — spread via email attachment, cost up to $10 billion in damage, infected 1 million+ computers
- Love Letter (2000) — also known as ILOVEYOU, spread via email attachment, cost up to $15 billion in damage
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So what are the effects of computer hacking? The effects are astronomical amounts of money in lost productivity and sales. Computer hacking also, we've seen, can take a huge personal toll on the individual who finds themself targeted by social engineering computer hacking techniques to steal their credit card numbers and other information. Computer hacking is no longer just a semi-romantic poking about government mainframes by computer nerds; more often it's serious crime perpetrated by serious criminals and crime rings.