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Is this the World’s first real cyber war?

In 2016 a piece of malicious code was attached to a popular accounting package in the Ukraine. Although the publishers strenuously deny it, all the indicators point to the code being part of an update to Ukraine’s MEDoc accounting software package. This gave birth to the ransomware that came to be known as Petya. But is it really ransomware or are we seeing the first salvo of a true cyber-war?

First came the Wannacry ransomware that had a devastating effect, in terms of infecting systems. It relied on a single flaw to access computer systems. Once inside a system, it quickly spread to all the computers attached to that system. The code itself, was rather amateurish, with a simple kill switch (registering the domain it was looking for). However in hindsight, was it a test for what was to follow?

Next came the Petya ransomware. This spread in a similar manner to Wannacry but unlike Wannacry, it uses multiple flaws to get around computer security measures. This one is playing havoc with the Ukraine power grid and somehow jumped from there to some hospital systems in the USA.

Both of these were ransomware. They demanded a payment in Bitcoin. We assume the objective was for profit. The Wannacry ransomware was removed once confirmation of payment was received. So far we have no evidence that any system infected by the Petya ransomware, has been freed, once the money has been paid.

Now we have the next evolution – the “Not-Petya” or “Netya” ransomware. Like the Petya ransomware, this uses a variety of vulnerabilities to gain entry into a system. Once inside, it wreaks havoc by encrypting the files, like Petya and displays a ransom note. However, the Netya ransomware then attacks the master boot record (MBR), crashing the entire system, to the point where it will not start up at all – no more ransom note. This begs the question, if the ransom note cannot be displayed, was the goal really ransom?

If there is no way to make any payment, no ransom note and no master boot record to start the computer up, to the point where it can operate, then what was the purpose of the attack? Even if the MBR was repaired, the files are encrypted – unreadable.

Experts in several computer security companies agree that the Netya attack code was designed on a large budget. There are examples of repeated amendments to the code after trials. That is not usual where a single person or few hackers have collaborated. This looks like a larger group of very professional programmers, have spent a lot of time writing multiple exploits, for a wide range of vulnerabilities. If we are not looking at a small group on a tight budget, then we are looking at an organisation. There’s no demand for payment or any way to recover the files, so what was their aim?

The only option left, is cyber-war.

Let’s look at the evidence:

  1. The USA claims Russia hacked the emails of different election candidates to swing the votes in favour of Donald Trump, a self confessed friend of Vladamir Putin and therefore Russia. They claim to have evidence that points to Russia directly.
  2. The French claim to have evidence of Russian cyber tampering with their recent elections.
  3. The Petya and Netya ransomware first attacks appear in the Ukraine – a country at war with Russia, the perfect test bed for a cyber attack.
  4. There appears to be a progression of developments and tests leading up to the Netya ransomware. Not typical of a sole operator. Were these tests for Netya or is something worse coming?
  5. The code seems to be written by an organisation aiming to disable systems en masse, not for any financial gain.

Postscript

Since writing this, the Netya attack has jumped from the Ukraine and USA to thousands of other systems in various countries, as far away as a chocolate business in Tasmania, Australia.

8. Cryptocurrency – Digital Wallet

Every financial system, whether cyber or real, has a weaker link. The weakest point in Bitcoin is the owner of the digital wallet. It relies on you as owner to secure your stash of Bitcoin, your digital wallet.

Your digital wallet should be treated the same as your real world wallet. Because Bitcoin is able to transact anywhere in the world, without exchanges, it can also be targeted from anywhere in the world too. The Blockchain is digitally more secure than any bank, both through it’s encryption and the fact that it is visible worldwide, so any tampering is easily spotted. In a bank, we rely on our inhouse security people to spot a digital attack. In the Blockchain we have millions of people at any one time, many of them extremely competent programmers, watching for any hint of attack.

A hacker would have to be very brave to successfully crack the Blockchain, even if they could find a way. They would have every one of the world’s top hackers and security expert after them.

If a hacker was able to get to your digital wallet, they can only steal the bitcoins stored there in that one wallet. Unlike a bank, where many accounts are secured by one blanket security system, allowing the cyber theif to steal from multiple accounts. In the Bitcoin system, each wallet is completely stand alone – not connected to another wallet.

There are services that claim they can store your wallet on line. Be very wary. Very few have sufficient security to withstand a concerted cyber attack. Remember they are not banks.

You should only keep a small amount of Bitcoins in your digital wallet, on your computer or smart phone. Just like your real wallet, you wouldn’t put your life savings all in there. Should anything go wrong, like you phone get stolen and hacked, your computer get hacked, a hard disk failure and any similar disaster, you will only lose a small portion of your Bitcoins.

The remainder of your Bitcoin should be kept in what is called “cold storage”. This is kept off line, off your computer on a flash drive or some other removable memory device. This is important because any electronic device connected to the Internet (including a phone network) has the potential to be attacked. Hackers are getting more and more talented all the time. It’s not practical to say any system is foolproof.

You need to keep multiple backups of your digital wallet and cold store. I don’t mean keep a second copy on your computer on D drive, when you computer has two hard drives. Usually this is a second partition of the same disk as C drive. I mean you keep a backup copy on more than one media; say a memory stick and a removable hard drive of memory card and then remove these from your phone and or computer. DVDs and Cds will degrade with time and can be easily scratched. Memory sticks can suddenly not work. The safest practice is to use two different media (eg two memory sticks) and place a copy on each.

Passwords should be complex, not simple dictionary words and use two layers of security to identify you, eg, password and PIN or security question.

If all this sounds complicated, it’s because we are at the infancy stages of crypto-currency and the amount you think is tiny today cold be a fortune in 5 years time. If it is, you’d be grateful the today, you took these steps to make it secure. To put it into perspective, if you opened a bank account today, for the first time, the rigmarole would be worse.

Remember when Lazlo Hanyecz bought his pizza back in 2010, with Bitcoins, they were worth 0.0041 cents each, today(8th September 2016) those Bitcoins are worth over $825.13 NZD or $802.24AUD each.

Google – Too big to listen?

These days companies today are cutting back on their customer service staff, in an effort to push up their profits. Those that can’t completely eradicate their customer service departments, are resorting to using telecenters in third world countries, where employees earn a pittance.

But one has broken the mould entirely – Google has decided it is so big that it doesn’t need to supply any customer service for its non-paying customers. Their “Contact” pages lead you in a merry circle where you end up at their FAQ pages with no answers to your problem.

It might make corporate sense to the bean counters but it is a marketing disaster waiting to happen.

Any market is driven by needs and as long as you satisfy your customers needs, you have a market. If you don’t meet your customer’s needs, eventually someone else will and you will lose you market.

Google is relying on the fact that it is so big, that it can overlook the little people. They rose to their current position through the little people, creating a search engine that met their needs, better than their rivals, Yahoo.

As their popularity rose, they used their traffic to create an income from advertising, creating paying customers – all founded on the non-paying public – the little guys, the ones they don’t provide a customers service for anymore.

If you go onto their forum, which is not actually run by them, you will fins hundreds of comments all ending with a questions like, “Does anyone know how to contact Google Helpdesk?”, “How can I raise a ticket?” or “How can I tell Google about this?”

This is Google’s foundation, all expressing a need that Google is not meeting – you don’t get a prize for guessing what is going to happen next.

Like most Internet Marketers, I thought of Google Adsense for advertising for my sites, added their script and after a bit of fine tuning, sat back and waited for the money to come in.

Because there was no-one to advise me, I found out by accident that somehow, I had placed ads for a site with no content, on a website with over 75 pages of content and 4.5 million visitors. Well I think I might have because Google sent an email to me, saying they were closing down their Adsense for sites with no content and that it would effect two of my websites.With no helpdesk, I have no way of knowing. Just to make sure I wasn’t wasting my money,  I stopped my Adwords too – they lost one paying customer.

It’s not rocket science: Customer service

You might think I’m having a good old moan but I’m not. Several important points arose out of this.

  1. I found another even better pay per click advertising provider and these guys focus on what the viewer is looking for as well as the website content, to get a better hit rate.
  2. Google wants me to pay $58.00 US for their helpdesk to fix their mistake. Isn’t that putting the cart before the horse? (How convenient – Let’s stuff up some accounts so we can make some money!) . . . Hello Google it’s YOUR mistake, so how much are you going to pay ME for the hassles YOU caused?
  3. I discovered that my little problem is widespread and others have tried to contact Google , who have not fixed it, so I can save valuable time trying and move on to another supplier.
  4. I also discovered a massive black hole in Google’s security. The way they have set up Gmail, someone can simply take over your email as well as your entire Google account and probably, if they are smart, your Internet identity (I’ll cover that next session)

I did a Google search (how ironic) for another supplier of PPC (pay per click) advertising and found several suppliers. I carefully went through their websites and then sent them a message, using their contact page. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice – I wanted someone who was there if I needed help and someone who answered promptly. Chitika came out on top. They answered my email that day and I also received a phone call from them as well. I signed up and placed their ads on one of my sites the next day  I get a referral commission if you click on the link and decide to sign up with Chitika but I would also personally recommend them whether I received any commission or not and here’s why:

  1. First and foremost is their help – there’s email, phone and instant messaging with a real person, right now.
  2. I’m in Australia and Google will only pay me when my account has over $150.00 US in it. Chitika pays into Paypal when I have over $10.00 revenue or sends a check when I have over $50 revenue in my Chitika account.
  3. They explain things so I can understand them.
  4. Their add code is better set out than Google’s Ads code – it’s much easier to find it in a page of HTML script.
  5. I can try Chitika ads alongside Google Adsense, so there’s no risk trying out Chitika.

Looking at the Google users forum, Google has done something to lose people’s passwords because there is a spate of questions asking how to contact Google because suddenly their passwords stopped working. There also seems to be high number of reports of people’s emails ending up in other’s accounts and email accounts being hijacked and like many IT companies, Google’s security is a knee jerk reaction that leaves a gaping hole in their armour but more on that in the next instalment.