Internet & Tech

The hack pack

How school dropouts become online thieves

The hack pack

Student hacktivist at work

In China, hacking is the new national sport. There are hacker conferences, hacker training schools and magazines with names like Hacker X-Files and Hacker Defence.

“Guaranteed successful attack tools!” is how Black Hawk Safety Net, the country’s largest hacker-training school based in Hubei, advertised its online academy for hackers. “Spare one minute to learn and you’ll make your life more exciting.”

The pitch certainly struck a chord with the country’s bored young males. According to Wuhan Evening Post, the Black Hawk site has raised more than $1 million in membership fees from 12,000 paying members since 2005. Though it only offers “training,” industry observers say the majority of its business came from selling malicious software tools for penetrating computer security systems and online accounts.

But the Black Hawk site is a thing of the past. In a crackdown on hacking activities, police in Hubei closed down the website in November and arrested three of its ringleaders.

The country’s heike, or “black visitors” – the Chinese term for hacker – are unfazed, mind you. Although the Black Hawk site was an important one, members say they don’t believe the bust will make a dent in China’s hacking culture. Hacking tools are widely available on many Chinese-language sites that are located outside of the country.

Computer hacking is popular in China as a way to gain access to online game accounts, which may have points, virtual weapons or other virtual assets that may be transferred or spent. With a sizzling online gaming market (see WiC38), hacking is big business.

“There is a huge underground market,” says Zhang Yumu, vice-president of Beijing Rising International Software, one of the largest domestic security firms. “The major revenue for hackers comes from breaking into online gaming accounts, and selling virtual items like weapons and clothes.”

A recent report by state-broadcaster CCTV said that “Trojan horses” make up a market that is expected to be worth Rmb10 billion ($1.46 billion) this year. These programmes allows hackers to gain remote access to computers belonging to other people, so that they can tap into users’ bank account as well.

“It is not very difficult to do simple hacking tasks. Some hackers are teenagers who dropped out of school and make money by stealing accounts,” adds Zhang.

Lured by easy money, more and more teenagers are dropping out of school to become hackers. A CEO of a major Chinese technology company complained to 21CN Business Herald that even professional programmers are also giving up their day jobs to become heike.

“Most of the members are really young, still students, and they are drawn by the mystique of being a hacker,” said a well-known Chinese hacker who goes by the name Lyon. “Such organisations are a hotbed for internet crimes. And they tend to attract many fresh graduates in computer science who can’t find good jobs these days.”

But some hackers say their motives are purely political.

“We are the real patriotic youth. We’ll target anti-China websites across the nation and send it as a birthday gift to our country,” boasted a website called 2009.90, which, when opened, showed an image of a fluttering Chinese flag.

These so-called patriotic hackers have a history of waging war against other nations. For instance, in 1999, after US planes bombed Beijing’s embassy in Belgrade, and again in 2001, when a Chinese fighter crashed after a collision with a US surveillance plane, Chinese hackers conducted cyber battles with their US counterparts. And more recently, after the Chinese search engine Baidu was attacked by Iranian hackers, Chinese hackers retaliated, putting national flags and patriotic slogans on some Iranian government websites (see WiC46).

But cracking down on hackers is not straightforward, as determining the origin of attacks is becoming increasingly difficult. While Google alleged that the hacking attempts it faced originated from China, for instance, experts briefed on the attacks say they were actually traced to servers in Taiwan.

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