This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Shambhu Upadhyaya

is professor of computer science and engineering, and director of UB’s Center of Excellence in Information Systems Assurance Research and Education (CEISARE), whose work includes studying cybersecurity and training students to protect the nation’s information technology systems.

With hacker collectives carrying out high-profile cyber attacks—most recently claiming to have stolen a large trove of data including personal information from U.S. law enforcement agencies—Upadhyaya talks about how much of a threat these groups really pose to cybersecurity.

  • Shambhu Upadhyaya

Published: August 18, 2011

Are hacker groups like Anonymous the biggest threats to cybersecurity today?

No. Groups such as Anonymous, LulzSec, AntiSec, etc. belong to a special group who indulge in ‘hacktivism’—hacking and activism. They are largely a sympathizer of “freedom of information,” and their agenda is basically to protest what they perceive as violation of freedom of information or violation of privacy. These attacks are not aimed at individuals but against organizations. Based on the recent arrests across the country and in the U.K., it appears that the group consists of juveniles who want to get some notoriety. They are not big threats because they indulge in denial-of-service attacks—creating nuisances such as defacing of websites, slowing down online accesses on the Internet, etc.—and occasionally stealing sensitive information, such as password files, social security information, etc.

What are some of the most important threats to cybersecurity today?

The biggest threat to cybersecurity is attacks on the nation’s critical infrastructure, such as the electric power grid, transportation system, financial network and military assets. We have seen attacks on the Pentagon’s $300 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter project in April 2009, where the attackers stole some critical/sensitive information. Hactivism attacks of the type of Anonymous, LulzSec, AntiSec, etc. cannot be ignored, but they are of much lower risk compared to the attacks aimed at the nation’s critical infrastructure.

What are some new approaches being developed to prevent cyber attacks?

The Cybersecurity and Internet Freedom Act of 2011 proposed by Congress will help fight cyber attacks. It focuses on training and recruiting a cybersecurity workforce to protect the critical assets of the nation. Companies and academia are doing research on cybersecurity to counter cyber attacks, but there is no magical solution for this problem yet. There will never be a complete solution for cyber attacks because they involve a combination of process, technology and people—the people becoming the weakest link in the security chain. As an individual, one should use strong passwords and apply security patches to his systems constantly. One should not open unsolicited and suspicious emails and attachments. Such good practices will prevent a number of attacks and make you somewhat secure.

What else should the public be aware of regarding groups like Anonymous?

The latest Anonymous activity is its alleged threat to attack Facebook because it does not agree with Facebook’s privacy-protection measures—it perceives that Facebook is spying on users’ privacy and colludes with law-enforcement agencies to “unprotect” users’ privacy. This kind of activism/protest is illegal and constitutes a cyber crime.

Anonymous showed solidarity to WikiLeaks last year when WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was arrested. As an act of sympathy, it attacked Visa, MasterCard and online payment companies, such as PayPal, because these companies broke ties with WikiLeaks. Anonymous also attacked Fox News and CIA websites. The FBI went after Anonymous and made several arrests recently in the U.S. and U.K. Other sympathizer groups, such as AntiSec, attacked several law-enforcement agency websites in retaliation for the arrest of Anonymous members.