6 no-joke insights into real hackers’ motivations

April 1, 20185 minute read

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Getting pwned by a phishing text message may not be your idea of a good time, but for some hackers, every day is April Fool’s Day. Research into hackers’ motivations reveals most—sometimes as many as 93 percent—launch attacks with financial goals in mind. But “fun” is also among the most commonly cited motives for cybercrime. There are countless stories of humorous hacks, like the one time “Stackoverflowin'” found 150,000 unsecured printer ports and printed out memes.

Falling prey to an elaborate prank in the office on April Fool’s Day is never fun, but facing a security breach is even worse. That said, it’s useful to think of cybercrime in the context of practical jokes. After all, hackers are just pranksters who want to sink your entire company infrastructure, right? There’s value in knowing what makes these terrible tricksters tick. Luckily, the recent “2018 Hacker Report” by HackerOne revealed some shocking stats about hackers’ motivations, demographics, tools, and more.

1. Understand why they do it

Money is still among the main reasons hackers and script kiddies exchange Ransomware as a Service and use your endpoints for cryptojacking. However, there’s more to a hacker’s motivation than financial gain. Per HackerOne, here are some driving factors in the hacking community:

  • 14 percent seek a challenge
  • 12 percent desire career advancement
  • 3 percent just want to show off

If your mind is struggling to bend around this data, it gets weirder: One in 10 hackers are driven to “do good in the world.” Now, hackers might not be just like you and me, but based on this data, it kind of sounds like they are.

2. Sometimes, hackers want to help you

Twenty-five percent of hackers have discovered a bug, but not reported it, because they weren’t able to find the right channel for sharing their discovery. If your organization hasn’t addressed white-hat hacker discoveries or bug bounties, it may be time to start talking about it. Twenty-three percent of white hats are admittedly driven by decent bounties to make security discoveries.

3. They don’t always fly solo

The hacking community isn’t anything new. In fact, MafiaBoy revealed he was part of an active online community way back in 2000. Less than a third of hackers are lone-wolf cybercriminals. Nine percent regularly work with teams, 8 percent have a hacking mentor or student, and nearly one-third use online resources to learn from other hacking stars.

If you’re not keeping up with the latest security research, it’s time to start. Hackers use their communities to stay on top of vulnerabilities and security discoveries, so if you want to keep up, you need to be one step ahead of them at all times.

4. Hackers like targeting your endpoints

While 70 percent of hackers prefer targeting websites, there was an unsurprisingly high trend in the report toward—you guessed it—all types of endpoints. Five percent prefer to target mobile applications, though just 0.1 percent mess with Windows mobile apps. Nearly 3 percent are all up in your IoT devices, while 4 percent are after your firmware or operating systems.

Don’t let that data sink in for too long or rush to pour all your security resources into protecting your website—hackers are looking for the point of least resistance at the end of the day. Failing to lock down every aspect of your IT network and invest in smarter office IT endpoints, like printers with embedded security features, could let a wolf sneak in when you’re looking the other way.

5. Most are self-taught—but don’t work hard, otherwise

Surprisingly, nearly 58 percent of hackers identify as self-taught, and only half studied computer science in college or grad school. That should help put it in perspective for your team—you’re not up against masterminds (most of the time); these are ordinary people, and the key to leveling up your office IT skill set may simply be better vigilance.

While it takes a considerable amount of dedication to teach yourself how to hack, two-thirds of hackers are at it less than 20 hours per week, and a staggering 44 percent hack for 10 hours weekly or less. The only thing more infuriating than an effective hacker is a lazy one, right? Use this stat as motivation to make their job harder with smarter defenses and self-healing endpoints.

6. Hackers’ tools don’t vary as much as you expect

The most commonly reported hacker tool was Burp Suite, a Java-based tool for web application security testing. Thirty percent are all over it, while 15 percent report building their own tools. Less than 1 in 6 use traditional network vulnerability scanning tools. The most commonly reported mode of attack? Cross-site scripting, aka XSS.

Great penetration testers know the art of thinking like a hacker, and you can apply the same mindset to protecting your company infrastructure. A recent MIT study on how hackers operate reveals four key attack phases:

  1. Identifying vulnerabilities
  2. Scanning and testing
  3. Gaining access
  4. Maintaining access

While hackers may think it’s hilarious to hit you with a XSS attack on April Fool’s Day, you won’t be the one laughing when you get hacked. Understanding this four-phased approach has value when it comes to proactively testing and improving your company infrastructure and endpoints.

Don’t be the butt of a hacker’s joke—while there’s a distinctly white-hat skew to the 1,700 hackers surveyed by HackerOne, there’s still a lot to learn from their research. Take hope from the bug bounty-motivated hackers who share their discoveries, and make sure you’ve established channels for vulnerability reporting. Most of all, don’t let your guard down or warm up to hackers too much. There’s still a lot of scary cybermiscreants eyeing your endpoints.

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