Friday Security Highlights: Social Media Catalyzes Hacktivism

Welcome to our second edition of Friday Security Highlights, a weekly roundup of top infosec news, blogs and buzz from around the web.

Earlier this week, we pushed out a tweet about how excited we are to offer this blog alongside Lang Tibbils’ In Wake of the Week, another recap focused specifically on McAfee news and announcements. We hope our blog, in combination with Tibbils’, will give our readers a nice overview of what’s happening at McAfee, but also within the broader security community.

The past few days in infosec were dominated by photos, video and commentary streaming out of London and San Francisco as authorities came face-to-face with the challenges of leading and protecting a web 2.0 generation. Social media networks have become infamous for their ability to quickly incite civil unrest, a fact that government and law enforcement officials were made painfully aware of as riots and protests broke out on both sides of the Atlantic.

Throughout the United States, young people armed with cell phones used social media sites to organize theft and assault in a series of “flash mob” robberies. After receiving the word over Facebook or Twitter, youths rushed into convenience stores in Germantown, Md., and Washington, D.C., dumping drinks, candy and other goods into bags. In the UK, the London riots raged on as youths, many of them organized through social networks, took to the streets in an outburst of looting, arson and violence.

After witnessing the chaos and destruction of the riots, British Prime Minister David Cameron proposed controversial emergency measures that would ban suspected rioters from communicating on social media sites. Similarly, in hopes of protecting subway riders and employees from an outbreak of violence organized online, Bay Area Rapid Transit authorities responded to a scheduled protest in San Francisco on Thursday with the historic decision to shut down cell phone service in targeted stations.

Amid this ongoing controversy, hactivists stepped in to express their own concerns by defacing official websites in both the US and London and handing over the personal information of thousands of Bay Area subway riders and police officers. Their main method of organization: social networking, through the Twitter handle and hashtag #OpBart. Security pro Lenny Zeltser penned a timely blog on the subject, relating what we know about “mob mentality” to the behavior of modern hacktivists.

An essential similarity that Zeltser points out is that both groups’ uninhibited behavior is tied to their perceived safety through anonymity. Researchers noted that once rioting starts, it will continue until that feeling of anonymity disappears – until authorities can muster enough force to present a realistic threat of arrest. Additionally, an alternative, perhaps more effective proposal has been to focus on the initial riotous action, the individual who throws the first stone and triggers others to follow. Zeltser suggests that these studies on mob behavior could help us to understand the motivations and actions of modern hacktivists, which in turn help us to anticipate and prevent their attacks.

In another effort to anticipate cyber threats, the conversation continued around Operation Shady RAT. California congresswoman Mary Bono Mack, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade requested a briefing from McAfee’s VP of Threat Research Dmitri Alperovitch and his team to inform her subcommittee’s efforts to combat cybercrime. In her letter to Alperovitch, Bono Mack focused on uncovering trends in the type & target of the intrusions and asked for advice on policies that could effectively prevent future attacks.

And to wrap up, Vincent Weafer, Senior VP at McAfee Labs made an appearance this week during the McAfee FOCUS conference in Melbourne, Australia with an analysis of current trends in information security. He focused on a continuing upward trend of hacktivist threats like those seen in London and San Francisco, telling the conference that the groups are becoming more sophisticated and predicting a “rising tide” of hacktivist activity. In addition, he predicted a resurgence of botnet and social networking attacks and warned of an increasing trend among hackers to see poorly secured mobile devices as a way of accessing corporate data. This mobile trend is one we’ve been tracking for a while now, and this week held two big mobile announcements for McAfee. We’ll be extending our security platform for the Apple iPhone, and Android security software will now come preloaded on select Sony smartphones.

Despite all the anxiety over rising cyber threats, hacktivist attacks and social media meltdowns, there were still some members of the Twitterverse enjoying themselves down under at FOCUS:

FOCUS this week also highlighted another big step our McAfee and Intel Partnership, when CTO George Kurtz spoke of our new “Patmos” platform, which will allow security features to be embedded into silicon.


As always, we welcome your comments and suggestions for next week’s post. Share your links in the comments section here or tweet to us at @IntelSec_Biz.

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