First Gawker was hacked last weekend. Then hackers stole user email addresses and birth dates from Silverpop Systems Inc., a subcontractor for bigtime marketing company Arc Worldwide. Among Silverpop’s 105 clients, those hit by breaches included McDonald’s, Walgreens, and the 16 million DeviantART members. While seeming ominous, the series of attacks might be nothing more than a giant pissing contest among different individual hackers or groups of hackers. And if that’s the case, it probably won’t end until we, the media, lose interest.
Hackers break into sites for one of two reasons: money or glory. This latest rounds of attacks appears to be of the latter kind, cyber security expert Hemu Nigam told Fast Company. “When something like this happens to an extremely popular site like Gawker, it inspires copy-cat hackers to do the same, in order to one-up the Gawker guys.”
Nigam is the former Chief Security Officer for MySpace and NewsCorp and once prosecuted internet crimes for the Justice Department. More recently, he founded SSP Blue, which advises companies and governments on cyber security issues.
The attention pro-WikiLeaks hackers garnered last week, after shutting down MasterCard, Visa, and PayPal, may have set off a round of competition to see who can pull of the biggest feat.
Nigam compared glory-seeking hackers to taggers. “You drive down the streets of L.A., and you see graffiti in one corner. Then you see somebody who climbs up on to the third floor and marks graffiti there. Then the next guy comes and says, ‘I can hit the fifth floor.’ And the next guy says, ‘I can actually climb onto the top of the freeway overpass to the sign for the 405, which has barbed wire around it, and put my tag on it.’”
That doesn’t mean that hackers aren’t also attacking for other reasons, like financial gain or to make a point (a purported representative of the group that attacked Gawker said it did so “because of its arrogance”). But the competitive aspect, Nigam said, “are the ties that bind.”
The hackers may continue trying to break into bigger and larger companies—the kind that will attract the kind of notoriety that the Gawker break-in did. Said Nigam: “If I was a business with an online presence right now, I’d be on red alert.”