Hackers for hire – The monetisation of cybercrime

February 13, 2017
Hackers for hire – The monetisation of cybercrime
Andrew Staniforth
Andrew Staniforth Non-Resident Fellow - Counter Terrorism & National Security

According to Sir Tom Winsor, the Chief Inspector of Constabulary in the UK, the amount of cyber fraud being conducted has now reached epidemic proportions.[i] The warning from a leading police policy-maker coincided with the arrest of three Chinese citizens accused of a multi-million dollar cyber fraud in New York. The three men are charged with conspiracy, insider trading, wire fraud and computer intrusion for allegedly gaining $4million from an insider deal carried out by hacking into computers of American law firms advising on company mergers.[ii]

The organised cybercrime cell profited from their illegal activities by buying stock in firms imminently about to be acquired. Manhattan Attorney Preet Bharara, warned the case should serve as a wake-up call for law firms who now have to worry about cyber fraud in addition to the threat posed by a rogue employee making money out of forthcoming mergers and acquisitions.[iii] The cyber-attack provides evidence of the scale and scope of online criminal activity. Moreover, the attack demonstrates the increasing capability of cybercriminals to defeat security measures put in place to deter and detect their online crimes. The attack also highlights a worrying trend – the monetisation of hacking.  That is to say, the activities of hackers has a financial value that criminal organisations and others are exploiting.


Hacker sub-culture

In the past couple of decades there has been a fundamental shift from hobbyist hacking – primarily driven by the technical challenge of accessing operating systems – to the malicious and financially motivated crime conducted over the Internet.[iv]  The first generation of the hacking phenomenon commenced fifty years ago and was very much academic, with students at universities putting together various programs for the new mainframes being installed on campus.[v] The ethical values of this era of hacking focused on shared ownership of data and information, as well as promoting the contribution of all those involved in the early hacker scene.

The academic approach to hacking was soon replaced by an era of curiosity, as hackers became motivated by breaking into external targets fuelled by the scarcity of technology. As new technology, personal computers and the emergence of the Internet made access and the use of computers more widely available, the motivations of hackers again shifted, facilitated by the development and use of ‘crime ware’, which has led to the current monetisation era of the hacking phenomenon. Until recently, the current generation of hacking was being pursued by relatively small, flexible and tight-knit criminal bands, but intelligence assessments by Europol indicate that there are a growing number of individuals engaging in cybercrime who are being tasked and coordinated by organised crime groups.[vi]

Cracker motivations

Within the hacker subculture there is a distinction between different types of hackers that is based largely on motivation and end results. Importantly, these distinctions are subtle and are generally missed by the larger cybercrime community but are very important to the hacker subculture.[vii] In particular, hackers who carry out malicious hacks in furtherance of crime are not respected by the majority of hackers.[viii] However, if the hack demonstrated great technical skill and served to embarrass the police or other government authority, the hacker would be viewed with greater status.  Therefore, defining a hacker and understanding their motivations becomes more complex but generally, a hacker is described as a person who is intensely interested in the arcane and recondite workings of any computer operating system.[ix] Hackers obtain advanced knowledge of operating systems and programming languages and constantly seek further knowledge, freely share what they have discovered, and never intentionally damage data, but an individual who has extensive computer knowledge whose purpose is to breach or bypass internet security or gain access to software to commit crime is referred to as a ‘cracker’.

The general view is that, while hackers build things, crackers break things. ‘Cracker’ is the name given to hackers who break into computers with criminal intentions; whereas hackers can also be internet security experts hired to find vulnerabilities in systems.[x]  The term “cracker” was created around the beginning of the ‘90s, when the hacker community wanted to somehow differentiate the malicious actions highlighted by the media, from the serious hacker research carried out by many underground groups.[xi] A cracker is therefore best described as an individual who breaks into or otherwise violates the system integrity of remote machines with malicious intent.[xii] Having gained unauthorized access, crackers destroy vital data, deny legitimate users service, or cause problems for their targets. Crackers’ may steal credit card numbers, leave viruses, destroy files or collect personal information to sell. Crackers can also refer to those who reverse engineer software and modify it for their own amusement but their actions are unlawful, increasingly disruptive and committed for financial gain.

Next generation

Of immediate concern to cyber-security authorities in many jurisdictions across the world is the increasing phenomena of ‘hackers for hire’, where cybercriminals are recruited by organised crime groups to steal money and then once paid, simply disappear into the darkest corners of the Web, covering their tracks through a multi-layered system of anti-forensics. The concern amongst cyber-security authorities is the hiring of specialist cybercriminals now forms part of the growing market of cybercrime-as-a-service which is advancing rapidly, with competition among malware vendors leading to increased criminal innovations.

These new and emerging cyber security trends have been made possible by the evolution of cyberspace which has transformed the scale and scope of criminality. Cyberspace has its own interactional forms, roles, and rules; and it has its own forms of criminal endeavor, creating a new dimension of social interaction.[xiii] It has also transcended time and space, and, as such, physical context is no longer linked with social situations.[xiv]  A virtual presence need not be true to the actual persona of its creator in the physical world. A growing number of scholars have agreed for some time that the Internet presents various unique opportunities for deviant behavior of young adults.[xv] This simple fact has had an alarming effect on the negative cyber behaviors of today’s youth, who have used the anonymity of the Web to experiment and indulge in cybercrime activity.

The anonymity of cyberspace has several advantages exploited by the hacker or cracker who is less likely to be caught, and feels no guilt or remorse after cracking or spamming profits from his or her victims’ ignorance.[xvi]  Although some researchers have studied this issue, the factors leading young adults to adopt a web-deviant behaviour has received less attention. All in authority would be wise to recognise the critical need to learn and understand more about the psychology of cybercriminals, and in particular, the key drivers which are influencing the online criminal behaviour of young adults who must be prevented from becoming the next generation of hackers for hire.[xvii]


[i] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-38675683 Cybercrime and fraud scale revealed in annual figures 19th Jan 17

[ii] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-38448941

[iii] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-38448941

[iv] Chiesa, R Ducci, S Ciappi, S (2008) Profiling Hackers – The science of criminal profiling as applied to the world of hacking. London: Taylor & Francis

[v] Chiesa, R Ducci, S Ciappi, S (2008) Profiling Hackers – The science of criminal profiling as applied to the world of hacking. London: Taylor & Francis

[vi] Europol The Internet Organised Crime Threat Assessment Report (2015) https://www.europol.europa.eu/sites/default/files/publications/europol_iocta_web_2015.pdf

[vii] International Journal of Scientific & Engineering Research Volume 2, Issue 7, July-20111


International Journal of Scientific & Engineering Research Volume 2, Issue 7, July-20111

[viii] https://www.criminalbehavior.com/Spring2009/Section%201%20Hackers.pdf

[ix] http://www.pctools.com/security-news/crackers-and-hackers/

[x] http://www.pctools.com/security-news/crackers-and-hackers/

[xi] http://www.pctools.com/security-news/crackers-and-hackers/

[xii] https://www.criminalbehavior.com/Spring2009/Section%201%20Hackers.pdf

[xiii] Capeller,  W.  (2001).  Not  such a  neat  net:  Some comments  on  virtual  criminality.  Social  &  Legal Studies, 10, 229–242

[xiv] Capeller,  W.  (2001).  Not  such a  neat  net:  Some comments  on  virtual  criminality.  Social  &  Legal Studies, 10, 229–242

[xv] https://www.criminalbehavior.com/Spring2009/Section%201%20Hackers.pdf

[xvi] Greenhalgh, T., Robert, G., Macfarlane, F., Bate, P., & Kyriakidou, O. (2004). Diffusion of innovations in service  organizations:  Systematic review  and recommendations.  The Milbank Quarterly,  82(4), 581–629.  doi:10.1111/j.0887-378X.2004.00325.x PMID:15595944

[xvii] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/262153017_From_Young_Hackers_to_Crackers