When it comes to motivation, hackers seemingly only have one: money. Ransomware, by definition, comes with a price tag, where unwary computer users have to pay a certain amount to unlock their own data. Other kinds of malware impact financial data, sometimes infiltrating banking systems and stealing information integral to keeping consumers' money safe – leading to black-market dealings and unhappy bankers across the world.
For instance, according to Naked Security contributor Lisa Vaas, the Russian government arrested 50 people in relation to the cyber robberies of online banks. These perpetrators had been stealing money since 2011 from banks in Russia and other countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States through the use of Lurk, a piece of Trojan malware, and had absconded with upwards of 1.7 billion rubles (or $25 million).
However, money isn't the only motivation these malicious actors have to hack into your computer, or government machines. Sometimes, there are political reasons involved. Some recent events have called into question the nature of political hacking: Why does malware often target government organizations? What do hackers have to gain from accessing classified data if not to sell it?
It's all in the (political) details
The answer to the question of why malware targets government offices is simple: Government data offers a veritable treasure trove of information for those hackers willing to go the lengths to get it. The attack levied against the Office of Personnel Management nearly a year ago is a critical example of how important it is for public agencies to secure their data against similar incidents. As Wired contributors Kim Zetter and Andy Greenberg pointed out after the targeted attack took place, government data can include potentially sensitive information that may be used against public entities.
Recently, Trend Micro researchers found that the government of Germany had been the victim of a data-stealing malware attack by the well-known malicious cyber-espionage operation Pawn Storm. The German Christian Democratic Union – the political party of the current chancellor, Angela Merke – was found in April 2016 to have been the target of Pawn Storm once again via coordinated phishing attacks.
"Pawn Storm attackers often conduct sophisticated, simultaneous attacks against targets' corporate and personal email accounts," Trend Micro researchers wrote. "The attackers build a fake version of the corporate webmail server of the targeted organization and at the same attack key members of the organization on their private free webmail accounts. Credential phishing is an important espionage tool: we have witnessed Pawn Storm downloading complete online email boxes and securing future access by e.g. setting up a forwarding email address secretly."
This actor has been around in some form or another since 2004, according to the researchers, and it has traditionally gone after government organizations. There is a laundry list of important events in the "life" of Pawn Storm, and each item on this list is tied to an activity aimed at public entities. In March 2016, for instance, similar attacks were levied against the Turkish government, as well.
What's the deal with online voting?
Another example of cyber security being crucial for more than just financial reasons is the burgeoning movement to allow online voting in general elections. Technological innovation has led to a lot of great advances over the years, so why wouldn't it also extend to our current political process, as well? The answer, according to Mic contributor Jack Smith IV, lies in the fact that online voting may not be the safest way to make sure your voice is heard during the general election. Alabama offered online voting for overseas military families during the March primaries, and it looks like some states may follow suit, but what are the dangers?
A lot of the hubbub surrounding online voting has to do with the private nature of online ballots. Some political activists are concerned that since online polling venues would require a sign-in associated with your identity, this would take away the confidentiality in voting, which is an essential part of the system.
"If I have a problem on my bank statement, I call my bank and they give me my money back, because my name is attached to an account and my identity is associated with the transaction," Pamela Smith, president of anti-online-voting lobbying group Verified Voting, told Mic. "When you vote, that vote isn't associated with your identity. So if you're at a polling place, they don't connect how you voted with your sign-in. They know you showed up, but not how you voted."
Another very real threat and reason for online voting to take a back seat would be the prevalence of malware and those who would wield it for harm. The pilot programs for online voting were small samples of the general population and didn't take place at the federal level, and no one has hacked the system yet. However, Smith cautioned, it's probably only a matter of time before hackers realize this less-than-stellar vision.
"As soon as large numbers of people are allowed to vote online, all of the sudden the attack surface is much greater," said David Jefferson, a computer scientist and digital voting researcher. "If I thought we could allow it for a very small number of people who really needed it, I could live with that, but that's not what people are advocating."
It's possible that political "hacktivists" could take this kind of system down, or even malicious third parties from other countries – like the Chinese hackers from the OPM incident – could throw their hats in the ring and manipulate the results of such an election. The dangers have yet to play out on a large scale.
The bottom line
Cyber criminals will always be finding new and inventive ways to steal your data, and while they're at it they will no doubt be using these strategies and malicious programs to further political agendas. Cyber attacks aren't always about money – sometimes political and social themes are at play, as well.