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Unveiling the Dark World Of Cyber Privateering

By Tom Seest

What Is Cyber Privateering In Cybersecurity?

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Cyber privateering is a type of hacking where hackers take advantage of vulnerabilities in organizations to obtain sensitive information for criminal or political gain or simply break into systems to gain knowledge.
Similar to 17th-century piracy, cyber privateering could be seen as a struggle for states to safeguard themselves in an ungoverned space. It also raises significant conceptual questions.

What Is Cyber Privateering In Cybersecurity?

What Is Cyber Privateering In Cybersecurity?

Could Cyber Privateering Be the Next Big Threat in Cybersecurity?

Cyber Privateering is becoming increasingly common in today’s cybersecurity landscape due to the rising value of data stored digitally and due to the widespread adoption of social media, cloud computing, and remote work methods.
Though it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact origins of cyber privateering, some of the same elements that made pirates and privateers successful still apply today in this industry. In particular, hackers have increasingly turned to controlled data theft or damage as an attractive strategy.
It has been observed that states, including Russia, are increasingly employing cyber privateers to launch attacks against their targets. Examples include denial-of-service attacks against Estonia, Georgia, and Saudi Arabia, as well as Shamoon malware against Saudi Aramco.
Researchers have noted that these attacks typically target large companies or government organizations. They typically involve an organized international effort and a sophisticated organization that often employs affiliates. As a result, these victims have come to be known as “big-game hunting” victims because they aim to take down valuable enterprises or governmental organizations with high economic value.
Additionally, the source of cyber attacks is often obscured due to hackers hiding their identities. If caught, however, they can produce their state of affiliation, which makes it easier for law enforcement and other agencies to determine their involvement in a given crime.
This approach is often compared to the ‘Letter of Marque’ system used during the War of 1812, which permitted pirates to engage in illicit activity without revealing their identity. These letters allowed pirates to steal or damage foreign merchant ships without being identified.
Another advantage of a letter of marque was the privateer could use it to avoid prosecution for piracy, even if they were captured by pirates. This was an essential aspect of the 17th century’s “golden age of piratery”, which became less attractive as navies began building their own formal fleets.
Piracy and cybersecurity share many similarities, yet their legal definitions and labels differ considerably. This distinction can be attributed to the modernization of international law, such as the inception of the Law of Armed Conflict (LoAC) in 1949.

Could Cyber Privateering Be the Next Big Threat in Cybersecurity?

Could Cyber Privateering Be the Next Big Threat in Cybersecurity?

What Makes Cyber Privateering a Controversial Tactic in Cybersecurity?

Recently, the term ‘cyber privateer’ has been coined to describe a type of cyber attack where governments commission private actors to carry out offensive operations on their behalf. This could include attacks against another state, an NGO, political party or bank and involves collecting intelligence data which they then turn over to their sponsoring government – who may have legal obligations for doing so.
However, this definition may not be entirely accurate. It’s essential to remember that private cyber actors typically do not engage in lawful activity and often act outside the bounds of international law. Furthermore, these private actors do not operate within the framework of international armed conflict (IAC).
However, the term ‘cyber privateer’ has an alluring appeal and is increasingly being used in cybersecurity discourse to highlight state-backed cyber activities. However, this analogy comes with some serious risks.
First, this analogy confuses cybersecurity with warfare in an unhelpful and dangerous way. At a time when global cybersecurity threats are becoming increasingly militarized, such a military-centric perspective could prove especially hazardous.
Second, the analogy promotes a military-centric narrative which is counterproductive for multilateral solutions. Particularly, it reinforces the militarized view that states are the only ones capable of safeguarding their citizens’ interests.
Finally, the privateering analogy implies that history will repeat itself. The suggestion that centuries ago, the maritime domain was dominated by state-sanctioned pirates or privateers and should be reformed today in a similar manner is an unwise assumption.
In today’s world of ever-increasing state capabilities, there can be no assurance that this trend will cease. Instead, some nations may choose to engage in a ‘guerre de course’ approach to safeguard their interests.
State capacity in cybersecurity today mirrors those of naval warfare during the sixteenth century when some states transitioned from privateers to professional navies. While this development bodes well for state-sponsored cyberwarfare in the future, it cannot be guaranteed.

What Makes Cyber Privateering a Controversial Tactic in Cybersecurity?

What Makes Cyber Privateering a Controversial Tactic in Cybersecurity?

Is Cyber Privateering the Key to Strengthening Cybersecurity?

As cybersecurity threats continue to escalate, governments are increasingly turning to both state and non-state actors for cybersecurity operations. As a result, cyber privateers are becoming more prevalent in the cybersecurity landscape.
Cyber privateers are independent contractors that gather intelligence information on behalf of a sponsoring country or other designated entity. The government or other designated party provides the requirements, and the privateer makes every effort to retrieve that material.
The privateer receives payment and keeps whatever they pick up in the process. This arrangement benefits both sides, as the government gains access to needed materials while the privateer keeps what is picked up.
Cisco Talos Intelligence researchers recently identified “privateers” as a new breed of threat actor that is often found in ransomware-based attacks like North Korea’s Lazarus or Russia’s Fancy Bear. While they may not be sponsored by any government, privateers do possess some form of protection from global governments while pursuing their own financially motivated criminal agendas.
Cyber privateers are similar to piracy privateers, who operated as profit-driven agents that profited from other entities’ misadventures. By shifting their identity and location to third-party harbors with lax local laws, they were able to avoid detection and often engage in acts of sabotage or theft against valuable assets and underlying economic infrastructure.
This parallel between maritime and cyber domains has significant ramifications for how states respond to these threats. It suggests that creating norms in cyberspace will encourage both governments and large companies to keep a better eye on their individual hackers and criminals, weakening the value of outsourcing action to patriotic hacker groups or contractors (the latter-day privateers used by nations such as China) to combat these problems.
Attaining this goal will require the development of an international agenda that promotes lawful online activity and holds those responsible who target the Web for accountability. This will create a clear distinction between civilian and military conduct and targets, something both U.S. policymakers and hackers are eager to address.

Is Cyber Privateering the Key to Strengthening Cybersecurity?

Is Cyber Privateering the Key to Strengthening Cybersecurity?

Are You Prepared for the Dangers of Cyber Privateering?

Cyber attacks, including ransomware attacks, are becoming an increasing worry for many businesses. Not only can they disrupt systems and cause harm to the entire company; but they may also result in lost data, financial losses and reputational harm.
With the growing volume of cybersecurity threats, it is essential to comprehend what companies and individuals can do to reduce the potential risk of a breach. One approach is organizing cybersecurity efforts around five themes: awareness, governance, systems, process, and strategy.
This approach can assist companies in creating plans and prioritizing action to minimize the damage from a cyberattack. Furthermore, it increases the effectiveness of a firm’s cybersecurity program.
Privateers can be a valuable resource, but they also come with certain risks. For instance, they may lack expertise and skills in certain aspects of cyberattacks and could potentially be targets of foreign governments or criminal hacker groups.
The potential risk of a false flag cyberattack is also of grave concern. These hackers could conceal their identities by using multiple identities, making it difficult for law enforcement agencies to track them down. This could result in further cyber escalation or an unnecessary war that the United States would rather avoid engaging in.
Another potential risk is that governments could utilize cyber proxies to obtain plausible deniability for their cyber activities, similar to how state-sponsored piracy was employed for attribution in naval warfare. This could amount to a violation of international law, which prohibits privateers’ use.
These threats are often motivated by economic interests. Cyberattackers may profit by stealing intellectual property and trading the data they obtain for money.
They may also steal confidential or proprietary data from government agencies and businesses, leading to severe financial losses as well as a loss of trust in the business or government.
These attacks pose an increasing danger to the world economy and stability. They have caused a crisis of confidence in many industries, potentially impacting millions of Americans’ livelihoods. Furthermore, these attacks may destabilize critical infrastructure like banks or power plants.

Are You Prepared for the Dangers of Cyber Privateering?

Are You Prepared for the Dangers of Cyber Privateering?

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