Experts say blue chip companies have decided its cheaper to deal with extortionists than danger injury attacks

Several of Londons largest banks are looking to stockpile bitcoins in order to pay off cyber offenders who threaten to bring down their critical IT systems.

The virtual currency, which is highly prized by criminal networks because it cannot be traced, is being acquired by blue chip companies in order to pay ransoms, according to a leading IT expert.

On Friday, hackers attacked the websites of a number of leading online companies including Twitter, Spotify and Reddit. They utilized a special code to harness the power of hundreds of thousands of internet-connected home devices, such as CCTV cameras and printers, to launch distributed denial of service( DDoS) attacks through a US company called Dyn, which provides directory services to online companies. DDoS attacks involve inundating computer servers with so much data traffic that they cannot cope.

There is no evidence that Dyn was the subject of extortion demands but it has become obvious that hackers have been using the code to threaten other industries into paying them with bitcoins or risk becoming the target of similar attacks.

Twitter
Twitter was among a those giant internet companies targeted by last weeks attack in the United States Photograph: Kacper Pempel/ Reuters

Dr Simon Moores, a former technology diplomat for the UK government and chair of the annual international e-Crime Congress, the global body that brings together IT professionals, said the scale and ferocity of the attacks entail some banks were coming round to the view that it was cheaper be paid by the criminals than hazard an attack.

The police will concede that they dont have the resources available to deal with this because of the significant growth in the number of assaults, Moores said. From a strictly pragmatic perspective, financial institutions are now exploring the need to maintain stocks of bitcoin in the unfortunate event that they themselves become the target of a high-intensity assault, when law enforcement perhaps might not be able to assist them at the speed with which they need to put themselves back in business.

Moores declined to identify the banks buying up bitcoins but it is understood senior police officers ought to have made aware of the practice. The cost to business of an attack can far outweigh paying off the blackmailers: telecoms provider TalkTalk lost 101,000 customers and suffered costs of 60 m as a result of a cyber assault last year.

Big companies are now starting to worry that an attack is no longer an information security issue, its a board and stockholder and customer confidence issue, Moores said. What we are seeing is the weaponisation of these[ hacking] tools. It becomes a much broader issue than industries ever anticipated.

In recent months, DDoS attacks have led to around 600 gigabits of available data a second being directed at targets more than enough, according to experts, to bring most websites down.

Moores predicted that the situation was becoming critical. Once it goes above a terabit, that wipes out any protection. No current protection systems can deal with that sort of flood.

In September the website KrebsOnSecurity.com was the target of what it describes as an extremely large and unusual distributed denial-of-service( DDoS) assault designed to knock the site offline. Initial reports set it at approximately 665 gigabits of traffic a second, far more than is typically needed to knock most sites offline.

Some experts believe the attacks were launched in response to articles that Krebs had published about the DDoS-for-hire service vDOS, which coincided with the arrests of two young men identified as its founders.

The attack on Krebs was launched by a large botnet, a collecting of enslaved computers in this case, 100 000 hacked devices that constitute the internet of things( IoT ), notably routers, IP cameras and digital video recorders. These devices are the internets achilles heel. Unlike personal computer or smartphones, they are often not password protected, relying on factory decideds. Because of this they stimulate soft targets for botnets scanning the internet using IoT systems that can be easily compromised.

The Krebs attack might have gone largely unnoticed outside of internet security circles if someone using the name Anna-senpai had not then chosen to release the source code that powered the botnet on to a hackers forum.

When I first go in DDoS industry, I wasnt planning on is present in it long, Anna-senpai said on the Hack Forums site. I constructed my fund, theres lots of eyes looking at IoT now, so its time to GTFO.

Within hours of Anna-senpais decision to release the botnet into the wild, it was creating havoc as others started to employ the code to enslave more devices. Soon an army of zombified devices was mobilising against Dyn.

By targeting Dyn, it appears that hackers were able temporarily to disrupt a raft of sites. Others that reported problems included Mashable, CNN, the New York Times , the Wall Street Journal and Yelp.

Amazons web services division reported issues in western Europe. In the UK, Twitter and several news sites could not be accessed by some users.

Anna-senpais identity and motivation for releasing the code remains a mystery. Some believe nation agents were involved. China, Russia and North Korea have all been mentioned in IT circles.

While this particular assault[ on Dyn] may not have been motivated by extortion, a new model of ransom-based assaults could be on the horizon, motivated to pay off threats for fear of infrastructure-wide customer outages, said Thomas Pore, director of IT at Plixer, a malware incident response company. An infrastructure outage, such as DNS[ denial of service ], against a service provider impacting both the provider and clients may prompt a quick ransom payoff to avoid unwanted customer attrition or larger financial impact.

The
The headquarters in New Hampshire of US internet service company Dyn, which was targeted by hackers Photograph: Jim Cole/ AP

The problem facing industries battling the hackers is becoming one of scale. The devices the hackers can recruit to launch their attacks is growing exponentially.

It is estimated that there are anywhere between 7bn and 19 bn devices connected to the IoT at the moment. Conservative predictions suggest that this figure will balloon to between 30 bn and 50 bn within five years.

At some phase, Moores believes that the dam will burst as the rollout of connected smart devices will allow for the harnessing of devastating computer power that can no longer be repelled by existing IT security systems.

He draws an analogy with financial crises, predicting that a Lehman Brother moment is on the cards.

Weve got to come to grips with this, Moores said. Everybodys overexposed.

RISE OF THE HACKER

The evolution of DDoS attacks

February 2000

Mafiaboy, a 15 -year-old Canadian called Michael Calce, launches the first big distributed denial-of-service assault( DDoS ), crippling popular websites. His Project Rivolta takes down Yahoo, the number one search engine at the time, and many leading tech companies.

January 2008

Hacking collective Anonymous targets the Church of Scientology in an operation called Project Chanology that briefly knocks Scientology.org offline.

April 2012

A cyber-attack by anti-Israel groups on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day fails in its attempt to erase all mentions of Israel from the internet.

March 2013

Spamhaus, a filtering service to weed out spam emails, is subjected to a DDoS attack after adding a web hosting company called Cyberbunker to its blacklisted sites. Cyberbunker and other hosting companies hire hackers to shut down Spamhaus use botnets. At its peak the attack was being conducted at a rate of 330 gigabits a second, around five times the average DDoS attack.

January 2016

A group called New World Hacking assaults the BBCs website at a rate of 602 gigabits a second, almost twice the size of the previous record of 334 gigabits a second.

Read more: www.theguardian.com