Technology

If It’s Smart, It’s Vulnerable by Mikko Hypponen — cyber space and how to defend it

Mikko Hypponen: ‘In the world of information security, he is a legend’ © AFP via Getty Images

If a layperson attends a conference on cyber security, my advice is to research the speakers carefully. Many presentations will be incomprehensible for one or both of two reasons. First, the painfully arcane, acronym-peppered jargon — “Did you spot any process hollowing in the SQL injection attack?” — without which no talk is complete. Second, they are delivered in sleep-inducing monotones, with no concessions to tone, drama or, God forbid, humour.

This should be no surprise. Cyber-security engineers and assorted techies require a capacity for prodigious concentration. Sometimes their work entails seeking one false digit in a book-length string of code. An ability to shut out the rest of the world is almost a prerequisite for the job. In my experience, many find they can only do this at the expense of communication with other human beings.

This is a serious problem. Everyone in the industry agrees that the greatest vulnerability to ever more complex networked systems is and has always been us, ordinary human beings who use computers. Many successful breaches begin as phishing attacks, when a social engineer with malign intent persuades somebody with access to an institutional or company network to do something that enables the outsider to insert malware into the system.

In 2008, state-sponsored hackers left some memory sticks lying around a car park near an American military facility in the Middle East. A DoD employee picked one up, used it, thus triggering what was described as “the worst breach of US military computers in history”. The incident led to the creation of the United States Cyber Command and the designation of cyber as the fifth military domain, the only man-made one.

In the internet age, everybody needs to have a grasp of the basic principles of cyber security. Ransomware is now rampant, as was demonstrated recently in the UK during an attack on the NHS 111 helpline which caused chaos in the Welsh ambulance service. It may appear far-fetched, but cyber security can save lives. 

Now Mikko Hypponen has written a refreshingly jargon-free introduction to the history of cyber security stretching back to the 1980s. The Finn is well known in cyber-security circles, having worked for decades as chief research officer for F-Secure, the Helsinki-based company which is one of the most successful security and privacy operations in the world.

This is now a huge industry, with tech consultants Gartner estimating the global spend on information security to be some $150bn. Since the creation of US Cyber Command, Washington has increasingly turned its attention to defending the country’s cyber infrastructure, culminating in the establishment of the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency in 2018.

In fact, the subject should be mandatory on school curricula. Unfortunately, most who understand cyber security are really bad at communicating. This is compounded by the fact that the subject is intrinsically, let’s face it, witlessly boring.

Scandinavians are among the best cyber communicators — in particular geeks from Finland and Estonia (half-Scandinavian). The Estonians invented Skype and Wise, one of the most successful fintech banks, and boasts more start-ups per capita than Silicon Valley.

But, as we learn in If It’s Smart, It’s Vulnerable, this is nothing compared with the Finns. We all know about Nokia and Angry Birds, but who knows about Linus Torvalds? Probably not many, and yet back in 2003 Wired magazine dubbed him the “Leader of the Free World”. Hypponen explains that “about 85 per cent of the world’s smartphones run on Linux”, which is the open-source computer operating system that Torvalds developed and released on the net for free.

The author does not include himself on the list of mighty Finns, but in the world of information security, he is a legend. Indeed, the title of his book is known in the trade as Hypponen Law. 

What makes him stand out is that, although he is a master coder and cyber security engineer, he is a superb communicator. He can tell funny stories, too, revealing how his career as a software developer began inauspiciously when he wrapped a brand new Saab 9000 around a lamppost, having borrowed it from a client. He is now in his early fifties, with hipster glasses and ponytail, and there is barely a western government that hasn’t sought his advice at some point.

Some of his experiences of hounding down the most notorious malicious hackers in the world — from Ferrari-driving Russian youngsters to the Karachi-based hackers who created the first ever floppy disk virus — have now made it on to the page. The result makes for a refreshing read thanks to a disarmingly direct staccato style that is seasoned with ironic asides and controlled outbursts of moral indignation — directed not just at the villains in his history of malfeasance on the web but also states and their intelligence agencies.

Although Hypponen is one of only very few civilians allowed to visit America’s National Security Agency’s headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, he remains highly critical of some of their practices, notably when the NSA discovered a major vulnerability in Windows, called EternalBlue. The NSA had two choices: tell Microsoft and ask it to patch the vulnerability, or keep it to themselves to use as a cyber weapon against their opponents. If they had gone for the first, the NSA would have protected the millions of Americans who run Windows. Instead, it opted for the second, then “lost” the weapon which was later exploited by hackers who used it to ferry the WannaCry virus around the internet. Hypponen was not impressed.

He and his colleagues at F-Secure get paid a lot of money for their work as so-called “penetration testers”. His story of how his colleague Tom succeeded in breaking into the system of one of Scandinavia’s most heavily policed banks is breathtaking. It reveals the astonishing levels of deception to which criminal or state-sponsored hackers will resort to crack a system.

The second half of the book is particularly good at highlighting all the things you suspect you ought not to do but go ahead and do anyhow for sheer convenience. Passwords remains one of the biggest bugbears — even in the age of programs that can manage passwords without the user having to give it a second thought, millions of people still use the same easy-to-guess password across multiple accounts. Leaving your front door open would be safer. Gmail is not necessarily your friend, even though many of us, including me, find it really handy.

By the end, you can be forgiven for thinking the internet to be a curse. Not Hypponen. Despite all the bad stuff, “I think that the balance is positive . . . The time for pessimism is behind us.” He doesn’t really back this up with any argument. Instead, his optimism seems to emerge from his unabashed love of the internet and his sunny disposition. Much as I enjoyed his observations, this is where Hypponen and I part company. He thinks our expanding dependency on the internet will liberate us. I think it could enslave us.

If It’s Smart, It’s Vulnerable by Mikko Hypponen Wiley £21.99/$28, 288 pages

Misha Glenny is the rector of the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. He also gives keynotes on cyber security

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hello, I am Flora Khan and i work journalist in allnewshouse website i work in other sites like forbes and washington post with 5 years in experience.

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