Endless Hack Stories

Let’s face it, the internet has been buzzing with endless hack stories, one after the other — celebrities, politician, CEOs and even scientists have fallen victim in recent years. Vast swathes of sensitive and classified data have been leaked and exposed. We thought it would be a good idea to take a closer look at some of the higher-profile cases and ask; what happened, how, and what were the consequences?

Russia’s Alleged Election Hack

The 2016 US presidential election was the epicentre of a prolonged hacking scandal of a kind history had never seen before. As a candidate, Donald Trump was at first perceived by many as an unlikely contender because of his character, numerous eccentricities and patterns of behaviour that many thought to reveal downright buffoonery. Even so, in the end, he prevailed over the “perfect” Democratic candidate, former State Secretary, Hillary Clinton. The first scandal to rock the presidential race was the Democratic National Committee email leak. Almost 20 thousand emails to and from DNC staff members, including key officials, were allegedly stolen by Russian hackers and handed over to WikiLeaks. The publication was damaging, and the source was never disclosed.

The leaked content exploded like a bomb since it contained suggestions that the party leaders had worked to sabotage Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic Party’s nomination (as we all know, he ended his race on July 12, 2016, by formally endorsing Clinton to run against Trump). DNC chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned in the scandalous aftermath.

Needless to say, that didn’t exactly help the Democrats in the following stages of the race and might well have actually contributed to Donald Trump’s ultimate victory. On July 31, in an interview with Fox News, Hillary Clinton openly accused Russia’s intelligence services of hacking into Democratic National Committee computers. Allegations that Russia interfered have pretty much been the focus of attention for America’s political elite ever since and been the catalyst for ever-more scandals. In late December 2016, President Obama’s administration ordered the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats from the US as a means of sanctioning Russia for “malicious cyber activity” referred to as ‘Grizzly Steppe’ in a new FBI report. The scandal expanded even further when the Director of National Intelligence released a joint intelligence report in early January 2017, followed by the US Department of Justice opening a Special Counsel investigation into the ‘Russian interference’.

Whether or not Russian intelligence services really did ‘hack’ the US election and tip the balance in Trump’s favour remains an open question to this day. What we can say for sure is that the hack contributed extensively to increasing tension between the two superpowers and no one can say for sure where it will all lead. If that doesn’t teach everyone a lesson about the importance of data security, we don’t know what will!

Sony Pictures Hack: Reputations in Tatters

Movie executives at Sony Pictures paid a heavy price in November 2014 for a massive data leak instigated by a hacker group calling itself “Guardians of Peace”. The hackers got their hands on personal information of about more than 47,000 current and former company employees; this included executive salaries, emails, copies of unreleased Sony films, and a whole host of other data. The attackers made threats and demands for payment without clearly specifying what they actually wanted, and while Sony tried to figure out the scale of the damage and how to respond, the bad guys started leaking the data.

What sparked the most public outrage were e-mail exchanges between Sony Pictures Chair, Amy Pascal and producer, Scott Rudin. First, it was revealed that Rudin had called actress Angelina Jolie “a minimally talented spoiled brat” in emails discussing her upcoming remake of the classic film Cleopatra (which, by the way, was never finished). To add insult to injury, there were further revelations of several racist jokes by Rudin and Pascal about none other than the then President of the United States, Barack Obama. The two had mockingly suggested they should mention films about African-Americans upon meeting the president at a forthcoming fundraising event. Both Pascal and Rudin were compelled to issue public apologies for their insensitive and insulting Jolie and Obama comments. We humbly suggest that no one would willingly trade places with those two.

Alonzo Knowles: Genius or Lousy Fence?

This curious story occurred in 2015; Alonzo Knowles, a 23-year-old Bahamian man, managed to develop a hacking scheme that allowed him to steal data concerning celebrities and famous athletes. His digital haul included unpublished film and TV show scripts, social security numbers, emails, passport details, unreleased music tracks and even sexually explicit videos. One script that’s known to have been hacked was, “All Eyez on Me”, a biopic about the legendary rapper, Tupac Shakur.

The hacker tried to profit from his theft by extorting money from some of his victims, their producers and show-runners. His actions came to official attention when “a popular radio host” contacted the executive producer of a TV show, saying scripts for the show had been offered for sale. The channel that broadcast the show contacted law enforcement authorities, and an undercover agent went to cut a deal with Knowles, who was operating under an alias, and the operation ultimately led to his arrest.

Knowles tried to sell a package of data and scripts for $80,000 but instead was sent to jail for 5 years. It seems he had a knack for grabbing the goodies but wasn’t very adept when it came to fencing them. In fact, he was very good at extracting information, he collected dossiers on as many as 130 stars!

Climategate: Global Warming, Huh?

This is a curious case because these hackers weren’t seeking to extort money or wield political influence, at least not directly. They behaved more like whistle-blowers. In November 2009, a server at the University of East Anglia (UEA) Climatic Research Unit (CRU) was hacked by an external attacker who copied and released thousands of computer files and emails attributed to prominent American and British climate researchers. This was just weeks before the Copenhagen Summit on climate change. The leak was following by an outcry from climate-change “sceptics” who argued that the documents conclusively showed how global warming was nothing more than a scientific conspiracy and that scientists had manipulated climate data.

Well, as many as eight committees investigated the allegations and leaked documents and found no evidence of fraud or scientific misconduct thus proving the theorists who denied climate change wrong. However, from the point of data security, this case demonstrates that even the world’s leading scientific institutions can be hacked. As for the “bad rep” after-effects, it must be acknowledged that, to this day, none of the official reports has succeeded in shaking off the sceptics; conspiracy theorists still refer to “Climategate” every now and then. Some things do tend to stick, don’t they?

Celebgate: Victims said it was “Equivalent to Sex Crime”

2014 saw a scandal in which hundreds of nude photos and videos of Jennifer Lawrence and other celebrities were stolen from their Apple iCloud accounts and posted online, known as Fappening or Celebgate. Among other victims were Kim Kardashian, Kate Upton, Kelly Brook, Kirsten Dunst, a total of 100 stars! The hackers released some photos for free and exchanged others for Bitcoin (which were worth around $500 a piece at the time).

The fallout was massive, the victims were enraged, and the FBI investigated the outrageous violation of privacy. One interesting detail is that Apple later reported that the victims’ iCloud account information had been obtained using targeted attacks on usernames, passwords and security questions, such as phishing and brute-force guessing. Essentially they said that the breach had been made possible because the celebrities were careless and used weak passwords.

Celebgate remains the most significant leak so far of personal celebrity photos and details, we hope it stays that way.

All of this tells us again how vital user device security is. No one can promise a totally trouble-free life, not even us, but if you can’t be hacked, data security and privacy won’t be among the troubles you have to worry about. Wouldn’t that be good?