This summer, a hacker known as “PhineasFisher” infiltrated the private Italian spyware firm Hacking Team, exfiltrated approximately 400GB of data from the company’s servers and subsequently published the compromised information online via a torrent.
One of the most stirring revelations from the leaks was the FBI’s purchase of a “Remote Control System” tool that cost $775,000. A number of other customers ranging from criminal organizations to nation-states were also identified in the data dump as having purchased surveillance tools.
As the Hacking Team leaks clearly demonstrate, certain businesses now base most – if not all – of their operations on selling streamlined hacking solutions to customers, making it easier than ever for entities with the proper financial resources and backing to break into target computer systems.
However, the global hacking industry owes its growth to more than just companies like the Hacking Team. Extremely talented individuals who have honed their skills within a culture that promotes creativity and innovative solutions have also played a part.
When it comes to finding hacking talent, Argentina stands out. Nicole Perlroth of the New York Times reports that decades of repressive military rule and unpredictable economic trends have helped give rise to a national culture where individuals are encouraged, if not forced, into coming up with creative solutions.
The Argentinian people refer to this inventive nature with the saying “atado con alambre,” which translates to “held together with wire.”
“Those of us who came of age under a military junta – who were told which books to read, which movies to watch, which God to worship – had to learn to move around the laws,” reflected Norma Morandini, a senator from Córdoba province. “For us, hacking became a way of life.”
It is, therefore, no wonder that some Argentinians embraced hacking as a means to explore their curiosity for computers. Cesar Cerrudo, an Argentine security researcher who taught himself to hack as a young teenager and who recently gained attention for successfully hacking into traffic light systems in cities across the US, says cheating the system is part of the Argentine mentality:
“Unless you are rich, you grow up without a computer or reading books. To access new software, you have to hack it.”
According to Business Standard, Argentinian computer enthusiasts have proven themselves especially adept at finding zero-day flaws, a skill which has attracted the attention of both private and public entities that are interested in either protecting themselves against computer criminals or are themselves curious about exploring the utility of zero-day exploits.
This excitement has in part motivated the growth of EkoParty, the largest hacking conference in Latin America. Hundreds of Argentinian hackers, ranging in ages from 14-45, attended this year to show off their skills to Synack, Deloitte, ESET and other security firms.
Government officials and contractors from around the world were also in attendance; if they liked what they saw, they had the option of offering a hacker a purchase, contract or research position all in an effort to increase their arsenal of zero-day exploits.
Argentina clearly has much to offer the hacking world. Even so, some feel that the country’s days at the top are numbered.
“Argentina may be hitting a peak,” warned Sinan Eren, an Avast Software executive, as relayed by The Economic Times. “There’s new competition. China is the country now making a mark.”
China has certainly made headlines in recent weeks for its hacking activities. Earlier this fall, it was revealed that government hackers tried to infiltrate American firms in violation of an espionage pact upon which the White House and Chinese President Xi Jinping had agreed.
From the mindset of an investor, such open disregard for secrecy could deter some from backing Chinese hackers. Then again, perhaps the notoriety could work in their favor.
What is clear is that the hacking industry is increasingly becoming more globalized. Fortunately, with the diffusion of hacking tools comes a number of opportunities for security professionals to learn from one another, collaborate on research, and together adapt to the evolving threat landscape.
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