'White hats' probe cyber security flaws

17:00, May 02 2013
Hackers Mikhail Davidov and Duncan Smith
FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT: Mikhail Davidov, right, is a senior security consultant at Leviathan Security Group. Duncan Smith, left, is his colleague.

He's 26, likes industrial and electronic music, has a bleached-blonde Mohawk haircut and sometimes, Mikhail Davidov said, he starts his day "at the crack of noon."

The late hours are in front of a computer, working on reverse engineering, tearing apart computer programs to find their vulnerabilities.

Sometimes he works 18 hours straight.

"There are few hackers out there who are 'morning people'," Davidov said.

These days, the front lines for security don't only include soldiers carrying weapons.

They include computer whiz kids like Davidov, who works for the Leviathan Security Group, a 20-person firm that operates out of second-floor offices in a renovated 1918 building in Seattle in the United States.


Chad Thunberg, chief operating officer of Leviathan, said he can relate to Davidov, remembering his own younger days.

Thunberg, who is 35 and married with two children, said: "I'm considered a grandpa in my industry. There was a time when I was the Mikhail equivalent. You live and breathe security."

Cyberattacks are costing corporations - and consumers - a lot. In a six-year span starting in 2005, data breaches in 33 countries cost the firms involved more than $US156 billion ($NZ184b), according to the nonprofit Digital Forensics Association.

Every second, in various parts of the world, there are 18 cybercrime victims - some 1.6 million a day - according to a 2012 Norton by Symantec study.

On Friday, the Wenatchee World newspaper reported that a Leavenworth, Washington, hospital said hackers stole more than $US1 million ($NZ1.2m) from the hospital's electronic bank account.

The Chelan County treasurer said it had been able to retrieve about $US133,000 ($NZ157,000) by notifying recipient bank accounts, most in the Midwest and East Coast.

And the Associated Press reported that LivingSocial, an online deals site, said on Friday that its website was hacked and the personal data of more than 50 million customers may have been affected - names, email addresses, date of birth of some users and encrypted passwords.

Then there are the Chinese hackers, who blasted into the news in February when Mandiant, an Internet security firm, released a report saying that a group linked to the People's Liberation Army had systemically stolen confidential data from at least 141 American firms.

In his State of the Union address, US president Barack Obama warned: "Now our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions and our air traffic control systems."

That makes internet security a booming industry, at an estimated nearly $US1b ($NZ1.2b) a year in 2012, according to the consulting firm Frost & Sullivan.

Another "white hat" hacker is Adam Cecchetti, 31, who used to work at Leviathan and then in 2010 became one of the founders of Deja vu Security, which operates out of a second-floor renovated loft in Seattle's Capitol Hill. Sometimes, he has coloured his hair blue.

Davidov and Cecchetti are on the front lines of fighting off the "black hat" hackers. Yes, that is how they describe their enemy.

The latter includes those sending out phishing emails that look like they came from a legitimate source but are fakes trying to get your passwords and credit-card information.

Or maybe they are black hats trying to compromise a company's website just so they can boast about it in hacker circles.

For the white hats, their unique skill at finding where a program is vulnerable and how to close the digital doors that the black hats use to penetrate a website is worth $US120,000 to $US130,000 ($NZ141,000 to $NZ153,000) a year, Thunberg said.

"Companies are being attacked by bad people, and if they want to defend themselves, they have to attract these scarce people," he said.

"There are maybe 1000 individuals of this nature in the world. They have this unique hacker mind-set."

Their clients aren't exactly keen to publicise that they seek internet security, said Thunberg, and that's often written into their contracts with Leviathan.

Thunberg said his company's average contract size is for around $US70,000 ($NZ83,000). Citing privacy, he said only that most are Fortune 1000 companies.

But one client that didn't mind talking is a Washington, DC-based company called Silent Circle. For $US20 ($NZ24) a month, it offers a service that encrypts voice, text and video on a user's smartphone, tablet or computer.

Their customers, said Jon Callas, Silent Circle's chief technical officer, include US businesses "doing work in China and Eastern Europe and other places where they don't want their phone calls tapped".

His company, Callas said, hired Leviathan to evaluate the encrypting software for vulnerabilities and fix them.

"They helped us find problems before anybody else did," said Callas.

- The Seattle Times