Every so often, people ask me "why do they do it?" Why do the hackers put so much time and energy into committing crimes and sending spam? Why can’t they channel all that innovation for good?

The stereotypical hacker used to be a pimply-faced, pizza-eating kid working late at night in a caffeine-induced frenzy for guts, glory and bragging rights – kids breaking into systems just to prove that they could or writing computer viruses to delete hard drives for the cheap thrill of vandalism. There are still some of those folks out there but the vast majority of hackers and spammers are now in it for the money. They are organized, well-educated and they’re making big bucks.

According to McAfee CEO David DeWalt, cybercrime has become a $105 billion business and is now larger than the value of the illegal drug trade worldwide. Unfortunately, computer crimes are relatively safe crimes. Hackers hide behind multiple networks and their digital footprints. Many hackers run at least part of their scam through a foreign country – often one with poor relations with the US, significantly increasing the difficulty in prosecuting any case against the criminal. Law enforcement’s ability to find, prosecute and punish cybercriminals has not kept up with the growth of the criminal activity. And even if you do get caught, DeWalt noted that “If you rob a 7-11 you’ll get a much harsher punishment than if you stole millions online.”

And even if the hacker can’t make any money off you directly (by stealing your personal information or using your computer as a point-of-entry into the corporate system), they can still hijack your computer’s processing power to attack other systems. The hacker sees your computer as an asset.

Take spam as another example. If we all stopped buying, the spam problem would dry up in a matter of months. Yet 98% of all message traffic on the Internet is now spam. Who buys that junk? According to a study from several years ago, a spammer only needs to make one sale or con per 100,000 messages in order to make a profit. With those odds, they don’t even have to be good scams. They just have to find the one gullible person among your 100,000 closest friends.

Leave a Reply