Speaker 2013

Mikko HypponenCybercrime expert

Today's cyberthreats

Chief research officer at F-Secure Corporation in Finland, Mikko Hypponen is one of the world’s leading cybercrime experts. With his team, he has tracked the origin of some of the largest computer virus outbreaks in history, and worked on classified operations including decrypting the Stuxnet worm intended to sabotage Iranian nuclear facilities. As computers and digital networks have become increasingly central to every aspect of modern life and business, cybercrime has become a serious and multifaceted threat. From his unique viewpoint, Hypponen asks: How to confront it? What is the real risk for corporations? What should they do? What’s next?

Report : Today's cyberthreats

“There’s no point trying to defend our computer networks without understanding who’s attacking them and how these people are operating,” Mikko Hypponen explains. “It makes me think of Brain, the first virus to attack MS-DOS computers on a massive scale in 1986. It was introduced via floppy disk – those old computer disks that were flexible. In the virus’s lines of code you could clearly read the name and address of its two authors, who lived in Pakistan. So, 25 years later, I said to myself that it might be interesting to see what had happened to them.” Without thinking…

“There’s no point trying to defend our computer networks without understanding who’s attacking them and how these people are operating,” Mikko Hypponen explains. “It makes me think of Brain, the first virus to attack MS-DOS computers on a massive scale in 1986. It was introduced via floppy disk – those old computer disks that were flexible. In the virus’s lines of code you could clearly read the name and address of its two authors, who lived in Pakistan. So, 25 years later, I said to myself that it might be interesting to see what had happened to them.” Without thinking twice about it, Mikko Hypponen travelled to the address given in the code, near Lahore, and tracked down Basit and Amjad Farooq Alvi, the two brothers behind the virus, now businessmen running a company called…Brain Telecommunication!

“But they weren’t intending to make money when they wrote the codes for this virus,” Mikko Hypponen goes on. “They just wanted to show that computer security at the time was rubbish. Since then, so much has changed and we find ourselves facing three types of professional cyber attacker. First, there are the hacktivists like those in the Anonymous movement. They don’t give much cause for concern, unlike the online criminals whose only aim is to make money.” This type of attacker is clearly indiscriminate. Anyone can be affected and attacks are multifaceted. Mikko Hypponen cites the example of the trojan that infects all the files on a computer, which are then encrypted. To resolve the problem, a “nice message” pops up asking you to “go to checkout”. And what about those alerts informing you that, for security reasons, your computer has been locked? Such messages will contain the obligatory header showing a photo of the president of the country where the victim of the cyber-attack is living. This is a blatant bid to make money.

Finally, we come to the third type, which has taken on proportions beyond anything we could have imagined: governments themselves. “If someone had said to me, a decade or so ago, that such actions of a criminal nature, perpetrated by certain democracies against others, were to become common practice, I’d never have believed it”, comments Mikko Hypponen. “Current targets are high tech companies, governments, businesses operating in the arms sector, to name but a few. What’s more, these attacks are so sophisticated that it could take years to detect them. Not long ago, we were pointing the finger at China as the prime mover behind such threats. But we’ve realised today that the surveillance system set up by the United States, notably through the Prism programme leaked by Edward Snowden, is second to none.” Seeing as American companies are responsible for the majority of the IT services linked to the Internet, such a system can’t be declared illegal. Even more serious, no other economy has as yet the capability to compete with what Uncle Sam has put on the table. In other words, everything is still going through the United States and, for the moment, Mikko Hypponen can see only one solution: open source!

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