Hackers for hire: Freelance cyber-spies at your service
Hacker’s List allows you to hire a hacker anonymously and quickly.
Hacker’s List, a website that offers to connect customers and “professional” hackers for hire, would have you believe that just about everyone, at one point or another, needs to hack into something.
The business of hacking is no longer just the domain of intelligence agencies, international criminal gangs, shadowy political operatives and disgruntled “hacktivists” taking aim at big targets. Connect those who need shadowy services with those who are willing to pull them off—anything from breaking in to an ex’s email address to taking out an enemy’s website. “Hiring a hacker shouldn’t be a difficult process, we believe that finding a trustworthy professional hacker for hire should be a worry free and painless experience. At Hacker’s List we want to provide you with the best opportunity to find your ideal hacker and for professional hackers around the world to find you.
At a time when huge stealth attacks on companies like Sony Pictures, JPMorgan Chase and Home Depot attract attention, less noticed is a growing cottage industry of ordinary people hiring hackers for much smaller acts of espionage. A new website, called Hacker’s List, seeks to match hackers with people looking to gain access to email accounts, take down unflattering photos from a website or gain access to a company’s database. The idea is that hackers with relevant expertise bid on jobs they want to undertake, then they complete milestones set by the lister as a way of monitoring work progress.
The site, which is registered in New Zealand, asks users not to “use the service for any illegal purposes,” as laid out in its terms and conditions section. In less than three months of operation, over 500 hacking jobs have been put out to bid on the site, with hackers vying for the right to do the dirty work. There are listings for a variety of activities, which are called “projects” on the website, from breaking into iPhones to tampering with academic grades.
One job listing to hack a Gmail account is offering to pay anywhere from $100 to $1,000 for successful completion; another, which must be a joke, is offering up anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 if a hacker successfully breaks into the database of a central bank. Although it remains to be seen just how legitimate the site is—and whether bidders and hackers alike are getting all that much work from it—Hacker’s List is designed to stress the anonymity of the pairing (though it encourages you to register by linking up your Facebook account, which seems like a poor choice for those looking to stay anonymous). And for those worried about the scamming aspect of a hire-a-hacker site, funds for a particular job can be held in escrow to ensure that they’re only paid out upon its completion. When pricing is agreed upon, the first payment is made. (Though Hacker’s List claims it holds all payments until the project is complete.) Bids for hackers can range from low prices (say, $1) to thousands. For instance, a bidder who claimed to be living in Australia would be willing to pay up to $2,000 to get a list of clients from a competitor’s database, according to a recent post by the bidder.
Additionally, hackers who have low ratings from previous jobs allegedly end up paying a higher percentage in fees to Hacker’s List when jobs are successfully completed. Hacking into individual email or social media accounts occurs on a fairly regular basis, according to computer security experts and law enforcement officials. The hackers freelancing for the listing service will have varying skill levels, but, as Mashable’s Christina Warren put it, everyone should have the expectation that “our privacy and security are finite and will probably be breached.” To help keep sites secure, use password managers and generators — like LastPass — as well as two-factor authentication, which requires a password and a uniquely generated code, to protect email accounts and computer systems. Hacker’s List was down for a few hours today, supposedly because it is “currently upgrading server hardware to better serve you.” It’s always more fun to use sites where you don’t know if “server upgrade” is a euphemism for high traffic or a legal probe.
If something goes awry, the users can consult one of Hacker’s List’s “dispute specialists.” Of course, how legal all of this is remains entirely questionable. The reviewer and owner of that site, who would identify himself only as “Eric” in emails, said he gave his top rating to Hacker’s List because it’s a “really cool concept” that limits the ability of customers and hackers to take advantage of one another. The founders of Hacker’s List, however, contend that they are insulated from any legal liability because they neither endorse nor condone illegal activities. The report said the founders were advised by legal counsel about how to structure the website to avoid liability for any wrongdoing by people either seeking to hire a hacker or by hackers agreeing to do a job.
Brown, a senior managing director with FTI Consulting and former chief of the computer and intellectual property crime unit of the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan, said hacker-for-hire websites posed problems. “Hackers for hire can permit nontechnical individuals to launch cyberattacks with a degree of deniability, lowering the barriers to entry for online crime,” Mr. Jack described himself as a longtime hacker and said that his partners included a person with master’s degree in business administration and a lawyer. Hacker’s List began its website several months after federal prosecutors and FBI agents in Los Angeles completed a two-year crackdown on the hacker-forhire industry.
The investigation, called Operation Firehacker by the FBI, led to the filing of criminal charges against more than a dozen people across the country involved in either breaking into a person’s email account or soliciting a hacker for the job. Vargas, who pleaded guilty in November 2013 and was sentenced to four months in prison, said he had been motivated by jealousy and wanted to see whether any of his colleagues were dating an ex-girlfriend who is the mother of his son.
The FBI investigation also involved the cooperation of the authorities in China, India and Romania, because a number of the websites where the hackers advertised their expertise were based overseas. On its website, NeighborhoodHacker describes itself as a company of “certified ethical hackers” that works with customers to “secure your data, passwords and children’s safety.”
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