Digital vandalism: The latest security threat

The days of vandalism being limited to your car or property and those possessions that you can physically see are long gone. Now the public may be facing much more insidious damages, with the rise of ‘digital vandalism’.

Digital vandalism can be defined as defacing the digital assets of a company or individual to cause nuisance or permanent damage. That said, it’s a novel enough concept to not warrant its own definition on Wikipedia. Although the attacks rarely cause serious problems or material gains, the use of digital vandalism has been getting much more serious in recent years. In 2015 crime statistics increased by 107 per cent, as the Office for National Statistics started to include cybercrimes as a recorded offence. Digital vandalism can take various forms, ranging from small technological pranks to serious health and financial consequences for the victim.

Digital vandalism – what’s the point?

Rather than physically damaging technology, digital vandals hack the technology to create issues within the technology itself. Digital vandalism can target a single computer or an entire company, creating simple pranks within websites or altering masses of data and information. Destroying a cyberspace is a digital vandal’s main aim, with many vandals spending hours writing software responsible for the cyberattacks around the world. The implications for the rise of digital vandalism are therefore huge and have continued to grow with the advancement of technology in recent years.

Example of a high profile prank

A high profile example of a digital vandalism prank occurred in 2015, when Google allowed its users to participate in map creation on its Map Maker. Digital vandals seized the opportunity to create an illustration of an Android mascot urinating on Apple’s logo for the public to see. Even though Google removed the map as soon as it was flagged to them, the vandalism resulted in Google disabling the map editing capability until digital moderation was adapted and improved. The Map Maker is now enabled again, but editing is slower due to the new moderation systems in place. Digital vandals are constantly looking for potential technology to hack, with high profile companies as exceptionally desirable targets.

Wider implications: Who stole my brand?

However, digital vandalism is not only hacking into a companies’ software, as vandals can also take a company’s logo and brand and use it to create a new website or social media presence. The new website mimics the authentic one, making it difficult to differentiate between the two websites. This practice, known as brandjacking, is a security threat that leaves companies exposed to ridicule and satire, or much more serious issues in some cases. Many brandjacking pranks are incredibly believable and well-executed, causing havoc for the targeted company.

Kellogg’s suffered a recent brandjacking attack, as vandals created an unauthorised website with the same layout as their original website. The vandals then created a collection of short movies depicting one of their brand heroes – Tony the Tiger – in situations that were inappropriate for children. Even though the company attempted to separate itself from the issue (as its target audience is mainly children), many individuals and some media outlets fell for the brandjacker’s trick as the websites were almost identical. This tainted the Kellogg’s brand as a child-friendly company until the issue was rectified and the fake website and videos were removed from the Internet.

Warning: Digital vandals can seriously damage your health

However, digital vandalism can also have serious health consequences for victims. Digital vandals can meddle with water or sewage systems, or change lights or temperatures within buildings, potentially causing serious health issues for the public. More importantly, vandals may target gas pipelines and power plants, resulting in explosions and deaths if people are close to the targeted area. The more public systems begin to be digitalised, the more targets are created and people are put at danger. The only limit to digital vandalism is the vandals’ imagination – anyone can be at risk.

The cost of phishing for data

Another serious example of digital vandalism is data phishing. Phishing, a combination of the words Fishing and Phreaking (telecommunication scams), involves mimicking a well-known and trusted company or institution, such as a bank, with the aim is to gather personal data to commit identify crimes. The target will receive a message that looks exactly like a legitimate message or email from a bank, for example, with the phisher asking the user to provide personal information. The information, usually passwords and bank details, allow the digital vandals to access and steal money from the victim. Cybercrime, including phishing, stole £20 million from UK bank accounts in 2015, with many banks not realising that they are a target of impersonation from phishers. If personal information is passed over to the brandjackers, the individual is at risk of becoming a victim of fraud and the bank or company is at risk of a tainted reputation.

How to avoid being a vandal victim

To reduce the risk of falling prey to digital vandalism, firstly, both individuals and companies must protect their assets with resilient passwords and complex authentication systems. Company computers and devices may be connected to a collective hard drive or company servers, containing valuable documents such as financial information and employee data. The more digital obstacles you have in place, the harder it will be for digital vandals to access your sensitive information and wreak havoc on your digital assets.

Digital vandalism can range from simple pranks to high profile issues, with a lot of technology at risk. With the constant development of new technology, there is always the potential for new types of digital vandalism to occur. The amount of cybercrimes have vastly increased in recent years, and companies must adapt their security to ensure that their data, information, and passwords are safe from vandals and hackers. Security must keep pace with the digital advancements, as well as with the power of the pranksters’ imaginations, if we are to protect the digital assets of the present and future.

Jarosław Czaja, CEO of Future Processing

Image Credit: Jeff Wasserman