It’s hard to stay anonymous on the internet…
Between government surveillance systems and advertising tracking tools, your every move online can be monitored.
But if that’s the case, then why are hackers and cybercriminals so successful in their nefarious endeavors? Shouldn’t it be easy to watch their activity too?
In reality, hackers spend as much time designing their attacks as they do finding ways to stay below the radar. A single slip-up can result in the end of their malicious enterprise.
The list below covers the seven most common methods that hackers use to stay a step ahead of those chasing them.
1. Adding Layers of Virtual Machines
In movies and television, you’ll often see a supposed hacker using a basic Windows laptop to launch a major attack. That’s rarely how it works in the real world. Hackers usually operate on Linux machines and are careful to add extra layers of infrastructure between them and their operation.
Before beginning an attack, a hacker will likely connect through a series of virtual machines that are hosted in different regions of the world, acting as sort of a private cloud network. These access points are sometimes referred to as ghost machines and are replaced on a regular basis so that a hacker can cover their tracks.
2. Spoofing IP and MAC Addresses
Every single device that wants to connect to the public internet must get an internet protocol (IP) address assigned to it by an internet service provider (ISP). This IP address will identifies the computer, tablet, or smartphone so that it can easily send and receive requested data from websites through a browser.
A media access control address (MAC address) is similar to an IP address except it is assigned during manufacturing and is specific to a network adapter. A computer with an ethernet port and a wi-fi access card will have two separate MAC addresses linked to it.
IP addresses and MAC addresses are the most common ways that people are tracked online. To get around this, hackers use a variety of tools to spoof addresses to disguise location and which devices they are using. Certain versions of the Linux operating system make it easy for a user to set a custom IP or MAC address.
3. Communicating With IRC
There’s a good reason you don’t see groups of cybercriminals talking about their enterprises on social media or message boards. Those types of forums are prone to eavesdropping and do not offer true anonymity.
Instead, you’ll find that most hackers rely on internet relay chat (IRC) implementations for all forms of communication. IRC apps are typically run on individual servers that do not interface with the public cloud. As a result, content on IRC channels is considered very secure and hard to trace.
4. Switching Between VPNs
When talking about internet security, virtual private networks (VPNs) are considered to be one of the smartest investments a person can make. With a stable VPN you can be confident that your internet activity is fully encrypted and protected from hacking.
But VPNs can be used for malicious purposes as well. In fact, hackers often maintain accounts with dozens of VPN providers and rotate between them on a regular basis. When it comes to choosing the best VPN service provider, it’s all about anonymity (ie, no logging). A properly functioning VPN connection will disguise a user’s true IP address, which makes it difficult to track their activity or determine their physical location.
In addition, some VPN providers offer an easy way to switch between access points. This means that a hacker can route their web traffic through a Canadian server one day and then move their activity to a German server the day after.
5. Using the TOR Browser
A typical internet user connects to websites using a popular browser application like Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox. Hackers, on the other hand, have a different browser of choice. They primarily use a tool called the Tor browser, which offers built-in privacy advantages inherent with the great unindexed abyss that is the Dark Web.
When a webpage loads through the Tor browser, the initial request is actually first routed through a number of relays spread across the globe. This layered concept is known as onion routing, and that’s how The Onion Router became known simply as Tor.
At each stop on the onion relay, traffic is encrypted and then passed to a new IP address. This makes it almost impossible for outside entities to trace a user’s session and follow their activity.
6. Masking Email Addresses
Information that you share with another person over email might seem like a private communication, but that’s not the case for the largest email providers on the internet. These companies all have full access to the content of your messages, some of which may be used in government surveillance programs.
For this reason, you’ll rarely find an experienced hacker who relies on a Gmail or Outlook address, especially if part of their enterprise involves spam messages or other phishing attacks. Instead, like with IRC channels, they’ll host their own email server and use that exclusively.
Hackers have also developed a number of ways to mask their true email address when blasting large audiences with spam. Sometimes it’s as simple as adding a typo to an official-looking address that most internet users won’t notice. There are even services that offer temporary email addresses that expire after a certain period of time.
7. Encrypting Hard Drives
For a hacker, most of the focus is on network connections and covering their tracks on the internet. However, they also take careful steps to secure their physical devices. One of the most common ways is to use encrypted hard drives that require a special passcode to use.
In the fallout from a data breach, authorities may try to hack back and infiltrate the cybercriminals’ systems. Using an encrypted hard drive makes this almost impossible.
The Bottom Line
The point to all this talk about how hackers manage to stay clear of the long arm of the law is not to provide you, dear reader, with a primer on a new online crime career but rather to offer insight into how the bad guys stay out of sight.
The smartest thing you can do is take appropriate precautions to protect yourself with a VPN, updated security software, and a dose of common sense. Make no mistake, hackers are out there and you probably won’t see them coming.