The ability to remain undetected while committing computer network intrusions provides the raison d'être for the IT security professional.

This cat and mouse game keeps millions of professionals and hackers employed because attackers successfully cover their tracks on a daily basis, experts tell SC Media. 

It's no wonder the hacktivist collective called themselves “Anonymous” when in 2003 they started wreaking havoc on unsuspecting targets.

“Anonymous not only share their tools, tactics and procedures (TTPs), they study each other execution how they hack,” says Ondrej Krehel, founder and CEO of the New York, NY-based forensics firm LIFARS.

“If you don't catch them in the act [of hacking], you're not going to catch them.”

– Donald Trump to Chris Wallace of Fox News, Dec. 10, 2016

The best way hackers achieve anonymity is by gaining credentials typically through social engineering or website with malware multimedia tactics, he points out.

“Once they have the credentials, there's no difference [within the network] than the real users. The game is over,” Krehel says, adding that most non-amateur hackers are mindful to not be detected.

“Master hackers don't get arrested and prosecuted,” Krehel points out, because they are surreptitious by nature.

How anonymity hinders the digital forensics process is a major concern to Dr. Ibrahim Baggili, founder of Cyber Forensics Research Group, University of New Haven in West Haven, Conn.

“If someone is killed and the murderer uses bleach to cover up the blood on the floor, the killer is hiding the trail,” says the computer science professor, who wrote his dissertation on the psychological aspects of anonymity.

“The same thing would apply if you're using Tor in order to download illegals videos or child pornography, or sell guns and drugs on the dark web,” Dr. Bagilli says. “The question is not whether people should be using privacy-enhancing technologies. It's really do they hinder the forensics process. Can we find ways of still finding the digital evidence that could put those bad people using these technologies behind bars if they need to be behind bars. Can we stop a bomb from exploding? Should we have access to this data? And is there a way around that for us to gain access to that data?” 

Bagilli believes the general public has become desensitized from being anonymous because they're used to being tracked on the Internet for commercial reasons. But he asks rhetorically, “How do we balance forensics with privacy?”

The leading Web browser to be anonymous is Tor, used daily by 2 million individuals, although several million Tor users more could be on Android devices.

Tor remains unapologetic for the possibility of its technology being usurped for criminal purposes, and rather emphasizes its benevolent purposes, such as providing protection for whistleblowers and political dissidents oppressed by totalitarian regimes.

“The dark web is really a way of communicating and transporting bytes of the Internet more safely,” says Roger Dingledine, co-founder of the Tor Project, whose Onion services since 2004 have allowed Tor users to remain anonymous and difficult to trace.

“There's nothing inherently new about the challenge that law enforcement authorities have,” Dingledine says.

Tor technology typically is used by systems administrators seeking added protection by setting up a secure log-in using an Onion service. “Now they can firewall the whole thing,” he explains. “Now nobody can connect to my computer from the Internet except if they're going through this Tor line I set up.”

Among Tor users, 79 percent are outside the U.S., although the most users from one country are within the U.S., with Russia being No. 2.

“[Hackers] in Russia don't need Tor to purchase malware. There are places to go to purchase malware. They're doing it just fine; they don't need Tor,” Dingledine says.

Jihadists go stealth

How do terrorist groups, many of whom engage in cyberattack activities, including the Islamic State (ISIS), remain stealth? That depends on the organizations themselves or fans who identify with the mission, according to Veryan Khan, editorial director of Washington, DC-based the Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium (TRAC) (http://www.trackingterrorism.org/). 

“There are a million and one handbooks available [online] on how to stay under the radar with everything from operating VPNs to creating false Google telephone numbers to getting up a Twitter page,” Kahn says. Manuals exist on how to evade all kinds of security problems everything from not using browsers, logging onto the dark web, she notes. TRAC assists counter-terrorism efforts, tracking jihadists “of every ideology in every region across the globe.”

ISIS used to be very active on Twitter, but now its favorite way of disseminating information anonymously is through Telegram, the Berlin, Germany-based messaging service (http://www.telegram.org).

Like Tor, Telegram, which emerged in 2013, insists its encrypted technology is designed for good purposes. A Telegram app is available for mobile phones or desktop computers.

And although Telegram states on the FAQ portion of its website that it “block/s terrorist (e.g., ISIS-related) bots and channels,” Khan presently follows 100 dedicated Telegram channels by ISIS alone, as well as scores of others set up by extremist organizations such as The Taliban (Afghanistan), Al Shabab (East Africa) and Hezbollah (Lebanon). Official and quasi-official media arms of such terrorist organizations espouse constantly propaganda 24/7 via Telegram, as do their fans. 

“They're not as easily identifiable [by language or name] as they were before,” explains Khan, of the invite-only Telegram groups. “Now the names are like long strings of numbers or something that doesn't make any sense at all.”

Not only can no one other than the Telegram two parties see the conversation, there are also features such as setting up parameters to self-delete text, which helps with money laundering or child pornography, for example, and other nefarious activity, points out Khan. Accounts can be scheduled at specific times to self-destruct.

In September 2015, Telegram introduced a feature that is “essentially a Twitter feed on steroids,” Khan says, noting Twitter messages are limited by 160 characters.

Telegram “supergroups” can host 25,000 people at a time, each whom can download files up to 1.5 GB. One such terrorist group channel Khan followed within a few days had 25,000 unidentified followers, and offering versions in 13 different languages. “You can tell how much propaganda is reaching people and at what times.”

Telegram set up an infrastructure that was easy to follow, according to Khan, whose article about the operation in December 2015, she says, resulted in the service taking down 80 channels in one day. “That was just a tip of the iceberg; they didn't take down any of the Russian channel,” she says.

Telegram's creators also created VK, the largest European online social networking service, known as the Russian Facebook. “The Russian government forced out the creators and took over VK,” Khan explains.

Telegram relocated from Russia to Germany, incidentally the European country with the strictest consumer privacy laws.

Khan notes fans of terrorist groups put up Telegram channels in private chat rooms that can hold up to a thousand people. You can see who's in there but everybody operates with an alias.”

Invitation links typically get passed along around Telegram and are only usable for a few hours, and passwords are texted to a real mobile phone that often is stolen. Both administrators and members operate completely anonymously within Telegram channels, on which official organizations sometimes claim responsibility for particular terrorist actions.

 “I found out about the [Bastille Day] terrorist attack on Telegram before I could see even a single news article or tweet about it yet,” says Khan, of the July 2016 attack that a single truck run over and killed 80 people in Nice, France. She first saw “citizen-journalism” selfies on Islamic State-affiliated Telegram accounts. “They knew about it. They knew it was coming,” she says, although ISIS never claimed responsibility for the attack.

“I've seen jihadists who don't get along with each other operating on Telegram,” Khan says, adding that they do a lot less to hide themselves on Facebook and Twitter.

Terrorist organizations' recruiters often find potential members on social media and then move communication onto private platforms such as Telegram.

“The casual fan sympathetic [towards a terrorist group] and who just enjoys [to view online] a beheading isn't probably using Tor very much,” Khan says. “The guy who says, ‘Yay, Go Team!' is using Tor.”

Another layer of complexity

Ironically, official government intelligence agencies around the world, including the U.S., are also among Tor users, reports Dingledine. “My bad guy is your good guy. If the military in Saudi Arabia uses Tor, which category are they in?”

Dingledine says he heard a rumor that the North Korean hackers used Tor before breaking into Sony Pictures in 2015. “It's not that they needed the privacy that Tor provides,” says Dingledine. “They were doing fine breaking into whatever computer and bouncing from it,” he says, if indeed a North Korean was responsible. “If they used Tor, I assume it was to add yet another layer of complexity to whatever poor analyst was trying to figure out what happened.”

Raj Samani, Intel Security's London-based CTO for EMEA, cites the Beebone Botnet in April 2015 as “a polymorphic attack that updated itself up to 30 times a day with the intent of trying to hide and remain under the covers.”

Similarly, Operation Troy launched against South Korea in 2013 wiping the hard drives of tens of thousands of computers was designed to remain hidden as long as the attackers could.

Detection avoidance can be malware, lateral movement timing or the exfiltration of data. “Rather than taking a whole ton of it straight away, they'll take it piecemeal. We see all that stuff,” Samani says.

Does the organization even know it's been hit? “Yahoo only knew it was missing data when it was found on the dark web,” he notes.

Today's threats fall into the categories of the “very noisy, loud confrontational stuff like ransomware or DDoS or extortion by DDoS, and then you've got the quieter boys that just want to sit hidden in the background not be picked up, planning to launch their operations at a later date with the thinking ‘I'm going to remain undetected by your anti-virus.”