A wiry young man with his head shaved and wearing a tank top points a handgun straight at the camera in a disturbing YouTube video. The man wears what appears to be a wedding ring, and he gazes vacantly away from the viewer.
Though it's an odd image for an advertisement, this video isn't promoting your average company. It's from a not-so-underground Albanian hacker group that's out to make a name for themselves in the thriving world of malware and computer crime. Besides the shot of the gunman, the video showcases images of a computer screen, a table loaded with foreign currency, and plenty of links to the group's Web site.
Malware is big business, and groups like the Albanian hackers are trying to cash in, using the latest Web 2.0 tools: social networking profiles, blogs, and other publicly available media and Web pages. The digital desperados are moving more and more into wide-scale advertising and brand building on public sites and networks to grow their underground trade.
But wait a minute — how can people get away with selling programs for breaking into your PC or stealing your identity? Simple: Selling malware is not directly illegal in the United States (or nearly anywhere else). Only using it is illegal.
As the malware underground grows, "it's moving away from technology towards business," says Zulfikar Ramzan, senior principal researcher with Symantec Security Response. While virus vendors are still quick to jump on the latest security vulnerability or technical trick, "the real innovations are more business and marketing," he explains.
On the face of it, public ads appear to violate the number-one rule of any illegal activity: Don't make yourself known. And it's true, says Ramzan, that "the more sophisticated guys are more quiet." But since the writers and sellers of Trojan horses and other malicious apps have no real fear of legal repercussions, they have no compelling reason to be shy.
Don Jackson, a senior researcher with managed security services provider SecureWorks, says the Albanian advertisers are a team of hackers who break into computers and networks. "They want to be used for criminal purposes," he says. So they advertise.
Another video ad, this one from a Turkish group, hypes a program used to break into PCs. The group's name and logo (a stylized alien face with the Turkish crescent-and-star emblem on its forehead) play front-and-center in the program's graphical interface, and the video's speaker walks the viewer through a 5-minute-plus tutorial on using the program. More than 17,000 people have watched it.
YouTube is a popular venue for ads from malware makers, with videos for supposedly undetectable Trojan horses, "packers" that compress and obfuscate malware payloads, and even password stealers for breaking into Steam online game accounts. (Asked about the trend, a spokesperson says that YouTube doesn't control site content, but that it will investigate if viewers report videos as inappropriate.)
Advertisements from Internet bad guys don't stop with YouTube. According to Jackson, many online thugs maintain profiles on social networking sites and blogs to keep in touch with their business partners and customers. Many botnet controllers, who sell time on their networks of bot-infected PCs to spammers and other crooks, keep blogs on the livejournal.com site, Jackson says.