Rise of the Narcohackers


Here at CTOVision, we often write quite a bit about the problems of the insider threat, social engineering, and other threats to the enterprise. Amidst the seemingly endless array of security problems a given CTO faces (from overly generous Nigerians to Visitors from the Land of the Panda cough cough APTs), it’s easy to forget that the bad guys have security issues too.

Control of information is a key element in the Mexican cartel war. Slip up, and you might end up on YouTube sans head. Additionally cartels, like any other organization, seek to aggressively shape the narrative of the environment they operate in. So they’ve killed and kidnapped journalists, pushing the news conversation out to blogs and social networks. Some of the rawest information on the drug war comes from sites like Blog Del Narco.

To make matters worse for the cartels, outsider groups such as Anonymous have entered into the drug war, threatening to use their hacking skills to expose cartel members, corrupt Mexican politicians, and bandits. Now you might not exactly picture a Zeta commando to be the most adept with computers, but cartels have been using social networks for a while, as Robert Bunker relates:

[Cartels] utilize new forms of media and merge them with ghastly images of ‘on camera’ torture and killing. YouTube and other social media platforms were then utilized from about 2005-2006 on as a conduit for the transmission of this information. The disruptive effects on Mexican society are readily apparent and have resulted in an assault on the bonds and relationships that hold that nation together—the relations between the people, the government, and law enforcement/the military are becoming increasingly frayed.

Cartels have responded to the social network threat by using their own form of social engineering. While they have mainly employed traditional information-gathering skills, STRATFOR reports that the cartels may be hiring information security professionals of their own to find and kill the bloggers and cyber-activists arrayed against them. Given the resources available to cartels and their already impressive ability to co-opt elite talent (the Zetas themselves are former Mexican commandos)  it would not be particularly surprising if they have an organic cyber counterintelligence capability or are in the process of acquiring one. As one panelist mentioned during the FedCyber Government-Industry Cybersecurity conference, the rise of the mercenary and professional hacker classes is one of the characteristics of the new cyber threat environment.

Cartels are already tracking down and killing Mexican bloggers–or anyone who posts about them on social networks. In turn, however, cartels and the politicians they back are also vulnerable to leaks and social engineering–especially when carried out by those too far away for them to physically harm. It’s all about the OPSEC!


11 responses to “Rise of the Narcohackers”

  1. Good post. The idea I was throwing around was the concept of a 'Cyber Lance'. Or basically a hacker with a special operations team assigned to protect him and to act upon information that the hacker obtains about other enemy hackers or just enemy combatants. These Cyber Lance teams could be all government, or private, or a combination of the two.

    The cartels could have their own Cyber Lances to go after their competitors as well. Either way, in the world of John Arquilla's New Rules of War, Cyber Lances are a type of network that will definitely be good at 'finding' and killing or capturing the enemy.

  2. Good post. The idea I was throwing around was the concept of a 'Cyber Lance'. Or basically a hacker with a special operations team assigned to protect him and to act upon information that the hacker obtains about other enemy hackers or just enemy combatants. These Cyber Lance teams could be all government, or private, or a combination of the two.

    The cartels could have their own Cyber Lances to go after their competitors as well. Either way, in the world of John Arquilla's New Rules of War, Cyber Lances are a type of network that will definitely be good at 'finding' and killing or capturing the enemy.

  3. I suspect that as more and more basic devices become intelligent and generate cyber components, the signature will rise and the potential for this sort of targeting will increase. Unfortunately, it will also be used by adversary states and non-state actors. 

  4. I suspect that as more and more basic devices become intelligent and generate cyber components, the signature will rise and the potential for this sort of targeting will increase. Unfortunately, it will also be used by adversary states and non-state actors. 

  5. Great article – thanks.  There is actually quite a long history of decent tech skills within cartels.  This article from 2002 details how they used some pretty high-grade computer tech to cross-reference raids and "acquired" phone company records to ID government agents within thee organizations.  It's from the now-defunct Business 2.0, and this is the only link I've been able to find for it:&nbsp ;http://bit.ly/tdGgLY

  6. Great article – thanks.  There is actually quite a long history of decent tech skills within cartels.  This article from 2002 details how they used some pretty high-grade computer tech to cross-reference raids and "acquired" phone company records to ID government agents within thee organizations.  It's from the now-defunct Business 2.0, and this is the only link I've been able to find for it:&nbsp ;http://bit.ly/tdGgLY

Leave a Reply