Cracking the code: How hard can it be?

It’s the film we’ve all been talking about, comparing the endings we found ourselves at, the path we went down to get there and the length of time it took us to complete it

That’s right – Bandersnatch, the latest Black Mirror phenomenon is the interactive film that has really taken the nation by surprise. The film challenges us to control the life of the programmer, developing his own game. It contains glimpses into the world of programming and offers us as the viewer an insight into how hackers often leave little traces behind. In fact, it begs the question – is a hacker ever truly anonymous?

The film offers many parallels to today’s business word, including the ‘hacker trail’. In the same way that the Bandersnatch protagonist spots us – the Netflix user – to be the hacker by the QR code left within the programme, organisations can also spot foreign bodies entering their systems – exposing them.  We all know that hackers exist. In fact, more than four in ten businesses (43%) experienced a cyber breach during 2018 – so how do businesses prevent them?

“Anonymous hackers” – What does it mean, do they exist?

Previously, hackers could spend their time entering programmes, systems and software without permission or the right to do so – and all with the peace of mind that no one knows they’re there, or who they are. Until now…

Just like righteous programmers, hackers also leave their own mark in the programmes that they code and write – often without realising they are doing so. Now, with the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI), organisations can find clues within this code that can expose hackers, much faster than they’d expect or want.

Finding the hidden clue

We all understand how complex the programming landscape can be, with lots of layers coming together to form the narrative. As a result, programmers must consider every single layer of detail to ensure that no problem is left unsolved.

When a hacker enters a programme, they leave their own digital signatures within the programme. Usually, the mark left within the programme is so slight that it is barely visible to the naked eye – but it’s still identifiable. In fact, according to research, it only takes the smallest of code extracts to distinguish programmers from one another.

According to assistant professor at the George Washington University, Aylin Caliskan, should we want to, it’s possible to de-anonymise coders via a process known as “Code Stylometry”. This process requires the extensive binary code of a programmer to be considered and thus identified.

The anonymisation of personal data is possible – for everyone and anyone. However, now, with Code Stylometry, hackers can be traced much more easily, helping companies to better protect themselves against such attacks. Malware developers could be identified and prosecuted. Such methods would also endanger anonymity on programming platforms, whereby even if the hacker switched accounts in the future, AI technology would still be able to track them down. Like with other explosive topics, such as CCTV or machine learning, we stand here between the two poles of security and privacy – and we have to decide which is more important to us.

Getting ahead of the game

Ultimately, prevention is better than cure. Rather than face the battle between security and privacy, businesses should instead arm themselves before an attack strikes. By identifying potential hackers before they penetrate the security system, IT administrators position themselves ahead of the game, and save the need for the inevitable firefighting which takes place when it’s far too late.

This is where network monitoring comes in.

Businesses need to be able to protect themselves from attacks. To do this, total transparency across all business operations are vital. The ability to predict and react enables businesses to spot potential threats before the network is damaged. However, not all devices will align to network standards. For these devices, its crucial to integrate non-IT components through the appropriate APIs. Essentially, this ensures problems are recognised from an informed place to alert businesses at speed.

The world of programming is complex – there is no denying this. For IT admins to protect their networks, it’s a big job, and one that is only going to grow in complexity. With tech continuing to evolve and become engrained in our day to day lives, we must work hard to prepare for future threats. Why wait?

About the Author

Martin Hodgson is Head of UK and Ireland, Paessler. Paessler AG, a leading worldwide provider of network monitoring software, provides IT and network administrators with comprehensive network monitoring tools that are easy to use, easy to buy, and easy to install and maintain. PRTG Network Monitor is used by more than 200.000 users worldwide.