I picked up the ever-ubiquitous USA Today sitting in front of my hotel room door this morning and noticed an interesting article by Jon Swartz and Byron Acohido on cybercrime markets. (Full disclosure, I’ve served as a source for Jon in the past in other security articles). Stiennon over at Threat Chaos is also writing on it, as are a few others. About 2-3 years ago I started talking about the transition from experimentation to true cybercrime. It’s just one of those unfortunate natural evolutions- bad guys follow the money, then it takes them a little bit of time to refine their techniques and understand new technologies. I can guarantee that before banks started buying safes and storing cash in them, the only safecrackers were bored 13 year old pimply faced boys trying to impress girls. Or the guys who make the safes and spend all their time breaking the other guy’s stuff. Trust me, I have a history degree.

We all know financial cybercrime is growing and increasingly organized. Unlike most of the FUD out there, the USA Today article discusses specific examples of operating criminal enterprises. Calling themselves “carders” or “credit card resellers” these organizations run the equivalent of an eBay for bad guys. And this is only one of the different kinds of criminal operations running on the web.

We, as an industry, need to start dealing with these threats more proactively. We can’t win if all we do is play defense. I used to teach martial arts, and we’d sometimes run an exercise with our students where they’d pair of for sparring, but one person was only allowed to defend. No attacks, no counterattacks, blocking only. The only way you can win is if the other guy gets so tired they pass out. Not the best strategy.

This is essentially how we treat security today. As businesses, government, and individuals we pile on layers and layers of defenses but we’re the ones who eventually collapse. We have to get it right every time. The bad guys only have to get it right once.

Now I’m not advocating “active defenses” that take down bad guys when they attack. That’s vigilantism, and isn’t the kind of thing regular citizens or businesses should be getting into. Something like a tar pit might not be bad, but counterattacking is more than a little risky- we might be downing grandma’s computer by mistake.

One of the best tools we have today is intelligence. We in the private sector can pass on all sorts of information to those in law enforcement and intelligence who can take more direct action. Sure, we provide some intelligence today, but we’re poorly organized with few established relationships. The New York Electronic Crimes Task Force is a great example of how this can work. One of the problems those of us on the private side often have with official channels is those channels are a black hole- we never know if they’re doing anything with the info we pass on. If we think they’re ignoring us we might go try and take down a site ourselves, not knowing we’re compromising an investigation in the process. Basically, none of this works if we don’t develop good, trusted relationships between governments and the private sector.

When it comes to intelligence gathering we in the security community can also play a more active role, like those guys on Dateline tracking pedophiles and working with police directly to build cases and get the sickos off the street. Those of you on the vulnerability research side are especially suited for this kind of work- you have the skills and technical knowledge to dig deep into these organizations and sites, identify the channels, and provide information to shut them down.

We just can’t win if all we do is block. While we’re always somewhat handcuffed by playing legal, we can do a heck of a lot more than we do today. It’s time to get active.

But I want to know what you think…