For all its disadvantages, the former Soviet Union had one hugely overlooked advantage: it kept hackers, crackers and virus writers confined inside the country by restricting their access to the Internet.
A decade later, Internet penetration is booming in the region, particularly in Russia, and viruses are epidemic. In fact, Russians are linked to some of the nastiest viruses the IT world has ever experienced: Bagel, MyDoom and NetSky, to name just a few.
Security experts warn that the situation is likely to worsen as hacking, cracking and virus writing shift from being a mischievous hobby of young kids to a lucrative occupation of skilled professionals working hand-in-hand with hardened criminals.
"The influence of organized crime in this area is steadily growing, said Alexander Gostev, a security expert with Kaspersky Labs Ltd. in Moscow. "We are now seeing more malicious programs written by professionals, and not by script kiddies as we experienced two to three years ago."
DK Matai, chairman of Mi2g Ltd., a London-based security service provider, agrees. "The Mafia, which has been using the Internet as a communication vehicle for some time, is using it increasingly as a resource for carrying out mass identity theft and financial fraud," he said.
The motive is obvious: money -- in some cases, big money, which fuels other traditional Mafia activities, such as drug smuggling and prostitution.
"There is more of a financial incentive now for hackers and crackers as well as for virus writers to write for money and not just for glory or some political motive," said one former hacker, known as 3APA3A, who is currently employed as a security expert.
That view contrasts sharply with the situation several years ago when hacking had another status in Russia. In a message published on www.globalsecurity.org, one former hacker-turned-teacher wrote that during his childhood, he and a couple of friends hacked programs and distributed them for free. "It was like our donation to society," he wrote. "It was a form of honor; (we were) like Robin Hood bringing programs to people."
Today, hundreds or even possibly thousands of skilled Russians desperate for cash are scoring the Internet looking for security vulnerability in the computer networks of companies, particularly in the U.S. and Europe. They are creating worms and Trojans for stealing credit card and other financial information, or turning inflected computers into zombie hosts to establish illegal spam farms, or extorting money by threatening companies with a distributed denial-of-service attack if they don't pay. And more.
Indeed, if there were a happy haven for hackers these days, it would be Russia, according to Ken Dunham, director of malicious code at iDefense Inc. in Reston, Virgina. "In Russia, perhaps more than in most other countries right now, hacking magazines and software are sold on the streets of Moscow," he said. "It's not a secret as you'd expect, but right out there in the open."
Moscow even has a hacking school: http://hscool.net.