Inside the Global War to Stop Web Hackers

The first thing they tell you at Akamai is that the Internet is constantly under attack. At every minute, somebody somewhere in the world is trying to hack into a website, shut it down, or steal valuable information from it.

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And because the Cambridge, Mass.-based company hosts as much as 30 percent of the world’s Internet traffic on 90,000 servers distributed in 72 countries around the world, the darkened confines of Akamai’s network control room are the perfect place to watch the global cyber war play out in real time.

And what they’re seeing is a truly global phenomenon.

Attacks “can be launched from anywhere. These masses of computers can come from anywhere,” Akamai CEO Paul Sagan told CNBC Thursday. “It's not as simple as say ‘can I protect myself from Asia or Latin America.’ Sometimes the elevated attack come from North America. We see that traffic.”

Code Wars: America's Cyber Threat -- See Show Details
Code Wars: America's Cyber Threat -- See Show Details

In fact, Akamai has found that the number one global source of malicious attacks is Russia, which was responsible for ten percent of attack traffic in the fourth quarter of 2010, followed by Taiwan, Brazil and China. The United States itself placed fifth, with 7.3 percent of attack traffic emanating from the USA.

And the threat is growing as fast as new technology evolves. “We now see attacks on mobile devices, which we didn’t see a year ago,” said Sagan.

“Why is that happening? Because that’s where the money is. The bad guys realize that the economy is shifting online and they’re going where the money is. So they’re going to steal credit cards, they’re going to extort sites.”

When attacks happen, Akamai helps its clients protect their websites by moving the sites to servers that aren’t experiencing the slowdown. In December, the company says, it fended off attacks aimed at online retailers that surged traffic on those websites by as much as 10,000 times the normal daily volume.

With such “denial of service” attacks, cyber criminals hope to flood the sites with traffic and make it impossible for normal business to continue. The company says that on Cyber Monday last fall, it fended off attacks that would have cost five specific retailers a total of over $15 million in revenue over a three-day period.

And there’s enormous opportunity for the cyber thieves. Akamai processes more than one trillion transactions per day. And while CNBC was in Akamai’s control center on Thursday, the company was handling upwards of 16 million web hits per second. Somewhere in all that traffic, though, are the cyber thieves and hackers.

Not even the federal government is immune.

“I think what really got people’s attention was July 4th of 2009 when a number of US government websites that didn’t have the right kind of defense were taken down with attacks that emanated out of Asia,” said Sagan. That was pretty stunning to see that sort of coordinated attack successful.”

Akamai says its 2010 revenue was $1.02 billion, up 19 percent from the year before.

Watch the premiere of "Code Wars: America's Cyber Threat," Thursday, May 26, at 9pm, 10pm, 12am and 1am ET.