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How internet secrets are unlocked

Modern computer hacking relies on the same basic technology that millions of people use every day - the internet. Thanks to the huge numbers of computers that are online, hackers are able to use a series of simple steps to sneak access to secret information.

The starting point is to find out which computers it is possible to attack. Every machine connected to the net has a unique address to which the hacker can send messages. Depending on the response they get, criminals are able to identify computers that may be more susceptible to hacking.

Usually they simply conduct a wide sweep of addresses in order to find a likely looking machine to focus their efforts on.

Once a target has been picked out, the hackers will then start the process of breaking in. Sometimes this will involve a "brute force attack" - using a code-breaking program to try to crack the machine's passwords. In other cases, the hacker will use an existing flaw in the computer's software to trick their way inside the computer system.

Most of the software used for hacking is available to download free from the internet. Some of the more complex or sinister tools are bought from unpublicised websites or swapped on discussion forums; hardcore hackers will write their own programs to exploit new weaknesses they have found, known as "zero-day" flaws.

But many incidents of so-called "cyber warfare" do not involve hacking into the target systems. Instead they are aimed at bringing the critical systems to a halt, and often involve demanding a ransom.

In these situations, hackers use their techniques to infect and gain control of thousands, or even millions, of home computers, before turning them all towards the target system simultaneously. The sudden surge in traffic is often enough to overwhelm the victim and bring it down, in what is known as a "denial of service" attack.

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