HelloKitty, SOCKs, Saitama, Onyx, Bian Lian. Enthusiasts recognise them as animation characters from the East. For threat intelligence analysts, they are prolific cybercriminal gangs, some of them even state-sponsored!
Hackers have notably increased in numbers over the last few years. Though they have been in space for decades, we often associate them with newer, unknown threat groups, and it’s harder to distinguish between them now as many of them have started using Japanese anime characters as their identity: from named to profile pictures.
Take a look at the offshoots of the notorious Conti ransomware gang: Ryuk, Karakurt, Zeon, and Roy. Even Conti is the name of an anime character! It’s either pop culture influence, or these dreaded hackers are a bunch of ordinary nerds binging on anime and manga!
What’s up, Anime?
Anime, which translates to Japanese cartoons, is a sub-genre of entertainment hailing from Japan and has augmented into a worldwide phenomenon, gaining the attention of commercial businesses and notorious hacker groups.
These groups are ruthless in their campaigns and have caused great destruction in the worldwide corporate ecosystem. According to Statista, the Q3 of 2022 saw a data leak of approximately 15 million records exposed worldwide through data breaches.
This figure has only increased by 37% compared to the previous quarter, and from the first quarter of 2020 to the last quarter of 2020, the data sets leaks were over 125 million as of November 2022.
Hackers use anime characters as their profile pictures, but why?
In several underground forums, such as RaidForums (now closed) and BreachForums, threat actors tend to use anime characters as their profile picture, and this is not a rare occurrence because hundreds of threat actors fall into that category, making the whole concept of finding the origins of this trend more complex.
The recent Hyundai hack, where 120,000 car owners became the direct target of a dark web threat group, was also initiated by an unknown threat actor using an anime character image as their profile avatar. But why do these hackers use anime images? Are they just a bunch of anime nerds who binge-watch anime like the rest of the pop culture geeks? Or is it just an inclination? Well, the answer is more complex than it appears to be.
Hanumanth Reddy, Founder and Editor-in-Chief at Anime Ukiyo explained why hackers are using anime characters as their profile pictures.
“Anime images are an efficient approach to mask one’s identity. Internet users and hackers who do not want to reveal their true identities often use anime images as their profile pictures. This allows them to remain anonymous on the internet and get away with whatever they say, argue, or write on social media posts,” Reddy told The Cyber Express.
How pop culture and anime is influencing hackers?
There is no second thought that black hat hackers are basically criminals. However, we can’t expect them to be arid of everything beyond criminal activity, especially entertainment. In contrast, it is essential to understand the psychology of young hackers and how anime and pop culture references play a big role in it.
According to recent statistics, the global anime market is growing at a rapid rate, faster than any other form of entertainment, and was valued at USD 24.5 billion in 2021. According to Precedence Research, a worldwide market research and consulting organization, the anime market is expected to hit US$ 48.3 billion by 2030 and is slated to grow with a CAGR of 7.9% from 2021 to 2030.
Big anime studios release new anime series almost every month. The continuous supply of manga material by mangakas (artists who write and draw manga) gives the industry a solid backup to produce more episodes for viewers. These anime series cater to 2.88 billion viewers who watch anime; some hackers also enjoy these animated series and often become fond of the characters, just like any other viewer would.
According to The Fintech Times, any young mind, about fifteen-year-old, would not dare to walk into the bank and rob it just because it is a punishable offense. However, behind this wall of jurisdiction, lies two different worlds – online and offline. In the online world, teenagers spend most of their time, and video games and anime play a huge part in it because the stories, characters, and the whole concept of being phenomenally recognizable trigger the adrenaline in them, and a dose of dopamine creates a sense of accomplishment.
This nature of brain rewiring rewards the users with a small chunk of dopamine in response to the pleasurable experience people get when they complete missions in video games or watch their favorite anime characters defeat the bad guys. Like any other individual, hackers also develop this intense drive to associate themselves with characters and seek out pleasure again and again.
How Anime/Manga is being used to promote cybersecurity?
Since Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece “Spirited Away,” from Studio Ghibli, received an Oscar as the only hand-drawn and non-English-language animated film, the shift of focus from American to Japanese animation became apparent. The rise of kawaii (cute) anime characters and all the products and personas associated with the culture has become a daily thing. This has generated a gradual but loyal fondness for these characters, with many individuals, including hackers using anime images and avatars as their own.
This also gave hackers a way to stay unnoticed, as most security publishers overlooked this phenomenon. However, the new threat groups, dark web websites, phishing campaigns, and the overall operation uses Japanese anime characters to present themselves on the platforms, giving an idea to the world that not only do they identify with the concept but also that anime has reached faraway places and is consumed by notorious hackers.
Despite the continuous use of anime characters’ images by hackers, the Japanese government has been utilizing the genre to promote better cybersecurity practices and internet hygiene.
In one of the examples, the 2018 anime series “Beatless” collaborated with the Japanese government’s National Center of Incident Readiness and Strategy for Cybersecurity (NISC) to celebrate Cybersecurity Awareness Month in Japan.
Similarly, the Japanese government pushes out advertisements, campaigns, and funded anime shows that create awareness about cybersecurity among citizens.