August 1, 2009:
Armenia recently accused neighbor Azerbaijan of hiring Internet criminal hackers to cripple Armenian access to the Internet. Armenia and Azerbaijan have been at each other's throats for nearly two decades because of a land dispute. Although Azerbaijan has more people and money (because of oil), the Armenians are better soldiers, and the dispute has been stalemated. Then someone in the Azerbaijan government got familiar with Internet criminal gangs, which have been quite popular in Russia and Eastern Europe, mainly because of either no laws against Internet based crime, or lax (or just inept) law enforcement.
Some of the Internet gangs have made deals with local police, especially in countries that still have a secret police force (like Russia, Belarus, or Azerbaijan), to do Internet based dirty deeds (spying, attacking political foes, and so on). Apparently the Azerbaijan operation was less discreet than most, or the Internet gangsters less capable of covering their tracks. In any event, such Internet gangs are quite numerous. While there are thousands of independent Internet criminals, an increasing number operate in groups (most small, some fairly large, all members usually operating from a different location.) Some of these groups are part of more conventional gangs, that can provide more traditional muscle when needed.
Most of the Internet criminal income is based on building and running botnets (networks of illegally controlled PCs, yours might be one of them and you wouldn't know it). Botnets are big, and illegal, business. There's big money in botnets, which can be used to spew spam, launch a widespread search for secret files, or shut down websites with a DDOS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack.
Some 4-5 million PCs worldwide have been infiltrated by hackers (who planted a secret, "Trojan Horse" program that takes control) and turned into "zombies". This has become a big business, with each zombie PC in a botnet producing $300-$500 a year, or more, for those who control them. This is after you deduct the cost of replacing zombies that are detected and cleaned (of their secret software). Botnets of 100,000 or more PCs are not unusual, and many of them are for rent.
Countries like Myanmar and Mauritania have been caught using botnets to attack political opponents, by shutting down their websites and sneaking in and stealing data (member and contributor lists, correspondence and planning documents). Many other nations have not been caught, but stand accused. Many unscrupulous web users hire Internet criminals to launch DDOS attacks. These can be carried out for less than a hundred dollars, and even hard core on-line gamers have rented botnets to knock opponents off line for a while.
Military Cyber War organizations are aware of the widespread availability of mercenary Internet bot herders, and some of these cyber thugs have been hired by major nations to do espionage and other dirty deeds.