SAN FRANCISCO — For 3 pennies an hour, hackers can rent Amazon.com's servers to wage cyber attacks such as the one that crippled Sony's PlayStation Network and led to the second-largest online data breach in U.S. history.
A hacker reportedly used Amazon's Elastic Computer Cloud, or EC2, service to attack Sony's online entertainment systems last month. The intruder, who used a bogus name to set up an account that's now disabled, didn't hack into Amazon's servers.
The incident helps illustrate the dilemma facing CEO Jeff Bezos: Amazon's cloud-computing service is as cheap and convenient for hackers as it is for customers ranging from Netflix to Eli Lilly. Last month's attack on Sony compromised more than 100 million customer accounts, the largest data breach in the United States since intruders stole credit and debit card numbers from Heartland Payment Systems in 2009.
"Anyone can go get an Amazon account and use it anonymously," said Pete Malcolm, chief executive officer of Abiquo, a Redwood City, Calif., company that helps customers manage data internally and through cloud computing. "If they have computers in their back bedroom, they are much easier to trace than if they are on Amazon's Web Services."
The FBI will likely subpoena Amazon or seek a search warrant to access the history of transactions, trace who had access to the specific Internet address at the time and get details on payment data, said E.J. Hilbert, president of the security company Online Intelligence and a former FBI cyber-crime investigator.
Amazon Web Services leases computing space to companies so they don't have to buy their own servers to store data and handle a surge in visitors.
Prices for EC2 range from 3 cents to $2.48 an hour for users in the eastern United States, according to its website. Signing up requires a name, e-mail address, password, phone number, billing address and credit card information. Users get an automated call from Amazon and are asked to dial in a four-digit verification code to complete the registration process.
That's not enough to scare off hackers seeking to conduct attacks anonymously, and Amazon doesn't have the means to detect illegal uses of its servers, Abiquo's Malcolm said.
"Amazon can't do anything to prevent it," Malcolm said. "There is no way of telling who's a good guy and who's a bad guy."
As companies from Amazon to Microsoft build server farms worldwide, the services can help hackers hide their tracks, Hilbert said. Cloud services are also attractive for hackers because the use of multiple servers can facilitate tasks such as cracking passwords, said Ray Valdes, an analyst at Gartner Inc.
In some cases, hackers hide their tracks beneath several layers of proxy servers that can span the globe. A recent attack against computers in South Korea was controlled from servers in more than 20 countries, according to Georg Wicherski, a security analyst at McAfee.
Malicious attacks in the U.S. are on the rise. They made up 31 percent of data breaches in 2010, up from 24 percent a year earlier, with each event costing U.S. businesses an average of $7.2 million, according to a March report by the Ponemon Institute.