It's 10 O'Clock. Do You Know Where Your Hacker Is?
IT pros have reservations, but ethical hackers are becoming a fact of life.
Ethical hacking. That phrase may seem incongruous to some, but for others it's
an essential component of their IT strategy. Whatever your reaction to the concept
of ethical hacking, everyone agrees that someone, authorized or not, is trying
to break into your IT infrastructure.
"You want the good guys to find the security holes before the bad guys
do," says Jack Koziol, program manager at the InfoSec Institute, an organization
that certifies security professionals. "If your people are not doing it,
someone else will -- and that someone won't be on your side," he says.
It's not just about keeping that nefarious "someone" out. Nabbing
a successful perpetrator -- or even simply knowing that a break-in has occurred
or is being planned -- is too often well beyond the technical scope of many
IT departments. Even worse, when a break-in is discovered, most IT professionals
don't know how to secure and preserve the evidence needed for the forensic analysis
Enter the Good Guys
Paul H. Luehr is a former computer crimes prosecutor with the U.S. Dept. of
Justice and the Federal Trade Commission. After the Sept. 11 attacks, it was
Luehr who oversaw the initial forensic investigation into computer evidence
related to convicted terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui. He has also prosecuted computer
crimes perpetrated against eBay, Best Buy and the corporate parent of Saks Fifth
Today, Luehr is deputy general counsel at Stroz Friedberg, a law firm that
specializes in using forensic investigations to prosecute computer crimes. "IT
departments often jeopardize prosecution because they are unfamiliar with the
use of the procedures and forensics required to catch and put the bad guys behind
bars," he says.
Matt Hillman, founder of the Legion of Ethical Hacking (LEH), believes the
concept is valid. He classifies any authorized break-in as ethical hacking,
which eliminates some of the confusion. "Hacking is essentially neutral.
It's just a thing that you do. What you do it for is a whole other matter,"
he says. Of course, Watergate was an authorized break-in, and we all know how
that turned out.
So these days, we certify the good guys, or the people we hope are good guys.
For InfoSec's Koziol, that means running extensive background checks before
students are taught advanced techniques such as DNS host identification abuse,
cache poisoning, password cracking, spoofing, SSL session hijacking and malicious
log editing, just to name a few things in a hacker's bag of tricks. He notes
that students are typically experienced IT professionals from larger corporations
taking the next step toward protecting their companies' crown jewels.
Though thousands have taken these tests and become certified hackers, even
Koziol acknowledges the exams test only technical aptitude -- not one's underlying
ethics. He's quick to note, however, that InfoSec has never heard of one of
its certified hackers going bad.
It can be a fine line, however, that separates the hackers wearing white hats
from those wearing black, says Oliver Friedrichs, director of Symantec Security
Response. "Checking for a criminal record or prior abuse gets you only
so far. After all, a successful hacker is someone who has managed to remain
invisible," he contends.
The stereotype of the invisible hacker -- someone sitting in his or her apartment
surrounded by computers -- is "largely true," says Gunter Ollmann,
director of IBM Internet Security Systems' X-Force Threat Analysis Service.
His team invests their own personal time to improve their skills, he adds.
Most belong to groups that meet regularly where they exchange new tools and
techniques. "There's a lot of alcohol involved and the burnout rate for
these people is very high, typically five to eight years before they become
alcoholics or burn themselves out," he says.
When hiring for X-Force, Ollmann insists on candidates with a technical degree.
Most come from the physical sciences, instead of computer science. His candidates
must have three to five years of multinational experience in dealing with large
infrastructures and a breadth of attack types, or as security researchers with
a detailed understanding of how large institutions develop and deploy systems.
Not surprisingly, hiring a "hacker gone straight" is generally frowned
upon. "The idea of a bank hiring a convicted robber as a security consultant
because he knows where the money is just doesn't make sense," says Luehr.
"It's not the image any reasonable corporation should project. After all,
the guy got caught."
Cheryl Currid, a former IT director with a Fortune 100 company and current
president of Currid & Co., an IT strategy consultancy, takes a more reticent
position. She's still cautious, however, about recruiting from the dark side.
"It's possible to learn a lot from these guys," says Currid. "I
would hire only on a short-term project basis. Bring him on full time and he'll
get bored." And the trouble with boredom, she adds, is that it breeds curiosity,
which in turn breeds trouble.
Whether you call it ethical hacking or penetration testing, the underlying
philosophy of proactively finding weaknesses before the bad guys do is very
much alive at IBM's Global Services unit. In current online marketing materials
for its Ethical Hacking service, IBM states that its team members simulate a
real intruder's attack in a controlled manner and "tell you what they find
and how you can fix it." The service comes at a steep price, though. One
stand-alone IBM Ethical Hack will set you back as much as $45,000.
Is it worth the price? If the testers discover a damaging vulnerability, then
it's practically priceless. By their very nature, though, any security test
can find only that which it is assigned to look for.
"You've got to keep in mind that no matter how good any tool is, it can
do only what it's designed to do," says Michael Howard, senior security
program manager in the Security Engineering Group at Microsoft and a world-renowned
expert on software security. "The nature of threats is constantly changing
and the people behind those threats are more sophisticated than ever. The tests
will always be one step behind," Howard says.
In his landmark 2001 white paper on ethical hacking, Charles Palmer, manager
of the Network Security and Cryptography department at the IBM Thomas J. Watson
Research Center, identifies six key areas of testing. Published years before
the rise of social-networking platforms like MySpace and YouTube and the thriving
music and video downloading industry, Palmer's target list seems positively
• Remote network: Simulate an Internet attack by hitting perimeter
firewalls, filtering routers and Web servers.
• Remote dial-up network: Targeting authentication schemes, this
was originally conceived to attack modem pools. It has been updated to include
any channel providing external access to the internal network, including a VPN.
• Local network: This tests employee or other authorized access
from within the perimeter. Targets include intranet firewalls, internal Web
servers, server security measures and e-mail systems.
• Stolen laptop: Choose a key company employee, then take his
or her laptop computer without any advance notice and give it to the testers.
Targets include passwords stored in remote-access software, corporate information
assets, personnel information and customer data (whether it's encrypted or not).
This is a favorite way to leapfrog perimeter security and gain access to the
corporate intranet with full privileges.
• Social engineering: These are not technical tests, but rather
evaluations of staff behavior. Tests include calling tech support and asking
for remote-access assistance or going on-site, looking lost, and asking where
the computer room is located. Updated for life online, other tests include how
employees respond to e-mails from impostors, whether or not they click links
that may lead to sites with malicious software, and if they download multimedia
that may contain embedded malware.
• Physical entry: This test gauges on-site security, security
guards, access controls and monitoring, and security awareness by attempting
to gain access to the premises. A hacker might try this by digging through trash
cans to find documents with the company logo.
Palmer concludes that "regular auditing, vigilant intrusion detection,
good system administration practice and computer security awareness are all
essential parts of an organization's security efforts." Just one failure,
he says, can expose an organization to cyber-vandalism, embarrassment, loss
of revenue, and/or litigation. As for the ethical hackers themselves, while
Palmer says they will help any IT director better understand the organization's
needs, they should be carefully watched as well.
Simple Solution, Zero Cost
Besides testing the stolen laptop scenario, Luehr also recommends choosing servers
at random and testing whether logging functions are on and that firewall functions
are operating correctly. "One of the biggest problems we see is IT directors
who carry the old habit of not turning on enough logging functions," he
says. He ascribes this practice to a time when storage was expensive and logging
tactics and tools, like mainframe CICS journaling or NetWare's Transaction Tracking
System, slowed system performance.
Today, he says, if you can log it, then turn it on and do it. "In any
security investigation, whether in a preventative mode or reactive mode after
a crime has occurred, those logs can prove invaluable."
Logging functions contain a goldmine of potentially useful forensic information,
often including IP addresses, open port activity or even vectors of attack that
investigators can analyze for patterns. "You can often tell whether the
attack is coming from a domestic source, a former employee or from overseas
hackers with more nationalistic goals in mind."
While the purpose of ethical hacking is to minimize the possibility of an actual
attack, no scenario is perfect. Consequently, quickly securing the crime scene
following an attack is essential. This doesn't involve stringing yellow crime-scene
tape across the data center, but it does involve taking any compromised systems
out of service, assuming you can determine which ones they are.
"If a system is compromised and forensics are needed, locking the machine
in a closet is far smarter and more effective than allowing an IT department's
bright minds and curious fingers to poke away at it," says Luehr.
If you can't take the system out of service because it's running mission critical
software, you can use specialized forensic tools to go after live data. It will
take longer that way, and may hinder the prosecution of the offender. At Stroz
Friedberg, Luehr's forensics examiners and penetration testers use several commercially
available scanning and testing tools, as well as an arsenal of proprietary testing
and data-reconstruction tools developed in-house.
As the need for penetration testing continues to grow, so too has the assortment
of available tools. Among the best known is Internet Scanner from ISS, which
IBM acquired in October. Others include Impact from Core Security Technologies,
and Paraben Corp.'s software for analyzing e-mail, instant messages and handheld
The New York-based EC-Council provides training that leads to certification
as a Computer-Hacking Forensics Investigator, which is similar to InfoSec's
ethical hacking certifications. The EC-Council course teaches participants to
identify intruders' traces and to gather evidence needed for prosecution. The
list of companies that keep at least one CHFI on staff reads like the Fortune
While these tools and the investigators who use them find the vulnerabilities,
InfoSec offers a CD-ROM containing more than 750 tools to exploit them. The
list of tools includes keyloggers, password crackers, rootkits, router hacking,
Trojans and password cracking dictionaries in 163 languages.
Never a Certainty
Unfortunately, plugging every security hole, shutting down every unused open
port, changing default passwords on routers and running quarterly penetration
tests still takes you only so far. Too often, the bad guys find their way.
"We see an increasing number of content-borne threats, such as scripts
embedded in word-processing files," says ISS's Ollmann. A newer technique,
prized by hackers for its elegant simplicity, is placing a keylogger or other
malware program on inexpensive USB thumb drives handed out by the thousands
as promotional items. "The moment you plug it into a USB port, you are
in serious trouble," he contends.
No amount of training can prevent such threats. And penetration testing, by
definition an attempt to break in from the outside, is unlikely to help in those
cases. For that reason, most security auditing firms recommend frequent and
comprehensive internal testing.
It's a fact of life that increasing percentages of IT budgets are being allocated
to security. That provides a sad commentary on the times in which we live. Using
ethical hackers and penetration testing to maintain network and data integrity,
and forensic tools to analyze breaches and find the perpetrators has become
an essential part of any IT security protocol. Jay Bavisi, president of the
EC-Council, sums it up best. "To beat a hacker, you need to think like