Monday, June 27, 2011

Hackers want your passwords

Password exploitation is the hacker’s most common objective when it comes to compromising a system or stealing information. Why then don’t we pay more attention to securing this critical piece of information?

We are forever being told that we should use complex and difficult (to remember) passwords. This is not the best advice, because you can actually make usable, easy to remember and highly secure passwords. In fact, usable passwords are often far better than complex ones.

How to hack a password

The work involved in hacking passwords is very simple. There are five proven ways to do so:

  1. Asking: Amazingly, the most common way to gain access to someone's password is simply to ask for it. As social engineering becomes more pervasive, users are often tricked into providing their passwords by various means, but at the end of the day, the hacker’s modus operandi is simply to ask for it. My experience from social engineering engagements says that as many as 50% of users in a business will willingly give up their password if the request is made in an innocent context. Not only that, but people often tell their passwords to colleagues, friends and family. Having a complex password policy isn't going to change this.
  2. Guessing: This is the second most common method to access a person's account. It turns out that most people choose a password that is easy to remember, and the easiest ones are those that are related to you as a person. Passwords like: your last name, your wife's name, the name of your cat, the date of birth, your favorite flower etc. are all pretty common. This problem can only be solved by choosing a password with no relation to you as a person.
  3. Brute force attack: Very simple to do. A hacker simply attempts to sign-in using different passwords one at the time. The plethora of free automated brute force attack tools make this method as easy for the hacker as sitting back and letting his computer do the work. The only thing that stops a brute force attack is higher complexity and longer passwords (which is why IT people want you to use just them).
  4. Common word attacks: A simple form of brute-force attack is where the hacker attempts to sign-in using a list of common words. Instead of trying a different combination of letters, the hacker tries different words. Numerous lists of these “common” passwords exist on the Internet for easy download.
  5. Dictionary attacks: Same concept as common word attacks - the only difference is that the hacker now uses the full dictionary of words. Again, there are hundreds of dictionaries available for free download from the Internet. Many of these dictionaries have been specifically constructed for the sole purpose of hacking passwords.

When is a password secure?

The single most important thing you can do when creating a password, aside from not telling it to someone, is to do so knowing how passwords are hacked and to create one that makes the hacking process longer; i.e. days, months or years. Knowing that a hacker will most likely be using an automated tool or script, you want to make the script take longer to run in the hope that the hacker will give up and move on to a more attractive target.

The measure of a secure password is how many password guesses or requests can be accomplished each second. The number varies, but most web applications cannot handle more than 100 sign-in requests per second. In other situations, especially if the hacker has gained access to a local network, literally thousands of requests can be generated each second.

There are 94 printable ASCII characters on the keyboard (printable characters represent upper and lower case letters, digits, punctuation marks, and miscellaneous symbols). That means each character in a password can have one of 94 possible values.

So, in an 8-character password, there are 6.09568939 × 1015 possible combinations.

Regardless of the number and power of a single or multiple computers for that matter, a password with that many possible combinations will be hard to break.

Making usable and secure passwords

Common guidelines for choosing good passwords are designed to make passwords less easily discovered by intelligent guessing:

  • Password length should be around 12 to 14 characters if permitted, but in no case less than 8 characters.
  • Avoid any password based on repetition, dictionary words, names of any sort, letter or number sequences, usernames, or dates.
  • Include numbers, and symbols in passwords.
  • Use capital and lower-case letters.
  • Avoid using the same password for multiple sites or purposes. For example:

Construct by some random pattern known only by you and prepend it with the second letter of the website or application, then append it with the first letter of the website or application. This way all you have to remember is the base 6-character password – but it becomes unique for each website or application by using a characteristic from the website or application.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Cybercrime is generational

The motivation behind cybercrime is ever evolving and has become generational. That means businesses must remain proactive in knowing their enemy. If you understand the methods and motivation of your enemy, you are more likely to mount a viable defense.

The first generation of cybercriminals (early to late 1990’s) had a common theme: “I did it to prove that I could”. Notoriety and ego were the primary motivators. They also tended to be younger – often students.

First generation cybercriminals focused in being disruptive and making their presence known by causing indiscriminate damage to any vulnerable computer on the Internet. Their first priority was to get noticed.

The second generation of cybercriminals (early 200x’s) turned their attention to money as in “Show me the money!” Now the focus, motivation and priority became profit.

Botnets (large networks of infected computers) became the preferred attack vector allowing cybercriminals to generate millions of spam emails and execute distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. Interestingly, these cybercriminals did little to cover their tracks and evade detection.

The third generation of cybercriminals (mid 200x’s) was marked by a higher level of sophistication where the attackers became more organized and discrete.

Hacker groups evolved and began to operate like more traditional organized criminal enterprises. Similar to the previous generation, they had one motive: profit. The technology became secondary. For these criminals, cybercrime was just a means to an end – an easier way to extort and conduct fraud.

This generation looked to target businesses handling large sums of money, particularly in the financial sector.

The fourth generation of cybercriminals (late 200x’s to present) is marked by the development and sale of exploit kits and other hacking software. The rise of criminal-to-criminal activity distinguishes the fourth generation of cybercriminals.

As characterized by “organized crime”, cybercrime evolved into a robust and efficient underground, providing the opportunity for cybercriminals to buy and sell goods and services to each other. As vulnerabilities in software and networks were discovered, cybercriminals developed malware to exploit those vulnerabilities – often selling malware to others or taking their “cut” – even going so far as to “license” their malware.

Malware distribution services, such as IFRAMES.BIZ, evolved that were capable of pushing malware out to infect thousands of hosts. The sophistication of the malware enabled cybercriminals to quickly infect large numbers of computers, send spam, host illegitimate sites, steal sensitive information, execute DDoS attacks and conduct many other criminal activities.

Fourth generation of cybercriminals are also characterized by identity theft and brought the buying and selling stolen identity data to a new level.

Social networks for cybercriminals also emerged, with sites providing reputational rankings of buyers, sellers and partners in the cybercrime marketplace.

As the cybercrime economy has matured, it brings cybercriminals the benefits of specialization and distributed risk. Cybercriminals talented in finding new vulnerabilities and writing exploits can specialize in that area and easily support themselves by selling their exploits.

The same dynamic applies to malware authors, distributors, botnet owners and others in the cybercrime supply chain. Because of this specialization, the sophistication of cyber-attacks increased across the board. This specialization and distribution enables cybercriminals to distribute the risk of being caught.

The current generation of cybercriminals continues to leverage the “power” of malware.

Cybercriminals are continuing to refine and fine-tune each element of the cybercrime supply chain. Today’s cybercriminals are more entrepreneurial and business-savvy than past generations. As a result, attacks continue to grow in sophistication and frequency.

Other evolving current generation threats include:

Pay-Per-Install (PPI)

These scams work where a single PPI site may partner with thousands of “affiliates” who then distribute the malware. The affiliates are paid based on the number of malware installs they can generate – often thousands each month. The exponential factor can result in millions of infected system every month.

APT: Advanced Persistent Threats

I blogged about APT recently: This focus has become much more prominent beginning in 2010 a as name or “label” for targeted attacks on specific organizations by determined, well-coordinated cybercriminals.

Productivity In Cyber Crime

Automation is the name of the game. Just like legitimate businesses, cybercriminals look to do more with less. Automation enables cybercriminals to be more productive using malware authoring tools and scripting techniques.

Malware Tech Support

Leveraging the trend in licensed malware has resulted in the commercialization of malware to the extent that some malware authors even offer technical support under the guise that what they do is for “research only.”

Unfortunately, the legal consequences for selling malware is fuzzy. It is generally not illegal as long as the malware author does not use the malware himself to compromise another computer. Further, many of these malware authors operate from countries that effectively shield them from civil actions.

What Can Businesses Do?

It goes without saying that the only constant is change. Cybercriminals will continue to change and evolve – both from the motivational aspects as well as from the increasingly sophisticated techniques they use.

Businesses can best defend themselves by:

  • Conducting ongoing, comprehensive information security risk assessments. Risk awareness, risk assessment and risk mitigation should form the basis from which businesses develop their cyber defenses. IDP has experience and proven methodologies to assist businesses with this important first step.
  • Investing in security products that are made based on supporting the risk-based information security policy. Simply throwing hardware and software at the problem is not the answer. Investments in this area need to be strategically and thoughtfully deployed. Security investments need to be based on policy, with organizational (upper management – board level) acceptance.
  • Engaging an in-house or strategic security partner. This is essential to staying ahead of cybercriminals curve.
  • Deploying real time monitoring and threat detection / prevention capabilities. This can be accomplished in-house or through a trusted third party who specializes in this area.
  • Establishing a threat intelligence capability to monitor existing trends and emerging threats that could impact your business. Many businesses participate with or establish relationships with peers, industry groups, government agencies and vendors as trusted sources

Friday, June 17, 2011

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse - See how pervasive cyber attacks really are.

Lately, it seems like every day there is a new disclosure by a well-known company who has had their network compromised – and client data stolen. Just yesterday, the WSJ had an article about ADP being the latest victim. Add their name to Citigroup, Sony, RSA, the CIA and Lockheed Martin and you get the sense that this is just the tip of the iceberg. How many other successful exploits have taken place that were not publicized or occurred below the radar?

I found an interesting site that is worth taking looking at: Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. Specifically, provides a great menu-based approach to seeing just how many exploits have actually taken place and you can slice and dice the information in a variety of ways:

Selecting all the boxes resulted in a 531-page report that looks like this:

As you can see, malicious attacks are pervasive and their frequency, sophistication and success just keeps growing as businesses of all sizes try to defend their digital assets.

It all starts with governance, best practices, awareness and training. If businesses would focus on these areas, fully 80% of what the bad guys are doing could be stopped. The time is now.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Citi says 360,000 accounts hacked in May cyber attack

I had no sooner posted the previous blog when I saw this. Citigroup has some serious issues.

Citigroup Left The Barn Door Open

A data breach at Citigroup may have compromised the personal information of more than 200,000 of the bank's credit card customers.

"During routine monitoring, we recently discovered unauthorized access to Citi’s Account Online," a company spokesman, Sean Kevelighan, explained in a statement on June 9.

Citi is no stranger to embarrassing disclosures of its customers' personal information. In February, it mailed about 600,000 of its customers' tax documents with their social security numbers printed on the outside of the envelope.

Last week I blogged about the “80 / 20” rule and how 80 percent of cyber intrusions and exploits can be prevented by "best practices".

The recent Citigroup attack seems to fall into the 80% category. News reports have said that Citigroup was exploited by "sophisticated" attacks. But security experts say that at least by today's standards, most of these attacks were far from advanced, except perhaps in their simplicity.

To begin with, statistically speaking, very few attacks pass the sophistication threshold. According to the 2011 Data Breach Investigations Report from Verizon, "only 8% of data breaches represented a 'high' attack difficulty," said Rob Rachwald, director of security strategy for Imperva, in a blog post.

Citigroup seems to have fallen victim to basic URL hacking – which is far from sophisticated.

Attackers "leapfrogged between the accounts of different Citi customers by inserting various account numbers into a string of text located in the browser's address bar," an unnamed security expert told The New York Times.

In other words, attackers took advantage of the fact that the Citi Card website failed to hide actual account numbers in the URL string. "It would have been hard to prepare for this type of vulnerability," said the security expert, who's familiar with the investigation.

In fact, it would have been easy to prepare for this type of vulnerability, known as "Insecure Direct Object References," which is so widespread that it ranks as the fourth most dangerous vulnerability on the Open Web Application Security Project top 10 list of Web application vulnerabilities.

Perhaps Citigroup's developers and automated code-scanning tools failed to spot the use of real account-related information in URL strings. But that's where penetration testing is supposed to fill in, and it's obvious from numerous recent breaches, involving Citigroup, Sony, and others that "pen testing" wasn't employed.

"When you look at how the breaches are occurring, it's like penetration testing 101. Ethical hackers are taught to test computer security on the good guy side," Alex Cox, principal research analyst at NetWitness, said in an interview last month.

"So, a lot of times people aren't applying the idea of, let's hire someone to break in and see if he can do something realistically. But if you've got a good pen-test team, that's a really good way to understand where your vulnerabilities are," he said.

Or to reverse Cox's advice, by not conducting penetration testing on their Web applications, businesses won't know where all of their vulnerabilities are, and thus won't be prepared to repel attackers. Which, like recent attacks, doesn't seem very sophisticated.

In summary, an analogy seems appropriate.

Tom: How’s your health?

Henry: Fine.

Tom: How do you know?

Henry: Because I feel fine and I don’t think I have any issues.

Tom: Have you been to a doctor recently for a checkup?

Henry: No.

Tom: Then how can you really be sure how healthy you are?

Well the same goes for Citigroup. They might have thought their online system was healthy, but without having made the effort to get it checked they really didn’t know – and in this case they weren’t very healthy.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

APT - Advanced Persistent Threat - What is it?

APT - Advanced Persistent Threat - What is it?

The term was actually coined by the US Air Force in 2006 as a way to communicate with counterparts in the unclassified public world. If the USAF wanted to talk about a certain intrusion or attack with uncleared personnel, they could not use the classified threat name, so they choose APT as a common moniker that could apply to all such situations.

What is important when referring to an APT is that is references a specific threat from specific sources. It is not meant as a catchall description for some vague or unknown cyber-attack.

Heretofore, APT was most frequently applied to specific groups operating in the Asia-Pacific region, but there is considerable discussion as to whether adversaries in Eastern Europe operating using the same tools, tactics, and procedures as traditional APT, should also have the APT label.

In the commercial sector, an IT security professional usually does not make the distinction or really care where the threat is originating from, rather that he or she will take the same defensive actions regardless of the source or nationality of the adversary.

APT entered the common lexicon in early 2010 when Google announced its intellectual property had been the victim of a targeted attack originating from China. Although Google was far from the only victim, the company’s visibility and its high profile public disclosure put a new face on these types of attacks and the lengths attackers would go to gain access to proprietary corporate and military information.

Insofar as a definition, APT means:

Advanced means the adversary can operate in the full spectrum of computer intrusion. They can use the most pedestrian publicly available exploit against a well-known vulnerability, or they can elevate their game to research new vulnerabilities and develop custom exploits, depending on the target’s posture.

Persistent means the adversary is formally tasked to accomplish a mission. They are not opportunistic intruders. Like an intelligence unit, they receive directives and work to satisfy their masters. Persistent does not necessarily mean they need to constantly execute malicious code on victim computers. Rather, they maintain the level of interaction needed to execute their objectives.

Threat means the adversary is not a piece of mindless code. The opposition is a threat because it is organized, funded and motivated. Some people speak of multiple “groups” consisting of dedicated “crews” with various missions.

In brief, APT is an adversary who conducts offensive digital operations (called computer network operations or perhaps computer network exploitation) to support various state-related objectives.

APT is characterized by devotion to maintaining some degree of control of a target’s computer infrastructure, acting persistently to preserve or regain control and access. Unclassified briefings by counter-intelligence and military analysts use the term “aggressive” to emphasize the degree to which APT pursues these objectives against a variety of government, military, and private targets.


When the Google attack entered the public arena, many people wondered if APT was something new. The answer to this question depends on one’s perspective, plus understanding some history. As mentioned earlier, the term APT is approximately 4 years old.

Richard Bejtlich, founder of TaoSecurity and director of incident response for General Electric describes APT activity in terms of offender, defender, means, motive, and opportunity.

He breaks APT targets into four phases:

1) late 1990s — military victims;

2) 2000-2004 — non-military government victims;

3) 2005-2009 — defense industrial base;

4) 2009-present — intellectual property-rich targets and software companies.

He points out that analysts currently assess APT activities as supporting four main goals.

· Political objectives such as maintaining internal stability.

· Economic objectives that rely on stealing intellectual property from victims. Such IP can be cloned and sold, studied and underbid in competitive dealings, or fused with local research to produce new products and services more cheaply than the victims.

· Technical objectives that further their ability to accomplish their mission. These include gaining access to source code for further exploit development, or learning how defenses work in order to better evade or disrupt them. Most worryingly is the thought that intruders could make changes to improve their position and weaken the victim.

· Military objectives that include identifying weaknesses that allow inferior military forces to defeat superior military forces.


The most effective counter-APT weapon is a trained and knowledgeable information security analyst. Tools are always helpful, but the best advice is to educate business leaders about the threat so that they support organizational security programs conducted by competent and informed staff.

On a technical level, building visibility in to one’s organization will provide the situational awareness to have a chance to discover and hopefully frustrate APT activities.