Word to the wise
Computer security is a topic that seems almost too strange to be true sometimes. A lot of what we hear about in the media usually involves the term Hacker and occasionally some large corporation or even government. It makes it seem as if it is something that the average Joe/Jane does not need to worry about. Who would want to bother with my piece of junk or why would anyone want to get into my computer? Those are usually the questions that I have had people ask me, and to be honest there are plenty of reasons. Some may not be what you would expect either. Most people would think that it would be to get access to bank account information or credit card numbers, but unless you keep that information stored in a word document or some other kind of file on your computer, there are easier ways to get that information. That information is usually obtained by what are called “Phishing” attacks. Most people have heard of that by now, but for anyone who hasn’t a Phishing attack is when a person (doesn’t have to be a hacker) tries to get you to tell them your information without you realizing your giving it away. Such as receiving an email from your “bank” saying that they mysteriously lost your information and need you to give it to them again, or an email telling you to go to a website and fill out a form which asks for all information about you, including bank accounts, credit card numbers, social security number, name, mailing address, etc. A lot of times these websites look like a legitimate business or even business you know and use all the time. The best way to avoid that is first, never open a link in an email, always type it in yourself in a web browser, and if you do click the link look at the navigation bar at the top, or the information bar at the bottom of the window, and see what it actually says. They can, and will, try to mask where the link is really going.
The biggest reason that a hacker would want to get into a home computer or network would be to use it for other purposes. The more computers they have under their control the more damage they can do to larger targets. The way they do this is by infecting the target computer/network with a virus, Trojan, or worm which gives them complete control of the computer once it is infected. All of this is done without the user even knowing it happened. The only symptom that a user may see is that their machine has suddenly become very sluggish. If the virus also included spyware, ransom-ware, or adware, then the user would probably see a lot of pop-up windows displaying ads or pornography on their machine. Once a computer has become infected in this way it is known as a zombie. It will do whatever the hacker wants it to and the user will be none the wiser. No one can protect themselves 100% from these kinds of attacks, but they can make themselves significantly less likely to have one happen.
First and most important would be to be informed about general computer security. It may seem like a nuisance at first but eventually it will make your life a lot easier in the long run. One of the most common mistakes the average person makes is they use simple passwords or the same password for any/all accounts they may have. Simple passwords would be ones that you can find in a dictionary; all a hacker would need to do is use a brute force attack which just tries a list of username and password combinations until it finds the correct one. A better password would consist of a combination of lower case letters, upper case letters, numbers, and even symbols. One good way to do this is to use a pass-phrase. Think of a sentence that is easy for you to remember and then take letters from that sentence and essentially make an acronym out of it, replacing some letter with numbers, making some capitalized and adding symbols where you can.
Second and just as important would be to never click links in emails, especially from people you don’t know or unsolicited emails. Delete spam right away, no matter how intriguing the content might sound, a very large portion of spam contains a virus, Trojan, or worm. Also always make sure all of the software on your computer is up to date with patches and upgrades. As vendors discover holes in their software that would allow a hacker to get in they will release a patch. Most companies, like Microsoft, release patches once a week. Other vendors will release updates and patches as needed.
Third and also very important would be to have good anti-virus software installed. Check websites like cnet.com to get reviews on all the different kinds of anti-virus software available and make an informed choice. Generally the ones you pay for do a better job than the ones that are free. There are many “free to try” anti-virus programs that actually infect you with more virus’s and will only remove them after you have paid the creator. Those are called ransom-ware, and they may not even remove the virus, only disable it. You would have to install a different anti-virus to get rid of it.
A little history
The word Hacker was made famous by the movie Hackers released in 1995. Hackers have been around much longer than that however. The exact origins of hacking as we now know it is shrouded in a little bit of mystery itself. There are two different places from which hacking can claim its origins. One of them is the MIT model railroad club (http://tmrc.mit.edu/hackers-ref.html), where the term hacker was used to describe someone who found unconventional ways to fix a problem or introduce a new feature. The other possible origin of hackers as we know it is what was known as phone phreakers (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phone_phreak). They were involved in manipulating the public telephone systems and there are some very famous people who were members of this group. They would use the public telephone system to make free phone calls long distance to each other or random people just for the enjoyment of it. Things have changed quite a bit from those humble beginnings. Hacking has become a dynamic and sometimes dangerous part of the world of computers. It has broken down into three different types of hackers; what are known at White hat, Grey hat, and Black hat hackers.
Types of Hackers
All type of hackers try to find security holes in computers and networks, it is what they do with this information that distinguishes them from each other. Not all people who calls themselves a hacker is a bad person. An example would be someone who calls themselves a White hat hacker. White hat hackers usually work for a company that is hired to find security holes in a network or specific computer/server. They will inform the company of their findings and tell them how to fix it. White hats are also known for informing companies about discovered security holes without being solicited to do so. They may hear about or find an exploit in a piece of software or network technology and tell the ones who developed it about the exploit. They typically believe in freedom of information and that it should be available to everyone.
Black hat hackers find security holes in networks and computers and exploit them to their own end. They would also implant malware (virus, worm, Trojan, or any combination) which would allow them to take control of the computer or network. They could then use this for any number of purposes creating botnets or zombies to work for them. They could then use the network they control to allow them to get into more difficult networks to hack into, do Denial of Service attacks, or sell the computers back to whoever owned them by holding the computers ransom (ransom-ware). They are rarely, if ever, are asked to hack into a computer network. Though there have been incidents where Black hat hacking gangs were thought to have been hired to do damage to another network or computer. Generally speaking, Black hats do not believe in the freedom of information and that any information about security exploits should be kept secret. This is so that they can take full advantage of it before a fix is found.
Grey hat hackers operate in-between the two extremes of Black hat and White hat hackers. Though, they usually lean more toward the White hat than Black hat. Any exploits they do find they will not inform a company or developers unless asked to do so. They may then offer to fix the security hole for a fee, if they were not hired to fix it in the first place. Grey hats will only tell others about a security hole if it is important enough to tell them about it. They believe that information should only be shared on a need to know basis.
Any person involved with computer systems, maintaining them and securing them, has a very large moral responsibility placed upon them. It is the person who disregards this moral responsibility that is dangerous. The people who operate a company’s computer network have access to all information about that company. They can get access to financial information, company secrets, user’s personal information such as addresses, social security numbers, and possibly even bank account information for that user. That is why most companies do extensive background checks on employees who they hire to work as a member of their IT departments.
So where does Ethical Hacking fit into all of this? Ethical hacking is essentially a White hat hacker who uses their abilities for morally sound reasons. There is even a certification known as “Certified Ethical Hacker” or CEH. This certification lets people know that the person possessing it will not use their abilities as a hacker for malicious purposes. Most commonly a CEH will be hired by a security company and will conduct penetration testing on networks that have hired them to do so. They will do what would normally be considered illegal to find the security holes in a company’s network. When conducting a penetration test the company that is having the test done can specify what exactly the test is trying to accomplish. This can vary from a single segment of the company to the entire company’s network infrastructure. This can also include areas outside a network and trying to gain access through social engineering. This is done by gaining the trust of employees (who do not know that a penetration test is taking place) and using them to gain access to the company network or specific area of the network.
Tools of the trade
The software and hardware that is used for hacking is the same regardless if you are a White hat, Black hat, or Grey hat hacker. The operating system of choice is some variation of Linux/Unix and there are even some that are designed specifically for hacking. A lot of the tools that are used are listed at Sectools.org, which is a site that rates and keeps track of a lot of the Information Security tools used by all types of hackers. Most tools are designed to find exploits and help correct them, but all Sectools.org does is give information. It is what that information is used for that makes all the difference. A popular version of Linux used for penetration testing is called Backtrack Linux. It contains many of the tools already installed in the operating system. They also have a very active community and it is a good place to go to learn more about penetration testing and ethical hacking. They have a strict no tolerance policy of not allowing discussing how to use the tools to hack into anything illegally.
If anyone wants to learn more on the subject, proceed with caution. Though there are lines between ethical hacking and “un-ethical” hacking, they can get blurry if you are not careful. Hacking any system, legally or not, requires a lot of time and work. Nothing ever happens like the movies where a hacker sits at a computer and just starts typing away. The majority of time spent when a hacker really wants to get into a computer or network is reconnaissance. It is essentially like being a spy; they gather information covertly for long periods of time, and then only act when they feel that they have enough information and that it can actually be done.
For the average user out there, just remember what I wrote in the beginning of this article. Make sure you are aware of what it is you are doing on your computer. Don’t click random links to websites you don’t trust. If you suddenly start noticing your computer slowing down or get a ridiculous amount of pop-up windows, make sure your anti-virus is up to date. Also, it is very important to keep backups of all of your important files. Keep them on an external hard drive or online storage, if you lose your hard drive to a virus your backups are lost too if they are kept on the same drive. This is intended to be a broad overview of the subject of Information Security and Ethical hacking. There is a lot more information available online; a great place to start is Google.
Some different certifications:
Security+ (Generic certification offered by CompTIA), CCNA Security (Cisco Certified Network Associate – Security), CCNP Security (Cisco Certified Network Professional – Security), CCIE Security (Cisco Certified Internetworking Expert– Security), CEH (Certified Ethical Hacker), SCNS (Security Certified Network Specialist), SCNP (Security Certified Network Professional), SCNA (Security Certified Network Architect), and CISSP (Certified Information Systems Security Professional). Those are just the ones that I know of, there are many others out there and all of them are valuable.
http://tmrc.mit.edu/hackers-ref.html (possible origin of hacking)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phone_phreak (possible origin of hacking)
http://www.sectools.org/ (listing of current and not so current security tools and ratings for each)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethical_Hacking (basic info about White hats)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hacker_(computing) (basic info about computer hacking, including black hats)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grey_hat (basic info about Grey hats)
http://www.isc2.org (Advanced Information Security certifications)
http://www.eccouncil.org/ (Advanced Information Security Certifications, offers CEH)
http://www.comptia.org (Vendor neutral certifications for those interested, great place to start)
https://learningnetwork.cisco.com/index.jspa?ciscoHome=true (Cisco learning network, great place to learn about networks and their certifications.)
http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/bb291022.aspx (Microsoft learning resources and information about Microsoft Certifications)
http://www.backtrack-linux.org (Ethical Hacking penetration testing operation system)
http://www.cisco.com/en/US/products/hw/vpndevc/index.html (Cisco’s products and what is used in medium to large businesses)
http://www.microsoft.com/security/default.aspx (Microsoft page about security)
http://www.symantec.com/norton/security_response/index.jsp (Norton Internet Threat Meter)
http://windowsupdate.microsoft.com (to get updates for Microsoft products)
http://ubuntuforums.org/ (for information about Linux for first time users)
http://howtohack.poly.edu/wiki/Main_Page (a ton of information, a lot more detailed than anything in this blog post, also my alma mater.)