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Know your enemy: Why your Web site is at risk

In this Lesson 1 technical paper from Web Security School, guest instructor Michael Cobb outlines the threats to Web sites and who is behind them.

by Michael Cobb

To the tag line for the Internet -- "Build it and they will come" -- I would add "...and try to crack it, deface it, abuse it, break it and steal it."

Hackers have more resources and time than even the largest organizations, and they don't suffer from the usual organizational constraints, such as office politics and budgets, that security practitioners face. In fact, hackers can show an almost enviable example of online collaboration, sharing information in order to achieve a result. This article will help you understand the tools, tactics and motives of the black hat community so that you have a better appreciation of the threats to your Web site and the system it runs on, and the importance of protecting them.

Statistics to keep you awake at night

In a test conducted over a two-week period in September 2004 by USA TODAY, there were 305,922 attempts to break into six computers connected to the Internet. The attacks literally began as soon as the computers went online, averaging more than 300 per hour against both a Windows XP Service Pack 1 machine with no firewall and an Apple Macintosh. There were more than 60 attacks per hour against a Windows Small Business Server. During the test, both of the Windows-based machines were compromised.

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These figures show how active the hacker community is. Any computer connected to the Internet is at risk, particularly a Web server. Although e-commerce Web sites receive more targeted attacks than any other type of Web site, it is no longer a question of if, but when your site will be probed.

Script kiddies and organized crime

The vast majority of attacks are automated and random as attackers don't care what systems they compromise. In all likelihood, the remote systems attacking a Web site are unwitting accomplices whose system administrator has no idea his systems are infected with a Trojan. According to Symantec's Internet Security Threat Report, more than 40% of worm-related attacks against machines connected to the Internet propagated from IP addresses controlled by Fortune 100 companies!

The individuals behind these attacks are often referred to as script kiddies, a disparaging term that doesn't reflect the devastation they can wreak. Many script kiddies lack technical competency. But by using only a single tool or exploit, randomly probing large numbers of systems and attacking the weakest, they can achieve dramatic results. Spikes in attacks are tied to the school calendar, suggesting that many teenagers are behind them.

In most circumstances the techniques used by script kiddies are the same techniques used by serious criminals who have financial gain as their main object. Often financed by organized crime, these attacks aim to defraud or steal online assets rather than be destructive.

Tactics, tools and motives behind attacks

The script kiddie's goal is to gain control of a computer the easiest way possible. Script kiddies' random selection of targets and lack of concern about the damage they cause make them a dangerous assailant to any Web site that resides on a system permanently connected to the Internet.

The tactics used in an attack are simple: build a database of IP addresses that can be scanned (systems that are up and reachable), scan those addresses for a specific vulnerability and exploit it. Once script kiddies find a vulnerable system and gain control, their first step normally is to cover their tracks. They want to ensure that the system owner cannot detect the intrusion. After checking to see if the coast is clear, the script kiddie clears the log files and replaces or modifies various critical files.

Tools used by script kiddies are often easy to use, require little interaction and are widely available. A tool is used to build a database of IP addresses. Some tools randomly select which IP network to scan while others conduct zone transfers of a selected domain name and all its sub-domains. Scan results are often archived or shared with other attackers to exploit a new vulnerability at a later date without having to build a new database.

After determining which systems in their database are running the vulnerable OS (by using a tool such as Fyodor's nmap), an intruder can easily target and compromise them. Tools to exploit vulnerabilities often appear within days of a new vulnerability being made public.

Just as there are automated scripts for hacking, there are also automated tools, such as lrk4, that mask the intruder's presence on a system. These are often called rootkits.

Once intruders are safely hidden, they tend to do one of two things. They may use the system to scan or exploit other systems; or they may choose to attack the system. Often they will silently monitor the system with a sniffer, returning later to see if any valuable data such as passwords or bank details have been captured.

Web site defacements are the most common result of an attack by script kiddies. The motive behind these attacks may be purely malicious - a grudge perhaps or to make a political point. Others may do it for the fun of the challenge, or as a way to compete with other hacker groups to set records for the most high-profile site attacked. The criminal's motive is simply fraud, theft or blackmail. Some in the industry maintain that hackers are different to crackers in that their motives are not malicious, but for system administrators this is merely semantics.

>> Next: Risks and threats to your Web site

This was first published in June 2005

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