Book Chapter

The Controversy of Hacking Books and Classes

This excerpt is from Chapter 1, Ethics of Ethical Hacking of All-in-One Gray Hat Hacking -- The Ethical Hacker's Handbook written by Shon Harris, Allen Harper, Chris Eagle, Jonathan Ness and Michael Lester, and published by McGraw-Hill/Osborne. You can download the entire chapter here.

When books on hacking first came out, a big controversy arose pertaining to whether this was the right thing to do or not. One side said that such books only increased the attackers' skills and techniques and created new attackers. The other side stated that the attackers already had these skills and these books were written to bring the security professionals and networking individuals up to speed. Who was right? They both were.

The word "hacking" is sexy, exciting, seemingly seedy, and usually brings about thoughts of complex technical activities, sophisticated crimes, and a look into the face of electronic danger itself. Although some computer crimes may take on some of these aspects, in reality it is not this grand or romantic. A computer is just a new tool to carry out old crimes.

Attackers are only one component of information security. Unfortunately, when most people think of security their minds go right to packets, firewalls and hackers. Security is a much larger and more complex beast than these technical items. Real security includes policies and procedures, liabilities and laws, human behavior patterns, corporate security programs and implementation, and yes, the technical aspects — firewalls, intrusion-detection systems, proxies, encryption, antivirus software, hacks, cracks and attacks.

Understanding how different types of hacking tools are used and how certain attacks are carried out is just one piece of the puzzle. But like all pieces of a puzzle, it is very important. For example, if a network administrator implements a packet filtering firewall and sets up the necessary configurations, he may feel the company is now safe and sound. He has configured his access control lists to only allow "established" traffic into the network. This means that an outside source cannot send a SYN packet to initiate communication with an inside system. If the administrator did not realize that there are tools that allow for ACK packets to be generated and sent, he is only seeing part of the picture here. This lack of knowledge and experience allows for a false sense of security, which seems to be pretty common in companies around the world today.

Let's look at another example. A network engineer configures a firewall to review only the first fragment of a packet and not the packet fragments that follow. The engineer knows that this type of "cut through" configuration will increase network performance. But if she is not aware that there are tools that can create fragments with dangerous payloads, she could be allowing in malicious traffic. Once these fragments reach the inside destination system and are reassembled, the packet can be put back together and initiate an attack.

In addition, if a company's employees are not aware of social engineering attacks and how damaging they can be, they may happily give out useful information to attackers. This information is then used to generate even more powerful and dangerous attacks against the company. Knowledge and the implementation of knowledge are the keys for any real security to be accomplished.

So where do we stand on hacking books and hacking classes? Directly on top of a slippery banana peel. There are currently three prongs to the problem of today's hacking classes and books. First, marketing people love to use the word "hacking" instead of more meaningful and responsible labels such as "penetration methodology." This means that too many things fall under the umbrella of hacking. All of these procedures now take on the negative connotation that the word "hacking" has come to be associated with. Second is the educational piece of the difference between hacking and ethical hacking, and the necessity of ethical hacking (penetration testing) in the security industry. The third issue has to do with the irresponsibility of many hacking books and classes. If these items are really being developed to help out the good guys, then they should be developed and structured that way. This means more than just showing how to exploit a vulnerability. These educational components should show the necessary countermeasures required to fight against these types of attacks and how to implement preventive measures to help ensure that these vulnerabilities are not exploited. Many books and courses tout the message of being a resource for the white hat and security professional. If you are writing a book or curriculum for black hats, then just admit it. You will make just as much (or more) money, and you will help eliminate the confusion between the concepts of hacking and ethical hacking.

Want to read more? Download the entire chapter here.


This was first published in February 2005

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