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Maximum Security:

A Hacker's Guide to Protecting Your Internet Site and Network

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Just Who Can Be Hacked, Anyway?

The Internet was born in 1969. Almost immediately after the network was established, researchers were confronted with a disturbing fact: The Internet was not secure and could easily be cracked. Today, writers try to minimize this fact, reminding you that the security technologies of the time were primitive. This has little bearing. Today, security technology is quite complex and the Internet is still easily cracked.

I would like to return to those early days of the Internet. Not only will this give you a flavor of the time, it will demonstrate an important point: The Internet is no more secure today than it was twenty years ago.

My evidence begins with a document: a Request for Comments, or RFC. Before you review the document, let me explain what the RFC system is about. This is important because I refer to many RFC documents throughout this book.

The Request For Comments (RFC) System

Requests for Comments (RFC) documents are special. They are written (and posted to the Net) by individuals engaged in the development or maintenance of the Internet. RFC documents serve the important purpose of requesting Internet-wide comments on new or developing technology. Most often, RFC documents contain proposed standards.

The RFC system is one of evolution. The author of an RFC posts the document to the Internet, proposing a standard that he or she would like to see adopted network-wide. The author then waits for feedback from other sources. The document (after more comments/changes have been made) goes to draft or directly to Internet standard status. Comments and changes are made by working groups of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

Cross Reference: The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is "... a large, open, international community of network designers, operators, vendors, and researchers concerned with the evolution of the Internet architecture and the smooth operation of the Internet." To learn more about the IETF, go to its home page at

RFC documents are numbered sequentially (the higher the number, the more recent the document) and are distributed at various servers on the Internet.

Cross Reference: One central server from which to retrieve RFC documents is at This address (URL) is located at InterNIC, or the Network Information Center.


InterNIC provides comprehensive databases on networking information. These databases contain the larger portion of collected knowledge on the design and scope of the Internet. Some of those databases include

  • The WHOIS Database--This database contains all the names and network numbers of hosts (or machines) permanently connected to the Internet in the United States (except *.mil addresses, which must be obtained at

  • The Directory of Directories--This is a massive listing of nearly all resources on the Internet, broken into categories.

  • The RFC Index--This is a collection of all RFC documents.

Cross Reference: All these documents are centrally available at

A Holiday Message

As I mentioned earlier, I refer here to an early RFC. The document in question is RFC 602: The Stockings Were Hung by the Chimney with Care. RFC 602 was posted by Bob Metcalfe in December, 1973. The subject matter concerned weak passwords. In it, Metcalfe writes: The ARPA Computer Network is susceptible to security violations for at least the three following reasons:

1. Individual sites, used to physical limitations on machine access, have not yet taken sufficient precautions toward securing their systems against unauthorized remote use. For example, many people still use passwords which are easy to guess: their fist [sic] names, their initials, their host name spelled backwards, a string of characters which are easy to type in sequence (such as ZXCVBNM).

2. The TIP allows access to the ARPANET to a much wider audience than is thought or intended. TIP phone numbers are posted, like those scribbled hastily on the walls of phone booths and men's rooms. The TIP required no user identification before giving service. Thus, many people, including those who used to spend their time ripping off Ma Bell, get access to our stockings in a most anonymous way.

3. There is lingering affection for the challenge of breaking someone's system. This affection lingers despite the fact that everyone knows that it's easy to break systems, even easier to crash them.

All of this would be quite humorous and cause for raucous eye winking and elbow nudging, if it weren't for the fact that in recent weeks at least two major serving hosts were crashed under suspicious circumstances by people who knew what they were risking; on yet a third system, the system wheel password was compromised--by two high school students in Los Angeles no less. We suspect that the number of dangerous security violations is larger than any of us know is growing. You are advised not to sit "in hope that Saint Nicholas would soon be there." That document was posted well over 20 years ago. Naturally, this password problem is no longer an issue. Or is it? Examine this excerpt from a Defense Data Network Security Bulletin, written in 1993:

Host Administrators must assure that passwords are kept secret by their users. Host Administrators must also assure that passwords are robust enough to thwart exhaustive attack by password cracking mechanisms, changed periodically and that password files are adequately protected. Passwords should be changed at least annually.

Take notice. In the more than 25 years of the Internet's existence, it has never been secure. That's a fact. Later in this book, I will try to explain why. For now, however, I confine our inquiry to a narrow question: Just who can be cracked?

The short answer is this: As long as a person maintains a connection to the Internet (permanent or otherwise), he or she can be cracked. Before treating this subject in depth, however, I want to define cracked.

What Is Meant by the Term Cracked?

For our purposes, cracked refers to that condition in which the victim network has suffered an unauthorized intrusion. There are various degrees of this condition, each of which is discussed at length within this book. Here, I offer a few examples of this cracked condition:

  • The intruder gains access and nothing more (access being defined as simple entry; entry that is unauthorized on a network that requires--at a minimum--a login and password).

  • The intruder gains access and destroys, corrupts, or otherwise alters data.

  • The intruder gains access and seizes control of a compartmentalized portion of the system or the whole system, perhaps denying access even to privileged users.

  • The intruder does NOT gain access, but instead implements malicious procedures that cause that network to fail, reboot, hang, or otherwise manifest an inoperable condition, either permanently or temporarily.

To be fair, modern security techniques have made cracking more difficult. However, the gorge between the word difficult and the word impossible is wide indeed. Today, crackers have access to (and often study religiously) a wealth of security information, much of which is freely available on the Internet. The balance of knowledge between these individuals and bona-fide security specialists is not greatly disproportionate. In fact, that gap is closing each day.

The purpose of this chapter is to show you that cracking is a common activity: so common that assurances from anyone that the Internet is secure should be viewed with extreme suspicion. To drive that point home, I will begin with governmental entities. After all, defense and intelligence agencies form the basis of our national security infrastructure. They, more than any other group, must be secure.


Throughout the Internet's history, government sites have been popular targets among crackers. This is due primarily to press coverage that follows such an event. Crackers enjoy any media attention they can get. Hence, their philosophy is generally this: If you're going to crack a site, crack one that matters.

Are crackers making headway in compromising our nation's most secure networks? Absolutely. To find evidence that government systems are susceptible to attack, one needn't look far. A recent report filed by the Government Accounting Office (GAO) concerning the security of the nation's defense networks concluded that:

Defense may have been attacked as many as 250,000 times last year...In addition, in testing its systems, DISA attacks and successfully penetrates Defense systems 65 percent of the time. According to Defense officials, attackers have obtained and corrupted sensitive information--they have stolen, modified, and destroyed both data and software. They have installed unwanted files and "back doors" which circumvent normal system protection and allow attackers unauthorized access in the future. They have shut down and crashed entire systems and networks, denying service to users who depend on automated systems to help meet critical missions. Numerous Defense functions have been adversely affected, including weapons and supercomputer research, logistics, finance, procurement, personnel management, military health, and payroll.1

1Information Security: Computer Attacks at Department of Defense Pose Increasing Risks (Chapter Report, 05/22/96, GAO/AIMD-96-84); Chapter 0:3.2, Paragraph 1.

Cross Reference: Information Security: Computer Attacks at Department of Defense Pose Increasing Risks is available online at

That same report revealed that although more than one quarter of a million attacks occur annually, only 1 in 500 attacks are actually detected and reported. (Note that these sites are defense oriented and therefore implement more stringent security policies than many commercial sites. Many government sites employ secure operating systems that also feature advanced, proprietary security utilities.)

Government agencies, mindful of the public confidence, understandably try to minimize these issues. But some of the incidents are difficult to obscure. For example, in 1994, crackers gained carte-blanche access to a weapons-research laboratory in Rome, New York. Over a two-day period, the crackers downloaded vital national security information, including wartime- communication protocols.

Such information is extremely sensitive and, if used improperly, could jeopardize the lives of American service personnel. If crackers with relatively modest equipment can access such information, hostile foreign governments (with ample computing power) could access even more.

SATAN and Other Tools

Today, government sites are cracked with increasing frequency. The authors of the GAO report attribute this largely to the rise of user-friendly security programs (such as SATAN). SATAN is a powerful scanner program that automatically detects security weaknesses in remote hosts. It was released freely on the Net in April, 1995. Its authors, Dan Farmer and Weitse Venema, are legends in Internet security. (You will learn more about these two gentlemen in Chapter 9, "Scanners.")

Because SATAN is conveniently operated through an HTML browser (such as Netscape Navigator or NCSA Mosaic), a cracker requires less practical knowledge of systems. Instead, he or she simply points, clicks, and waits for an alert that SATAN has found a vulnerable system (at least this is what the GAO report suggests). Is it true?

No. Rather, the government is making excuses for its own shoddy security. Here is why: First, SATAN runs only on UNIX platforms. Traditionally, such platforms required expensive workstation hardware. Workstation hardware of this class is extremely specialized and isn't sold at the neighborhood Circuit City store. However, those quick to defend the government make the point that free versions of UNIX now exist for the IBM-compatible platform. One such distribution is a popular operating system named Linux.

Linux is a true 32-bit, multi-user, multi-tasking, UNIX-like operating system. It is a powerful computing environment and, when installed on the average PC, grants the user an enormous amount of authority, particularly in the context of the Internet. For example, Linux distributions now come stocked with every manner of server ever created for TCP/IP transport over the Net.

Cross Reference: Linux runs on a wide range of platforms, not just IBM compatibles. Some of those platforms include the Motorola 68k, the Digital Alpha, the Motorola PowerPC, and even the Sun Microsystems SPARC architecture. If you want to learn more about Linux, go to the ultimate Linux page at

Distributions of Linux are freely available for download from the Net, or can be obtained at any local bookstore. CD-ROM distributions are usually bundled with books that instruct users on using Linux. In this way, vendors can make money on an otherwise, ostensibly free operating system. The average Linux book containing a Linux installation CD-ROM sells for forty dollars.

Furthermore, most Linux distributions come with extensive development tools. These include a multitude of language compilers and interpreters:

  • A C language compiler
  • A C++ language compiler
  • A SmallTalk interpreter
  • A BASIC interpreter
  • A Perl interpreter
  • Tools for FORTRAN
  • Tools for Pascal
  • A common LISP interpreter

Yet, even given these facts, the average kid with little knowledge of UNIX cannot implement a tool such as SATAN on a Linux platform. Such tools rarely come prebuilt in binary form. The majority are distributed as source code, which may then be compiled with options specific to the current platform. Thus, if you are working in AIX (IBM's proprietary version of UNIX), the program must be compiled for AIX. If working in Ultrix (DEC), it must be compiled for Ultrix, and so on.

NOTE: A port was available for Linux not long after SATAN was released. However, the bugs were not completely eliminated and the process of installing and running SATAN would still remain an elusive and frustrating experience for many Linux users. The process of developing an easily implemented port was slow in coming.

Most PC users (without UNIX experience) are hopelessly lost even at the time of the Linux installation. UNIX conventions are drastically different from those in DOS. Thus, before a new Linux user becomes even moderately proficient, a year of use will likely pass. This year will be spent learning how to use MIT's X Window System, how to configure TCP/IP settings, how to get properly connected to the Internet, and how to unpack software packages that come in basic source-code form.

Even after the year has passed, the user may still not be able to use SATAN. The SATAN distribution doesn't compile well on the Linux platform. For it to work, the user must have installed the very latest version of Perl. Only very recent Linux distributions (those released within one year of the publishing of this book) are likely to have such a version installed. Thus, the user must also know how to find, retrieve, unpack, and properly install Perl.

In short, the distance between a non-UNIX literate PC user and one who effectively uses SATAN is very long indeed. Furthermore, during that journey from the former to the latter, the user must have ample time (and a brutal resolve) to learn. This is not the type of journey made by someone who wants to point and click his or her way to super-cracker status. It is a journey undertaken by someone deeply fascinated by operating systems, security, and the Internet in general.

So the government's assertion that SATAN, an excellent tool designed expressly to improve Internet security, has contributed to point-and-click cracking is unfounded. True, SATAN will perform automated scans for a user. Nonetheless, that user must have strong knowledge of Internet security, UNIX, and several programming languages.

There are also collateral issues regarding the machine and connection type. For example, even if the user is seasoned, he or she must still have adequate hardware power to use SATAN effectively.

Cross Reference: You will examine SATAN (and programs like it) in greater detail in Chapter 9. In that chapter, you will be familiarized with many scanners, how they work, how they are designed, and the type of information they can provide for users.

SATAN is not the problem with government sites. Indeed, SATAN is not the only diagnostic tool that can automatically identify security holes in a system. There are dozens of such tools available:

  • Internet Security Scanner (ISS)
  • Strobe
  • Network Security Scanner (NSS)
  • identTCPscan
  • Jakal

Chapter 9 examines these automated tools and their methods of operation. For now, I will simply say this: These tools operate by attacking the available TCP/IP services and ports open and running on remote systems.

Whether available to a limited class of users or worldwide, these tools share one common attribute: They check for known holes. That is, they check for security vulnerabilities that are commonly recognized within the security community. The chief value of such tools is their capability to automate the process of checking one or more machines (hundreds of machines, if the user so wishes). These tools accomplish nothing more than a knowledgeable cracker might by hand. They simply automate the process.

Education and Awareness About Security

The problem is not that such tools exist, but that education about security is poor. Moreover, the defense information networks are operating with archaic internal security policies. These policies prevent (rather than promote) security. To demonstrate why, I want to refer to the GAO report I mentioned previously. In it, the government concedes:

...The military services and Defense agencies have issued a number of information security policies, but they are dated, inconsistent and incomplete...

The report points to a series of Defense Directives as examples. It cites (as the most significant DoD policy document) Defense Directive 5200.28. This document, Security Requirements for Automated Information Systems, is dated March 21, 1988.

In order to demonstrate the real problem here, let's examine a portion of that Defense Directive. Paragraph 5 of Section D of that document is written as follows:

Computer security features of commercially produced products and Government-developed or -derived products shall be evaluated (as requested) for designation as trusted computer products for inclusion on the Evaluated Products List (EPL). Evaluated products shall be designated as meeting security criteria maintained by the National Computer Security Center (NCSC) at NSA defined by the security division, class, and feature (e.g., B, B1, access control) described in DoD 5200.28-STD (reference (K)).

Cross Reference: Security Requirements for Automated Information Systems is available on the Internet at

It is within the provisions of that paragraph that the government's main problem lies. The Evaluated Products List (EPL) is a list of products that have been evaluated for security ratings, based on DoD guidelines. (The National Security Agency actually oversees the evaluation.) Products on the list can have various levels of security certification. For example, Windows NT version 3.51 has obtained a certification of C2. This is a very limited security certification.

Cross Reference: Before you continue, you should probably briefly view the EPL for yourself. Check it out at

The first thing you will notice about this list is that most of the products are old. For example, examine the EPL listing for Trusted Information Systems' Trusted XENIX, a UNIX-based operating system.

Cross Reference: The listing for Trusted XENIX can be found at

If you examine the listing closely, you will be astonished. TIS Trusted XENIX is indeed on the EPL. It is therefore endorsed and cleared as a safe system, one that meets the government's guidelines (as of September 1993). However, examine even more closely the platforms on which this product has been cleared. Here are a few:

  • AST 386/25 and Premium 386/33
  • HP Vectra 386
  • NCR PC386sx
  • Zenith Z-386/33

These architectures are ancient. They are so old that no one would actually use them, except perhaps as a garage hacking project on a nice Sunday afternoon (or perhaps if they were legacy systems that housed software or other data that was irreplaceable). In other words, by the time products reach the EPL, they are often pathetically obsolete. (The evaluation process is lengthy and expensive not only for the vendor, but for the American people, who are footing the bill for all this.) Therefore, you can conclude that much of the DoD's equipment, software, and security procedures are likewise obsolete.

Now, add the question of internal education. Are Defense personnel trained in (and implementing) the latest security techniques? No. Again, quoting the GAO report:

Defense officials generally agreed that user awareness training was needed, but stated that installation commanders do not always understand computer security risk and thus, do not always devote sufficient resources to the problem.

High-Profile Cases

Lack of awareness is pervasive, extending far beyond the confines of a few isolated Defense sites. It is a problem that affects many federal agencies throughout the country. Evidence of it routinely appears on the front pages of our nation's most popular newspapers. Indeed, some very high-profile government sites were cracked in 1996, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Department of Justice (DoJ).

  • In the CIA case, a cracker seized control on September 18, 1996, replacing the welcome banner with one that read The Central Stupidity Agency. Accompanying this were links to a hacker group in Scandinavia.

Cross Reference: To see the CIA site in its hacked state, visit

NOTE: was one of many sites that preserved the hacked CIA page, primarily for historical purposes. It is reported that after put the hacked CIA page out for display, its server received hundreds of hits from government sites, including the CIA. Some of these hits involved finger queries and other snooping utilities.
  • In the DoJ incident (Saturday, August 17, 1996), a photograph of Adolf Hitler was offered as the Attorney General of the United States.

Cross Reference: The DoJ site, in its hacked state, can be viewed at

As of this writing, neither case has been solved; most likely, neither will ever be. Both are reportedly being investigated by the FBI.

Typically, government officials characterize such incidents as rare. Just how rare are they? Not very. In the last year, many such incidents have transpired:

  • During a period spanning from July, 1995 to March 1996, a student in Argentina compromised key sites in the United States, including those maintained by the Armed Forces and NASA.

  • In August, 1996, a soldier at Fort Bragg reportedly compromised an "impenetrable" military computer system and widely distributed passwords he obtained.

  • In December, 1996, hackers seized control of a United States Air Force site, replacing the site's defense statistics with pornography. The Pentagon's networked site, DefenseLINK, was shut down for more than 24 hours as a result.

The phenomenon was not limited to federal agencies. In October, 1996, the home page of the Florida State Supreme Court was cracked. Prior to its cracking, the page's intended use was to distribute information about the court, including text reproductions of recent court decisions. The crackers removed this information and replaced it with pornography. Ironically, the Court subsequently reported an unusually high rate of hits.

In 1996 alone, at least six high-profile government sites were cracked. Two of these (the CIA and FBI) were organizations responsible for maintaining departments for information warfare or computer crime. Both are charged with one or more facets of national security. What does all this mean? Is our national security going down the tubes? It depends on how you look at it.

In the CIA and FBI cases, the cracking activity was insignificant. Neither server held valuable information, and the only real damage was to the reputation of their owners. However, the Rome, New York case was far more serious (as was the case at Fort Bragg). Such cases demonstrate the potential for disaster.

There is a more frightening aspect to this: The sites mentioned previously were WWW sites, which are highly visible to the public. Therefore, government agencies cannot hide when their home pages have been cracked. But what about when the crack involves some other portion of the targeted system (a portion generally unseen by the public)? It's likely that when such a crack occurs, the press is not involved. As such, there are probably many more government cracks that you will never hear about.

To be fair, the U.S. government is trying to keep up with the times. In January 1997, a reporter for Computerworld magazine broke a major story concerning Pentagon efforts to increase security. Apparently, the Department of Defense is going to establish its own tiger team (a group of individuals whose sole purpose will be to attack DoD computers). Such attacks will reveal key flaws in DoD security.

Other stories indicate that defense agencies have undertaken new and improved technologies to protect computers holding data vital to national security. However, as reported by Philip Shenon, a prominent technology writer for the New York Times:

While the Pentagon is developing encryption devices that show promise in defeating computer hackers, the accounting office, which is the investigative arm of Congress, warned that none of the proposed technical solutions was foolproof, and that the military's current security program was `dated, inconsistent and incomplete.'

The Pentagon's activity to develop devices that "show promise in defeating computer hackers" appears reassuring. From this, one could reasonably infer that something is being done about the problem. However, the reality and seriousness of the situation is being heavily underplayed.

If Defense and other vital networks cannot defend against domestic attacks from crackers, there is little likelihood that they can defend from hostile foreign powers. I made this point earlier in the chapter, but now I want to expand on it.

Can the United States Protect the National Information Infrastructure?

The United States cannot be matched by any nation for military power. We have sufficient destructive power at our disposal to eliminate the entire human race. So from a military standpoint, there is no comparison between the United States and even a handful of third-world nations. The same is not true, however, in respect to information warfare.

The introduction of advanced minicomputers has forever changed the balance of power in information warfare. The average Pentium processor now selling at retail computer chains throughout the country is more powerful than many mainframes were five years ago (it is certainly many times faster). Add the porting of high-performance UNIX-based operating systems to the IBM platform, and you have an entirely new environment.

A third-world nation could pose a significant threat to our national information infrastructure. Using the tools described previously (and some high-speed connections), a third-world nation could effectively wage a successful information warfare campaign against the United States at costs well within their means. In fact, it is likely that within the next few years, we'll experience incidents of bona-fide cyberterrorism.

To prepare for the future, more must be done than simply allocating funds. The federal government must work closely with security organizations and corporate entities to establish new and improved standards. If the new standards do not provide for quicker and more efficient means of implementing security, we will be faced with very dire circumstances.

Who Holds the Cards?

This (not legitimate security tools such as SATAN) is the problem: Thirty years ago, the U.S. government held all the cards with respect to technology. The average U.S. citizen held next to nothing. Today, the average American has access to very advanced technology. In some instances, that technology is so advanced that it equals technology currently possessed by the government. Encryption technology is a good example.

Many Americans use encryption programs to protect their data from others. Some of these encryption programs (such as the very famous utility PGP, created by Phil Zimmermann) produce military-grade encryption. This level of encryption is sufficiently strong that U.S. intelligence agencies cannot crack it (at least not within a reasonable amount of time, and often, time is of the essence).

For example, suppose one individual sends a message to another person regarding the date on which they will jointly blow up the United Nations building. Clearly, time is of the essence. If U.S. intelligence officials cannot decipher this message before the date of the event, they might as well have not cracked the message at all.

This principle applies directly to Internet security. Security technology has trickled down to the masses at an astonishing rate. Crackers (and other talented programmers) have taken this technology and rapidly improved it. Meanwhile, the government moves along more slowly, tied down by restrictive and archaic policies. This has allowed the private sector to catch up (and even surpass) the government in some fields of research.

This is a matter of national concern. Many grass-roots radical cracker organizations are enthralled with these circumstances. They often heckle the government, taking pleasure in the advanced knowledge that they possess. These are irresponsible forces in the programming community, forces that carelessly perpetuate the weakening of the national information infrastructure. Such forces should work to assist and enlighten government agencies, but they often do not, and their reasons are sometimes understandable.

The government has, for many years, treated crackers and even hackers as criminals of high order. As such, the government is unwilling to accept whatever valuable information these folks have to offer. Communication between these opposing forces is almost always negative. Bitter legal disputes have developed over the years. Indeed, some very legitimate security specialists have lost time, money, and dignity at the hands of the U.S. government. On more than one occasion, the government was entirely mistaken and ruined (or otherwise seriously disrupted) the lives of law-abiding citizens. In the next chapter, I will discuss a few such cases. Most arise out of the government's poor understanding of the technology.

New paths of communication should be opened between the government and those in possession of advanced knowledge. The Internet marginally assists in this process, usually through devices such as mailing lists and Usenet. However, there is currently no concerted effort to bring these opposing forces together on an official basis. This is unfortunate because it fosters a situation where good minds in America remain pitted against one another. Before we can effectively defend our national information infrastructure, we must come to terms with this problem. For the moment, we are at war with ourselves.

The Public Sector

I realize that a category such as the public sector might be easily misunderstood. To prevent that, I want to identify the range of this category. Here, the public sector refers to any entity that is not a government, an institution, or an individual. Thus, I will be examining companies (public and private), Internet service providers, organizations, or any other entity of commercial or semi-commercial character.

Before forging ahead, one point should be made: Commercial and other public entities do not share the experience enjoyed by government sites. In other words, they have not yet been cracked to pieces. Only in the past five years have commercial entities flocked to the Internet. Therefore, some allowances must be made. It is unreasonable to expect these folks to make their sites impenetrable. Many are smaller companies and for a moment, I want to address these folks directly: You, more than any other group, need to acquire sound security advice.

Small companies operate differently from large ones. For the little guy, cost is almost always a strong consideration. When such firms establish an Internet presence, they usually do so either by using in-house technical personnel or by recruiting an Internet guru. In either case, they are probably buying quality programming talent. However, what they are buying in terms of security may vary.

Large companies specializing in security charge a lot of money for their services. Also, most of these specialize in UNIX security. So, small companies seeking to establish an Internet presence may avoid established security firms. First, the cost is a significant deterrent. Moreover, many small companies do not use UNIX. Instead, they may use Novell NetWare, LANtastic, Windows NT, Windows 95, and so forth.

This leaves small businesses in a difficult position. They must either pay high costs or take their programmers' word that the network will be secure. Because such small businesses usually do not have personnel who are well educated in security, they are at the mercy of the individual charged with developing the site. That can be a very serious matter.

The problem is many "consultants" spuriously claim to know all about security. They make these claims when, in fact, they may know little or nothing about the subject. Typically, they have purchased a Web-development package, they generate attractive Web pages, and know how to set up a server. Perhaps they have a limited background in security, having scratched the surface. They take money from their clients, rationalizing that there is only a very slim chance that their clients' Web servers will get hacked. For most, this works out well. But although their clients' servers never get hacked, the servers may remain indefinitely in a state of insecurity.

Commercial sites are also more likely to purchase one or two security products and call it a day. They may pay several thousand dollars for an ostensibly secure system and leave it at that, trusting everything to that single product.

For these reasons, commercial sites are routinely cracked, and this trend will probably continue. Part of the problem is this: There is no real national standard on security in the private sector. Hence, one most often qualifies as a security specialist through hard experience and not by virtue of any formal education. It is true that there are many courses available and even talks given by individuals such as Farmer and Venema. These resources legitimately qualify an individual to do security work. However, there is no single piece of paper that a company can demand that will ensure the quality of the security they are getting.

Because these smaller businesses lack security knowledge, they become victims of unscrupulous "security specialists." I hope that this trend will change, but I predict that for now, it will only become more prevalent. I say this for one reason: Despite the fact that many thousands of American businesses are now online, this represents a mere fraction of commercial America. There are millions of businesses that have yet to get connected. These millions are all new fish, and security charlatans are lined up waiting to catch them.

The Public Sector Getting Cracked

In the last year, a series of commercial sites have come under attack. These attacks have varied widely in technique. Earlier in this chapter, I defined some of those techniques and the attending damage or interruption of service they cause. Here, I want to look at cases that more definitively illustrate these techniques. Let's start with the recent attack on (Public Access Networks Corporation) is a large Internet service provider (ISP) that provides Internet access to several hundred thousand New York residents. On September 6, 1996, Panix came under heavy attack from the void.

The Panix case was very significant because it demonstrates a technique known as the Denial of Service (DoS) attack. This type of attack does not involve an intruder gaining access. Instead, the cracker undertakes remote procedures that render a portion (or sometimes all) of a target inoperable.

The techniques employed in such an attack are simple. As you will learn in Chapter 6, "A Brief Primer on TCP/IP," connections over the Internet are initiated via a procedure called the three-part handshake. In this process, the requesting machine sends a packet requesting connection. The target machine responds with an acknowledgment. The requesting machine then returns its own acknowledgment and a connection is established.

In a syn_flooder attack, the requesting (cracker's) machine sends a series of connection requests but fails to acknowledge the target's response. Because the target never receives that acknowledgment, it waits. If this process is repeated many times, it renders the target's ports useless because the target is still waiting for the response. These connection requests are dealt with sequentially; eventually, the target will abandon waiting for each such acknowledgment. Nevertheless, if it receives tens or even hundreds of these requests, the port will remain engaged until it has processed--and discarded--each request.

NOTE: The term syn_flooder is derived from the activity undertaken by such tools. The TCP/IP three-way handshake is initiated when one machine sends another a SYN packet. In a typical flooding attack, a series of these packets are forwarded to a target, purporting to be from an address that is nonexistent. The target machine therefore cannot resolve the host. In any event, by sending a flurry of these SYN packets, one is flooding the target with requests that cannot be fulfilled.

Syn_flooder attacks are common, but do no real damage. They simply deny other users access to the targeted ports temporarily. In the Panix case, though, temporarily was a period lasting more than a week.

Syn_flooders are classified in this book as destructive devices. They are covered extensively in Chapter 14, "Destructive Devices." These are typically small programs consisting of two hundred lines of code or fewer. The majority are written in the C programming language, but I know of at least one written in BASIC.

Crack dot Com

ISPs are popular targets for a variety of reasons. One reason is that crackers use such targets as operating environments or a home base from which to launch attacks on other targets. This technique assists in obscuring the identity of the attacker, an issue we will discuss. However, DoS attacks are nothing special. They are the modern equivalent of ringing someone's telephone repeatedly to keep the line perpetually engaged. There are far more serious types of cracks out there. Just ask Crack dot Com, the manufacturers of the now famous computer game Quake.

In January, 1997, crackers raided the Crack dot Com site. Reportedly, they cracked the Web server and proceeded to chip away at the firewall from that location. After breaking through the firewall, the crackers gained carte-blanche access to the internal file server. From that location, they took the source code for both Quake and a new project called Golgotha. They posted this source code on the Net.

NOTE: For those of you who are not programmers, source code is the programming code of an application in its raw state. This is most often in human-readable form, usually in plain English. After all testing of the software is complete (and there are no bugs within it), this source code is sent a final time through a compiler. Compilers interpret the source code and from it fashion a binary file that can be executed on one or more platforms. In short, source code can be though of as the very building blocks of a program. In commercial circles, source code is jealously guarded and aggressively proclaimed as proprietary material. For someone to take that data from a server and post it indiscriminately to the Internet is probably a programmer's worst nightmare.

For Crack dot Com, the event could have far-reaching consequences. For example, it's possible that during the brief period that the code was posted on the Net, its competitors may have obtained copies of (at least some of) the programming routines. In fact, the crackers could have approached those competitors in an effort to profit from their activities. This, however, is highly unlikely. The crackers' pattern of activity suggests that they were kids. For example, after completing the crack, they paraded their spoils on Internet Relay Chat. They also reportedly left behind a log (a recording of someone's activity while connected to a given machine). The Crack dot Com case highlights the seriousness of the problem, however.

Kriegsman Furs

Another interesting case is that of Kriegsman Furs of Greensborough, North Carolina. This furrier's Web site was cracked by an animal-rights activist. The cracker left behind a very strong message, which I have reproduced in part:

Today's consumer is completely oblivious to what goes on in order for their product to arrive at the mall for them to buy. It is time that the consumer be aware of what goes on in many of today's big industries. Most importantly, the food industries. For instance, dairy cows are injected with a chemical called BGH that is very harmful to both humans and the cows. This chemical gives the cows bladder infections. This makes the cows bleed and guess what? It goes straight in to your bowl of cereal. Little does the consumer know, nor care. The same kind of thing goes on behind the back of fur wearers. The chemicals that are used to process and produce the fur are extremely bad for our earth. Not only that, but millions of animals are slaughtered for fur and leather coats. I did this in order to wake up the blind consumers of today. Know the facts.

Following this message were a series of links to animal-rights organizations and resources.

Kevin Mitnik

Perhaps the most well-known case of the public sector being hacked, however, is the 1994/1995 escapades of famed computer cracker Kevin Mitnik. Mitnik has been gaining notoriety since his teens, when he cracked the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). The timeline of his life is truly amazing, spanning some 15 years of cracking telephone companies, defense sites, ISPs, and corporations. Briefly, some of Mitnik's previous targets include

  • Pacific Bell, a California telephone company

  • The California Department of Motor Vehicles

  • A Pentagon system

  • The Santa Cruz Operation, a software vendor

  • Digital Equipment Corporation

  • TRW

On December 25, 1994, Mitnik reportedly cracked the computer network of Tsutomu Shimomura, a security specialist at the San Diego Supercomputer Center. What followed was a press fiasco that lasted for months. The case might not have been so significant were it not for three factors:

  • The target was a security specialist who had written special security tools not available to the general public.

  • The method employed in the break-in was extremely sophisticated and caused a stir in security circles.

  • The suspicion was, from the earliest phase of the case, that Mitnik (then a wanted man) was involved in the break-in.

First, Shimomura, though never before particularly famous, was known in security circles. He, more than anyone, should have been secure. The types of tools he was reportedly developing would have been of extreme value to any cracker. Moreover, Shimomura has an excellent grasp of Internet security. When he got caught with his pants down (as it were), it was a shock to many individuals in security. Naturally, it was also a delight to the cracker community. For some time afterward, the cracking community was enthralled by the achievement, particularly because Shimomura had reportedly assisted various federal agencies on security issues. Here, one of the government's best security advisors had been cracked to pieces by a grass-roots outlaw (at least, that was the hype surrounding the case).

Second, the technique used, now referred to as IP spoofing, was complex and not often implemented. IP spoofing is significant because it relies on an exchange that occurs between two machines at the system level. Normally, when a user attempts to log in to a machine, he or she is issued a login prompt. When the user provides a login ID, a password prompt is given. The user issues his or her password and logs in (or, he or she gives a bad or incorrect password and does not log in). Thus, Internet security breaches have traditionally revolved around getting a valid password, usually by obtaining and cracking the main password file.

IP spoofing differs from this radically. Instead of attempting to interface with the remote machine via the standard procedure of the login/password variety, the IP-spoofing cracker employs a much more sophisticated method that relies in part on trust. Trust is defined and referred to in this book (unless otherwise expressly stated) as the "trust" that occurs between two machines that identify themselves to one another via IP addresses.

In IP spoofing, a series of things must be performed before a successful break-in can be accomplished:

  • One must determine the trust relationships between machines on the target network.

  • One must determine which of those trust relationships can be exploited (that is, which of those machines is running an operating system susceptible to spoofing).

  • One must exploit the hole.

(Be mindful that this brief description is bare bones. I treat this subject extensively in its own chapter, Chapter 28, "Spoofing Attacks.")

In the attack, the target machine trusted the other. Whenever a login occurred between these two machines, it was authenticated through an exchange of numbers. This number exchange followed a forward/challenge scenario. In other words, one machine would generate a number to which the other must answer (also with a number). The key to the attack was to forge the address of the trusted machine and provide the correct responses to the other machine's challenges. And, reportedly, that is exactly what Mitnik did.

In this manner, privileged access is gained without ever passing a single password or login ID over the network. All exchanges happen deep at the system level, a place where humans nearly never interact with the operating system.

Curiously, although this technique has been lauded as new and innovative, it is actually quite antiquated (or at least, the concept is quite antiquated). It stems from a security paper written by Robert T. Morris in 1985 titled A Weakness in the 4.2BSD UNIX TCP/IP Software. In this paper, Morris (then working for AT&T Bell Laboratories) concisely details the ingredients to make such an attack successful. Morris opens the paper with this statement:

The 4.2 Berkeley Software Distribution of the UNIX operating system (4.2BSD for short) features an extensive body of software based on the "TCP/IP" family of protocols. In particular, each 4.2BSD system "trusts" some set of other systems, allowing users logged into trusted systems to execute commands via a TCP/IP network without supplying a password. These notes describe how the design of TCP/IP and the 4.2BSD implementation allow users on untrusted and possibly very distant hosts to masquerade as users on trusted hosts. Bell Labs has a growing TCP/IP network connecting machines with varying security needs; perhaps steps should be taken to reduce their vulnerability to each other.

Morris then proceeds to describe such an attack in detail, some ten years before the first widely reported instance of such an attack had occurred. One wonders whether Mitnik had seen this paper (or even had it sitting on his desk whilst the deed was being done).

In any event, the break-in caused a stir. The following month, the New York Times published an article about the attack. An investigation resulted, and Shimomura was closely involved. Twenty days later, Shimomura and the FBI tracked Mitnik to an apartment in North Carolina, the apparent source of the attack. The case made national news for weeks as the authorities sorted out the evidence they found at Mitnik's abode. Again, America's most celebrated computer outlaw was behind bars.

In my view, the case demonstrates an important point, the very same point we started with at the beginning of this chapter: As long as they are connected to the Net, anyone can be cracked. Shimomura is a hacker and a good one. He is rumored to own 12 machines running a variety of operating systems. Moreover, Shimomura is a talented telephone phreak (someone skilled in manipulating the technology of the telephone system and cellular devices). In essence, he is a specialist in security. If he fell victim to an attack of this nature, with all the tools at his disposal, the average business Web site is wide open to assault over the Internet.

In defense of Shimomura: Many individuals in security defend Shimomura. They earnestly argue that Shimomura had his site configured to bait crackers. In Chapter 26, "Levels of Attack," you will learn that Shimomura was at least marginally involved in implementing this kind of system in conjunction with some folks at Bell Labs. However, this argument in Shimomura's defense is questionable. For example, did he also intend to allow these purportedly inept crackers to seize custom tools he had been developing? If not, the defensive argument fails. Sensitive files were indeed seized from Shimomura's network. Evidence of these files on the Internet is now sparse. No doubt, Shimomura has taken efforts to hunt them down. Nevertheless, I have personally seen files that Mitnik reportedly seized from many networks, including Netcom. Charles Platt, in his scathing review of Shimomura's book Takedown, offers a little slice of reality:

Kevin least he shows some irreverence, taunting Shimomura and trying to puncture his pomposity. At one point, Mitnick bundles up all the data he copied from Shimomura's computer and saves it onto the system at Netcom where he knows that Shimomura will find it....Does Shimomura have any trouble maintaining his dignity in the face of these pranks? No trouble at all. He writes: "This was getting personal. ... none of us could believe how childish and inane it all sounded."

It is difficult to understand why Shimomura would allow crackers (coming randomly from the void) to steal his hard work and excellent source code. My opinion (which may be erroneous) is that Shimomura did indeed have his boxes configured to bait crackers; he simply did not count on anyone cutting a hole through that baited box to his internal network. In other words, I believe that Shimomura (who I readily admit is a brilliant individual) got a little too confident. There should have been no relationship of trust between the baited box and any other workstation.

Cross Reference: Charles Platt's critique of Takedown, titled A Circumlocuitous review of Takedown by Tsutomu Shimomura and John Markoff, can be found at


These cases are all food for thought. In the past 20 or so years, there have been several thousand such cases (of which we are aware). The military claims that it is attacked over 250,000 times a year. Estimates suggest it is penetrated better than half of the time. It is likely that no site is entirely immune. (If such a site exists, it is likely AT&T Bell Laboratories; it probably knows more about network security than any other single organization on the Internet.)

All this having been established, I'd like to get you started. Before you can understand how to hack (or crack), however, you must first know a bit about the network. Part II of this book, "Understanding the Terrain," deals primarily with the Internet's development and design.

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