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Five Ways To (Physically) Hack A Data Center

Many data centers contain easy-to-exploit physical vulnerabilities that don't require hacking into the network

You can spend millions of dollars on network security, but it's all for naught if the data center has physical weaknesses that leave it open to intruders. Red team experts hired to social-engineer their way into an organization say they regularly find physical hacking far too easy.

Ryan Jones, senior security consultant with Trustwave's SpiderLabs, says data centers he has investigated for security weaknesses commonly have the same cracks in the physical infrastructure that can be exploited for infiltrating these sensitive areas. Jones says the five simplest ways to hack into a data center are by crawling through void spaces in the data center walls, lock-picking the door, "tailgating" into the building, posing as contractors or service repairman, and jimmying open improperly installed doors or windows.

"Over the years, you can spend millions of dollars protecting your network, but [many organizations] are leaving the front door wide open. They are missing huge gaping holes" in their physical security of the data center, says Jones, who will discuss his findings at the conference today in Sao Paulo, Brazil. "These are the top ways we get in."

One of the flaws in the physical design of most data centers is their drop ceilings and raised floors, Jones says. "The walls don't go all the way up [to the ceiling] or down [to the floor]," he says. The drop ceiling leaves a void for an intruder to remove a ceiling tile from a nearby area and then crawl to the data center from above it. "You can crawl down carefully to where you need to drop down," Jones says.

And raised floors -- built for cabling and cooling purposes -- can also be physically exploited, he says. "With a raised floor, there's a gap between the installed floor and the concrete bottom of the building," he says.

Jones says crawling in via ceiling tiles or through raised floor gaps are easy ways to get inside without getting noticed or doing any damage to the structure. "I've seen employees take advantages of these weaknesses" for things like going back to get keys they left in the office, he says.

The best fix is to fill those gaps with sheet rock, he says. Some organizations opt to lay metal fencing or chicken wire there as well, but Jones acknowledges that a determined intruder could merely cut the wire and gain entry into the data center.

Social engineering expert and penetration tester Steve Stasiukonis, founder and vice president of Secure Network Inc., says these gaps are "brilliant" ways to get inside the data center. If there's sheetrock in the way, he says, it's easy to cut a hole in it and squeeze inside. "A lot of government facilities have a 'code of silence room' [where] they have to make sure the sheetrock goes to the roof and there's a barrier so no one can climb over the ceiling tiles," says Stasiukonis, who doesn't perform any carpentry-type breaches on behalf of his clients because it's too destructive to the data center environment.

Another common physical weakness in the data center is the door lock: Jones says he sees many weak locks and unprotected door latches at the data center threshold. "Lock-picking is a well-known and understood trick," he says. "It's almost a sport now."

Free lock-picking kits distributed at Defcon and for sale on the cheap online make it easy for most anyone to crack the standard door lock, he says.

Secure Network's Stasiukonis says his team has its own lock-picking kits, including a "gun" the size of an electric toothbrush that picks locks. "Most data centers have cheap, regular key locks on their doors," he says. He says his team sometimes installs small wireless cameras you can purchase from a spy shop that snoops on keyed-entry doors to learn the code when someone enters the data center.

The best way to lock down a data center lock is to either purchase a higher-end lock or an electronic lock, or to use biometrics, Jones says.

Proximity access keys are best, according to Stasiukonis, because they also authenticate the user who enters the data center and provides an audit trail of the person's comings and goings. "This technology is rock-solid and relatively inexpensive," he says.

Jones and Stasiukonis both swear by "tailgating" as a foolproof way to get into the building -- or even the data center -- via legitimate employees. Stasiukonis recalls one engagement for a client in which he posed as a hardware salesman and got into a data center secured with biometrics by helping carry a tray of food into the data center. "People are usually very gracious. They even hold the door for you," Stasiukonis says.

SpiderLabs' Jones says it's a sure way in because most people don't want to challenge someone's legitimacy at the door or get into any confrontations. "Every building has a smoking area around it. You can hang out there and wait ... and follow [an employee] in," he says. "And if you're on crutches or talking on the phone, people hold the door open for you. They don't want to be rude."

The only ways to mitigate this type of unauthorized entry is to have either turnstile-based badge entry, where only one person can get in at a time and with a badge, or with some sort of rotating door, he says. "Or a security guard who makes sure people have badges and doesn't let in [those who don't]," he says.

It also helps to train employees about letting others into the building. "You have to make them aware that it's not just their responsibility, but it's important to their jobs. If the company loses a lot of money [due to an intrusion], they might not have a job anymore," Jones says.

Then there's the classic social engineering ploy of posing as a technician, salesperson, cleaning crew, or contractor as a way to gain entry into the building without raising suspicion or being questioned. Both Jones and Stasiukonis have donned costumes as courier servicemen or equipment repairmen in their engagements for clients. "When all else fails, social engineering is the way to go. It works almost every time," Jones says.

Stasiukonis' firm now even hires out trucks and hardware to go with their get-ups. "We've kicked it up a notch. We have the truck with a load gate, and we have a copier we bring in 'on trial,'" he says. "What's more authentic than the guy who brings stuff?"

Kelly Jackson Higgins is Executive Editor at DarkReading.com. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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