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6/25/2007
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Black Ops & Grandma

Renowned researcher Dan Kaminsky talks about his latest Black Ops research, first meeting Mudge, and his grandma the 'hacker'

He was one of the key researchers who hammered away at Vista security for Microsoft while the software giant was developing the new operating system, but Dan Kaminsky still fondly recalls in detail the memory of his first Black Hat seven years ago.

Figure 1:

After winning a free ticket to Black Hat in a security treasure-hunt competition in 2000, Kaminsky traveled to Las Vegas where he met famed hacker Mudge, who gave him some ageless advice after the then 20-year-old Kaminsky boldly raised his hand to answer -- correctly -- a security question Mudge posed during his Black Hat panel session. "He said never tell anyone your age. That way you will always be old enough for them to believe what you are saying," recalls Kaminsky, now director of penetration testing for IOActive.

Black Hat sold Kaminsky on the security field. "That's when I decided this was totally the industry I wanted to [be in] -- security," he says.

Now 28, Kaminsky is part of the generation of twentysomething-going-on-thirtysomething hackers. But unlike some of his counterparts in this elite young group, instead of dropping out of school, he dropped out of the industry after two years to finish his college degree. After working as an intern for Cisco midway through college and then writing a book called Hack Proofing Your Network, he went back to Santa Clara University to get his degree in operations and management of information systems (a.k.a. business computing) because he wanted to learn more about the money side of security.

"I got this amazing job offer and realized I would never go back to school and get my degree. So I quit my job and went back to school," he says.

"I took business classes, because you don't naturally know how money works. I think finance should be a mandatory class for everyone," he says. If you build an expensive but great security system that no one actually uses, that's worse than doing nothing at all, he says. "Now people end up spending a lot of money getting around what you built."

Still, it wasn't long before Kaminsky was back in the thick of the security world again. In the midst of his final summer of classes in 2001, he submitted to Black Hat his first so-called "Black Ops of TCP/IP" research presentation and his proposal was accepted. The talk was on "some random things I was working on instead of doing homework," he says. "My family was not happy with me."

His presentation was wildly successful, and Kaminsky later went to Black Hat Asia to give his talk there as well. "I graduated on a Thursday, then I was in Tijuana for ToorCon, and then I landed in Singapore. I was on my victory tour, with a couple thousand dollars from my grandma from graduation. I was with the smartest people I'd ever met in my life."

Now he's considered one of the top guys at Black Hat. He still presents his Black Ops talk at each Black Hat USA, and this year's topic is "Design Reviewing the Web," focusing on Web 2.0 security. He's looking at design bugs, which he cautions are not the same as pure vulnerabilities: "The system is doing exactly what it was built to do... People expect it to authenticate silently, and have a port open for everyone. But they don't expect the bad guy to use it to do something malicious."

He worries about DNS rebinding, an example of a design flaw that can have serious consequences if manipulated nefariously. "I'm working on code that, if you come to my Website, I get to treat your browser as a VPN concentrator and browse your corporate network -- with whatever magic IPsec credentials your machine has, incidentally."

But Kaminsky doesn't take his work too seriously. He considers his work a grown-up chance to play with some pretty cool, albeit influential, toys. He says he's been a geek as long as he can remember: He started writing in Basic and Logo at age five, programming his Tandy "Trash-80" computer, he says. "I could tell the turtle to walk around, and make it do spirograph patterns. I liked the pretty pictures, too."

Oh, and Kaminsky's family definitely approves of his career moves these days: As a matter of fact, his 80-something year old grandmother will be in Vegas again this year for her fourth Black Hat USA -- no, not to win back Kaminsky's college graduation money, but because she enjoys his presentations as well as occasionally being mistaken for a hacker herself.

Personality Bytes

  • Different-color hat: "I actually compose music, though I haven't done so recently. I play piano, but not so well. I can compose much better than I can actually play... I tend to build wildly interlinking melodies."

  • Phobias: "Pathological liars scare me."

  • Worst day ever at work: "Let's just say a demo failed, in front of a rather... large audience. There's a reason every slide deck I assemble has enough content to demonstrate whatever I'm working on."

  • Pet peeve: "Having to weaponize the obvious."

  • After hours: "Travel. I've been lucky enough to meet smart people the world over, and it's always nice to see them. Past that, role playing (Final Fantasy) and puzzle games (Lumines)."

  • Favorite hangout: "Seattle has more hackers than any other place I've ever been in my life."

  • Recently loaded onto his iPod: "Binary Finary's 'Melomania Deluxe'; Snow Patrol, 'Shut Your Eyes'; Derek Oren and Jeremy Robson, 'Final Fantasy VI Cantata For Dancing, Mors ego sum mortis OC Remix.' "

  • PC or Mac? "TRS-80 Color Computer 3."

  • Ride: "2002 Toyota Corolla with 32,000 miles. I drive to and from work. I'll be interested in car hacking when I find a way to ping every vehicle on earth."

  • Next career: "UI [user interface] designer."

    — Kelly Jackson Higgins, Senior Editor, Dark Reading

  • Black Hat Inc.
  • Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO)
  • IOActive Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. 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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