Why Hackers Found Easy Targets At IMF, Citigroup

Security experts say simple tactics succeeded in breaching major organizations in recent weeks because companies failed to conduct their own penetration testing.

Mathew J. Schwartz, Contributor

June 15, 2011

3 Min Read

10 Massive Security Breaches

10 Massive Security Breaches

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Slideshow: 10 Massive Security Breaches

How are attackers exploiting major organizations? RSA said it was felled by an advanced persistent threat (APT). More recently, news accounts have said that the International Monetary Fund and Citigroup were exploited by "sophisticated" attacks.

But security experts say that at least by today's standards, most of these attacks were far from advanced, except perhaps in their simplicity.

For starters, statistically speaking, that's because few attacks pass the sophistication threshold. According to the 2011 Data Breach Investigations Report from Verizon, "only 8% of data breaches represented a 'high' attack difficulty," said Rob Rachwald, director of security strategy for Imperva, in a blog post.

Furthermore, looking closely at recent attacks, most involved spear phishing (RSA, IMF) or URL hacking (Citigroup), neither of which is very sophisticated. In terms of spear phishing, that goes for state-sponsored attacks that target specific victims--Rachwald's definition of an APT--as well as automated attacks launched en masse and aimed at a lowest common denominator, such as using an email purporting to offer the image of a dead Bin Laden.

"With APT, they are more of a 'one off' tailor-made nature, while in automation it is a 'one size fits all' approach," he said. "The APT attitude costs much more--which makes it only relevant for very motivated parties. But make no mistake: It isn't very sophisticated."

Lack of sophistication also featured in the Citigroup breach. For that exploit, attackers "leapfrogged between the accounts of different Citi customers by inserting various account numbers into a string of text located in the browser's address bar," an unnamed security expert told The New York Times.

In other words, attackers took advantage of the fact that the Citi Card website failed to hide actual account numbers in the URL string. "It would have been hard to prepare for this type of vulnerability," said the security expert, who's familiar with the investigation.

In fact, it would have been easy to prepare for this type of vulnerability, known as "Insecure Direct Object References," which is so widespread that it ranks as the fourth most dangerous vulnerability on the Open Web Application Security Project top 10 list of Web application vulnerabilities.

Perhaps Citigroup's developers and automated code-scanning tools failed to spot the use of real account-related information in URL strings. But that's where penetration testing is supposed to fill in, and it's obvious from numerous recent breaches, involving Citigroup, Sony, and almost any site exploited by LulzSec, that "pen testing" wasn't employed.

"When you look at how the breaches are occurring, it's like penetration testing 101--ethical hackers are taught to test computer security on the good guy side," Alex Cox, principal research analyst at NetWitness, said in an interview last month. (NetWitness, which was acquired by RSA in April, doesn't offer penetration testing.)

"So, a lot of times people aren't applying the idea of, let's hire someone to break in and see if he can do something realistically. But if you've got a good pen-test team, that's a really good way to understand where your vulnerabilities are," he said.

Or to reverse Cox's advice, by not conducting penetration testing on their Web applications, businesses won't know where all of their vulnerabilities are, and thus won't be prepared to repel attackers. Which, like recent attacks, doesn't seem very sophisticated.

Black Hat USA 2011 presents a unique opportunity for members of the security industry to gather and discuss the latest in cutting-edge research. It happens July 30-Aug. 4 in Las Vegas. Find out more and register.

About the Author(s)

Mathew J. Schwartz


Mathew Schwartz served as the InformationWeek information security reporter from 2010 until mid-2014.

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