Interop session details the anatomy of a hacker attack, step-by-step

You can't defend against the cyber enemy if you don't know his movements or how he thinks.

Sanjay Bavisi, president of security certification, training, and education organization EC-Council, at Interop Las Vegas next week will demonstrate step-by-step how a typical black-hat hacker executes an attack -- from reconnaissance to covering his tracks -- in the "Seven Habits of Highly Malicious Hackers" presentation on Thursday.

Bavisi also will provide tips on how to protect yourself from each step, as well as a peek into the hacker psyche. He says he'll also show a case study of a hack with national security implications, and how ethical hacking is a successful way to stem attacks.

Here's the trajectory of a typical attack, according to Bavisi:

1. Footprinting
Basically reconnaissance, where an attacker gathers information about his target. "I'll show how hackers use social engineering to gain information, and how they try to map out the network of their victim," Bavisi says. Freeware footprinting tools such as Whois and Web the Ripper are popular tools for gathering intelligence on the network, he says.

Attackers also frequent newsgroups, the Internet Archive, and other sites for bits and pieces of information on a target that can yield important information about its operations, and possibly, its security.

"But the best footprinting is social engineering," says Bavisi, who will also demonstrate some footprinting tools in action.

2. Scanning
Vulnerability scanning is the next step, where the attacker runs things like Nmap and SuperScan to pinpoint any vulnerabilities in the victim's network. In this step, the attacker goes into stealth mode, using proxy servers, for instance, to avoid being traced or getting caught, Bavisi explains.

3. Exploiting known vulnerabilities
Armed with information on where the weak spots are, the attacker then launches the exploits. "They could breach the defense mechanisms using tools like [Immunity] Canvas or Metasploit," Bavisi says.

"The most common question I get is people saying 'I have AV and a firewall -- I should be secure,'" he says. "Few understand how an attacker can easily evade AV and a firewall just by understanding the digital signatures most common Trojans have... and permeate the network defenses."

4. Creating viruses for the attack
Once the attacker has figured out things like which ports are open, and where known vulnerabilities in your network lie, he can unleash the exploit and get inside. "Virus construction kits make it simple for them to write viruses."

"Very few people understand what's happening here and how they can defend their organization," he adds.

5. Keylogging and escalation
Most attacks are for financial gain, so the attacker needs a way to get inside servers and workstations. He plants a keylogger to record keystrokes and get logons and passwords, for instance. He runs privilege-escalation tools to set the access to "admin" rather than just an end user. "Then he can own the system and control it," Bavisi says.

6. Inserting a backdoor
Once inside, the attacker needs to keep an entryway for himself in case the admin or root passwords get changed. His communiqués with the backdoor program look like legitimate network traffic, so no one's the wiser.

7. Erasing evidence
In the final phase of the attack, the hacker covers his tracks by deleting logs, shutting down logging processes, and by replacing any processes or programs that could trigger suspicion. He can replace basic system utilities with a rootkit, for instance, that looks like a utility to the system admin, according to Bavisi.

"I'll be showing how hackers use tools to eliminate evidence," he says.

Bavisi says he will also demonstrate at Interop how easy it is for an attacker to create a Trojan using a virus construction kit. "I'll show how they go about compiling a Trojan for a specific purpose, such as for formatting a hard disk, copying an address book, or for whatever I want."

— Kelly Jackson Higgins, Senior Editor, Dark Reading

About the Author(s)

Kelly Jackson Higgins, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Editor-in-Chief 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 Magazine, Virginia Business magazine, and other major media properties. Jackson Higgins was recently selected as one of the Top 10 Cybersecurity Journalists in the US, and named as one of Folio's 2019 Top Women in Media. She began her career as a sports writer in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and earned her BA at William & Mary. Follow her on Twitter @kjhiggins.

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