They can pose as copier repairmen, IT consultants, or fire marshals. They can steal a passcard, pick the lock, or simply walk in with a group of employees. They can borrow a password written on a Post-It, make a copy of a key, or simply plug into a network jack in an empty conference room.
They have two things in common: They've been on your network, and you probably never knew it.
"Analog hackers," sometimes called "physical hackers" or "social engineers," are among the industry's most subtly dangerous, yet least known, threats to IT security. At least, we think they are: Despite extensive research, we were unable to find any definitive industry research that shows the extent of the threat, or how fast it might be growing.
"There's a whole community built around it, yet you hardly ever see any real discussion about it anywhere," says Leonard Gallion, a physical security consultant, who also serves as IT manager for a Dallas-based nonprofit organization. "I'm not sure there is any data about it."
That's one of the reasons why physical hacking is so attractive to attackers -- it's potentially highly lucrative, yet frequently overlooked, says Steve Stasiukonis, vice president and founder of Secure Network Technologies, a penetration testing firm that specializes in social engineering and physical security.
"There are three kinds of hackers: the electronic kind that creates problems on the network, usually from another country; the script kiddie, who's just doing it for fun; and the white-collar criminal," says Stasiukonis. "If I was going to make a life as a white-collar criminal, I wouldn't do it electronically. I'd walk in the front door or the back door. It's easier, the money's better, and there's no firewall log to trace you back to." (See Social Engineering, the Shoppers' Way.)
Unlike house burglars, who prefer to work when no one is home, physical hackers usually operate in the middle of the day, taking advantage of slipshod door locks and gullible employees. "We had one job recently where we posed as IT consultants, and one of the staffers actually gave us her username and password, then helped us navigate the system so we could find what we were looking for," Stasiukonis says.
Physical attackers often use social engineering techniques such as impersonation to gain entry into a site, noted Jim Stickley, CTO at penetration testing company TraceSecurity, in a recent conference presentation. Typically, the attackers will work in pairs: one to keep employees engaged and one who finds excuses to wander around the building unescorted, he said.
Some of the common disguises used by physical attackers are IT consultants or technicians; copier, air conditioning, or other repair services; exterminators; or even fire marshals on a supposed safety check, Stickley said.
Gallion, who specializes in doors, locks, and physical entry systems, says that once they're inside, analog hackers can often find their way through locked server room doors, even if those doors are protected by an electronic smart card or token.
"A lockpick doesn't know whether there's an electronic ID system or not," Gallion says. "If the lock is poor, or there is a way to block the door open, you can sometimes get in with just a few office supplies or a credit card." Many companies buy expensive doors and locks but fail to recognize badly-hung doors or access panels in the floors or ceilings that allow attackers to go right over them, he says.
In his presentation, Stickley said that he has found a wealth of sensitive information, including user identities and passwords, by simply dumpster-diving on unshredded company trash. "Shred, shred, shred," he said.
Once inside a corporate building, attackers can usually collect more data or do greater damage than they could via electronic means, experts say. A visit to the data center, for example, could yield non-encrypted backup tapes that contain a whole host of information that might not be available online, Gallion observes. And, if they use lockpicks or other non-damaging methods of entry, an analog hacker might get in and out of a physical location without anyone knowing that a break-in had occurred, he says.
Stasiukonis agrees. "I think one reason you don't hear about it more is that [physical hackers] don't leave a trail, if they do it right," he says. "It happens to some companies and they never find out about it."
So what can companies do about it? There are some technological solutions to the physical hacking problem, such as better doors, surveillance cameras, and alarm systems, Gallion observes. "A lot of analog hackers will be deterred if they know there's video surveillance on the other side of the door," he says. "It's just like in the world of electronic hacking: You can't just put up a firewall and forget it. You need multiple systems if you want to ensure security." (See Separate Physical, Electronic Security.)
But in the end, it is employee training that works best, Stasiukonis says. "Fixing machines is easy," he says. "Fixing people is hard." Employees should be trained to watch for visitors who behave suspiciously and challenge strangers whom they have not seen before.
"Physical security has to be a collective effort, or it won't work," Stasiukonis says. "You can't leave it up to half a dozen guys in IT."
Tim Wilson, Site Editor, Dark Reading
Tim Wilson is Editor in Chief and co-founder of Dark Reading.com, UBM Tech's online community for information security professionals. He is responsible for managing the site, assigning and editing content, and writing breaking news stories. Wilson has been recognized as one ... View Full Bio