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It is debatable, if hacking can be ethical or not, the term "Hacking" over time has been associated with destructive activity.
These are some of the terms used in the context of hacking which provides better clarity, Hacker is somebody who enjoys learning hacking for a defensive purpose; an ethical hacker is the security professional who exercises his skills for a defensive purpose. The term Cracker refers to a person who uses his hacking skills for destructive purpose.
The ethical question here is in regard to the physical activity of hacking which is sometimes hard to differentiate from cracking. The main difference being, Ethical hacker just identifies vulnerabilities and does not exploit them unlike a cracker.
Ethical hacking is the process adopted by ethical hackers to discover the vulnerabilities existing in information systems operating environments.
With the growth of internet, computer security has become a major concern for business. Organizations need ethical hackers who can think like a cracker to simulate a real life hacking scenario; they make use of same tools and techniques of that of crackers without damaging / compromising the sensitive information thereby maintaining the integrity and confidentiality of the organization.
Ethical hacker should have excellent programming and networking skills. They evaluate the security of target and update the organization regarding the discovered vulnerabilities along with recommendations to mitigate them.
Anatomy of a Hack
Initially, "Hacking" meant having extraordinary skills to break into the system. However today there are lots of automated freeware tools available on internet making it possible for anybody having the desire to hack succeed in breaking into the system.
These are the 5 phases every hacker must know.
Figure 1: Anatomy of an Attack
Reconnaissance is the preparatory phase where an attacker gathers information about the target system prior to launching the attack. This phase might also involve network scanning either internal or external without any authorization.
One of the ways for gathering information during this phase may involve "Social engineering". A social engineer is a person who smooth-talks and persuades people to reveal personal / sensitive information such as passwords, security policies etc. Social engineering is one of the easiest ways to hack as it requires no technical skills and one of the hardest forms of attack to defend against as humans are the weakest link in the security chain. All security measures taken care by the organization goes in vain when the employees get "social engineered". Detecting social engineering attacks are difficult, as there is no tool to detect such attempts, in most of the cases victim themselves are not aware having revealed sensitive information. "Rebecca" and "Jessica" are the common terms used, which refer to people who are easy target for social engineering attacks such as a receptionist or a support executive.
"Dumpster diving" is another way of gathering information. It is the process of looking for discarded sensitive information in an organization thrash. It is one of the effective ways of gathering information as it may provide attackers with even more sensitive information such as username, password, ATM slip, social security number, Bank statements.
It is important that an organization has appropriate policies in place to protect their assets and also provide proper guidance to employees on the same.
Reconnaissance technique can be classified into active and passive reconnaissance.
In passive reconnaissance, the attacker does not interact with the system directly but uses social engineering or dumpster diving as a mean to gather information. Where as in a active reconnaissance, the attacker makes use of tools for port scanning, network scanning to get the details of the application, operating system etc. Often reconnaissance phase overlaps with the scanning phase.
Scanning precedes the actual attack and is one of the important phase of information gathering where in the attacker gathers information about the targets IP address , operating system , system architecture , services running in the system in order to find various ways to intrude into targets system. The strategy to launch the attack is based on the gathered information. The risk of an organization is considered high in the scanning phase as it enables access to the network.
Different types of scanning are
Port Scanning: Procedure for identifying the open ports and the services running on the target system.
Network Scanning -Procedure for identifying IP addresses, active hosts on a network either to attack them or as a network security assessment.
Vulnerability Scanning -Automates method to identify the known vulnerabilities present in the system and the network.
Some of the important tools used during this phase are Nmap which is used for port scanning; it also offers a variety of advanced features such as remote OS detection.
Nessus is a vulnerability scanner which detects the local flaws, uninstalled patches and weakness in network hosts. Nessus has a security vulnerability database which is updated on a daily basis. It carries out development of security checks for recent security holes.
CEH scanning methodology
The diagram below shows the sequence of steps followed in order to scan any network although scanning method may differ based on the objective of the attack. The Attacker starts with checking for the live systems in the network. Once he finds the live system, looks for any open port present in the system to identify the services running on it. The next phase is OS fingerprinting which is nothing but gathering operating system information about the target system. Post which the attacker scans for vulnerabilities present in the target operating system and exploit it. The attacker may also choose to probe the network by making use of proxies.
Figure 2: CEH Scanning Methodology
This is one of the most important phases for an attack as this is where the actual attack is planted. Therefore the business risk is highest in this phase. Although not a mandatory phase as an attacker need not always gain access to cause damage like in denial of service attacks.
The main aim in this phase is to obtain elevated privileges such as system privilege to execute commands to access sensitive information.
Once the attacker gains access into the system or the network, he tries to retain his "ownership" on the compromised system and periodically attack it. Typically in this phase the attacker tries to install Key loggers to capture the keyboard strokes, sniffers to capture network traffic, rootkits at the kernel level to gain super user access and Trojan horse to gain repeated backdoor access, also download the password files to access the system at a later time. Once the Trojans are in place, the attacker can assume to have gained total control of the system.
During this phase the attackers might even harden the system against other attackers by fixing the vulnerability which allowed them to access the system or the network.
This is where the attacker tries to cover the evidence of his activities for various reasons like maintaining access or legal actions. During this phase the attacker deletes the system logs preventing the system administrator from monitoring the unusual activity, Rootkits are installed as they are effective in covering tracks and also because in some cases they disable logging.
Other techniques like Steganography which is used to hide the data in a image or a file, are made used by the attacker in order to cover tracks
Typical Hacking Techniques
There are several ways an attacker can gain access into the system such as
Operating system attacks
Application Level attacks
Shrink wrap code error
Google Hacking is the art of creating complex search queries in order to gather information of the target system. Google is the primary tool used for Google hacking. Advanced Google operators are used to filter information.
Google hacking database identifies files containing password, sensitive directories, vulnerable web pages, error messages containing sensitive information, pages containing firewall logs etc
Figure 3: Google advanced search option
Basics of Google Hacking
Below are some of the basic ways Google is used for hacking
Directory Listing Attack: Webpage often accidentally displays files and directories that exist on the web server when top level index file is missing or invalid as directory listing is not taken care of. Most of the times they do not prevent users from downloading files or accessing sensitive information without authorization. Locating directory listing in Google is very straight forward.
A query of Intitle: Index.of is the universal search for directory listing
Figure 4: Google hacking for Directory Listing
An attacker can make use of this information to access sensitive information of the application.
Error messages can disclose a lot of sensitive information about the target like the operating system, network architecture, user information etc.
A query of intitle: error fetched 4,070,000 results
Figure 5: Google hacking for Information Disclosure
Below is the error message displayed by an application.
Figure 6: Error message displayed from Google hacking query
The error message reveals sensitive information about the target system such as the application is built in asp.net, IIS 4.0, MYSQL database. An attacker can now launch attacks that are vulnerable to these technologies.
Here are some of the Google search syntax's to crawl for Sensitive information such as passwords
filetype: xls inurl: "password.xls" -Looks for username and password in ms excel format.
intitle: "Index of" master.passwd -index the master password page
index of / backup- Looks for the index backup file on server)
intitle: index.of passwd.bak - Looks for the index backup password files.
intitle: "Index of" pwd.db- Looks for database password files
inurl: "user.xls" intext: "password"- Looks for url that save username and passwords in spread sheet files
Site Digger, which explores Google's cache to look for susceptibilities ,errors, security loopholes on website and Gooscan which automates queries against Google search engine are some of the other tools used for Google hacking.
Certified Ethical Hacker Certification Course (CEH)
CEH is the professional certification provided by the international council E-Commerce consultants (EC-Council).
Figure 6: CEH Process
Apart from EC council, there are other certified hacking course taken by some well known Hackers like Ankit Fadia Certified Ethical Hacker (AFCEH) and also some other vendors like karROX Certified Ethical Hacker Course.
Ethical Hacking Services
As part of ethical hacking services, Penetration testing which is nothing but creating a real life hacking scenario and trying to break into the system is offered by various vendors. Different tools, technique and methodologies are used to gain entry into that application. The service offered could be either a black box testing (where only the application URL is given) or a grey box testing (where a dummy user account with least privilege is created for the pen testers).Penetration testing will be carried over by a team of dedicated ethical hackers.
Some of the key benefits of penetration testing are
Find security loopholes which cannot be found through functional testing.
Identify business logic flaws which cannot be detected by Code Review.
Real world simulation of hacking thereby revealing soft targets for possible attacks.
Meet Regulatory Compliance like PCI, HIPAA, GLBA and ISO regulatory compliance.
Reduction in web application development security flaws.
Development of effective mitigation strategies based on your specific environment
The Pen test report provides recommended remediation's for the identified attack.
Follows the industry standards for security such as OWASP TOP 10 and SANS 25.
Commercial tools like Cenzic, Acunetix, and IBM Rational Appscan are some of the widely used tools for Pen Test.
Social Engineering Testing is offered as complementary service by some vendors which tests the organizations "human firewall" by gaining access to an organization and its assets by tricking key personnel over communications medium such as telephone, email, chat, bulletin boards, etc.
Related Knowledge Briefs or References
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In recent times Web applications are the target of various forms of attacks. According to a Gartner report 70% of the security attacks are targeted on the web application. Competition is so high that enterprises can't ignore the risk associated with their vulnerable application. Loss incurred could vary from monetary losses to loss of credibility. In certain cases it could mean end of business. You cannot stop an attacker from hacking, the only thing you can do is make it harder to get in.
Ethical hackers are the security professionals who use their hacking skills for defensive purpose. The process of ethical hacking would depend on, what is that organization is trying to protect, against whom and how much or resources the organization is ready to spend. The hacking tools are meant for research and educational purpose only and should not be used for destructive purpose.
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