Reprinted from Ziff
Davis Smart Business Magazine (formerly PC Computing)
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By Christopher Null
Jack Stevens knew his company was being hacked. Someone was snooping around in sensitive information on the company network. So Stevens (not his real name) called John Klein’s Rent-A-Hacker (http://www.rent-a-hacker.com), a security consulting firm. Klein leapt into action. Klein logged onto the client company’s network and quickly sized up the situation. The intruder had exploited a common Solaris server bug. Klein immediately found what had gone on. “The trick was not just blocking them out, but finding out who they were,” Klein says. “But it’s delicate. It’s like a chess game: First mistake loses.”
some 300 freelance computer security experts-better known as hackers- throughout the world.
He handpicks a specialist to fit each call he gets. In this case, he tapped
Kelvin Wong, a top operative who also happens to be his company’s chief
operating officer. Wong back-traced the intruder’s connection to a Canadian
@Home network, which tracked him to his cable modem. To confuse his pursuers,
the offender launched several denial-of-service attacks. But eventually the intruder lost the chess game and was
handed over to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. By acting quickly and
returning the attack against its intruder, the victimized company foiled the
hacker and prevented any real damage. In the dot-corn era more than ever, the
best defense is a good offense.
In the wake of recent
security fiascoes like the theft of 350,000 credit card numbers from CD Universe
and the rampant distributed denial-of-service attacks on top Web sites this
spring, hacker-for-hire services are thriving. Andersen Consulting, IBM,
Pinkertons, and even software developers like Internet Security Systems are
offering what they call security auditing and other ethical hacking services.
So who needs a
security consultant? Everybody.
percent of all systems are insecure and hackable,” according to Wong. “It’s
not a question of whether they can be hacked or not, it’s a matter of when and
looks spot-on. In March, the Computer Security Institute (wwwgocsi.com) took
its fifth annual survey of large corporations and government agencies. Ninety
percent said that computer security breaches had occurred within the last 12 months, and 70 percent
classified those incidents as serious-constituting theft of proprietary
information, financial fraud, and sabotage. The total bill? More than $265 million in
The numbers are
sobering, and they make Rent-A-Hacker’s $175-and-up hourly rate look like
security companies like Internet Security Systems (www.iss.net) tend to offer a
wider range of security services. Mark Sims, ISS’s vice president of managed
security services, leads the company’s outsourced firewall, virtual
private network, and antivirus management services in addition to its ethical
hacking services (also known as penetration testing). ISS’s ePatrol Internet
scanning service scans company systems starting at $10,000 per year;
subscription cost varies with network size.
internal staff for security jobs, eschewing the consultants Rent-A-Hacker uses.
The reason, Sims says, is because it’s crucial to build trust between ISS
and its clients. ISS does background checks, Sims says, but “finding out if
someone was a [malicious] hacker or not is virtually impossible. We’re
performing the same actions a hacker would; we’re just not exploiting them.
We hire people and educate them on hacker techniques.
president and CEO of Pinkertons’ Information Risk Group,
says his company provides a full range of information security and risk
management services, including penetration testing. Pinkertons employs its own
specialists and uses partners to cover specific areas of expertise, thought the
company policy is to “never employ someone with a history of [malicious]
hacking.” Spain declined to discuss pricing, saying fees are always negotiated
with customers individually.
top-of-the-line security consulting, IBM’s Ethical Hacking Service offers
all kinds of security assistance, from design and implementation to maintenance.
Al Decker, managing principal of security and privacy services for IBM’s
Global Services division (www.ibm.com/security/services), says that
penetration testing is just a small part of his company’s offerings. On
average, clients pay from $25,000 to $50,000 for a typical contract.
Klein says his boutique service is better, pointing to the big guys’ higher
fees and saying they lack the kind of experience his contractors have.
“We differ from most
in the fact that we cater to small businesses and individuals,” he says. “We
see things more from a real-world perspective. We know there are 14-year-old
kids out there who can hack and do things well beyond what someone with a
computer science degree sitting in an office would ever even dream of. We know
the tools those kids use, and their methods are beyond conventional thinking.”
To get beyond that
conventional thinking, Klein says he calls on his 300-plus contractors in the
hacker community each with a specialty-a particular operating system or a
“I match up the
skills of my hackers with the particulars of the job,” he says. “It’s
impossible for any one person, firm, or software program to cover all the
bases, so almost invariably [the hackers] are successful.”
Klein says that the
prepackaged security scanners (like Webtrends Security Analyzer or Network
Associates CyberCop) simply don’t do the job because they focus only on common
security holes and can’t invent creative attacks like real hackers can.
“Most of the time, what trips up system administrators is
that they think like system administrators and not like hackers,” Klein says.
“We spend a lot of time teaching our clients to think like hackers.”
Put on Your
Thinking like a hacker
means knowing what a hacker wants. Some want data, says Klein, but “the real
hacker challenge comes from inventing a new way in. That’s what we find: new
and creative ways to exploit a system.”
What common holes do
hackers find in systems? There’s no standard answer, according to Klein,
though “some of the most egregious holes we have found were the simplest
things.” Wong adds that hackers come up with zero-day
(that is, brand-new) tactics all the time. Occasionally he finds systems
that have been backdoored-hackers create secret entryways by modifying the
software installed on a server.
Klein and Wong say
that the biggest Internet security holes today are not found on Windows. Sun
Solaris and Linux power a huge portion of servers connected to the Web, and
security on these systems is typically spotty. However, ISS’s Sims says that
the most common hole his company finds involves Microsoft Windows NT running
Internet Information Server.
“The Web server that
comes out of the box has many security problems,” says Sims, adding that no
one bothers to apply the patches.
IBM’s Decker points
to a more pedestrian security issue as the most widespread. “Unfortunately,
the most common security holes are default passwords and out-of-the-box
settings,” he says, followed by failure to do basic maintenance or upgrade
to new, more secure software packages.
So what about the
question of hiring a supposedly reformed hacker to muck around on your network
as an invited guest? Would you trust a criminal, even a rehabilitated one, with
your most precious company secrets?
Former hackers and
their employers universally insist that potential clients have nothing to worry
“I have taken great
pains to allow my clients to trust my company as well as my contractors,” says
Klein. “I sign an all-encompassing nondisclosure agreement with each client,
as well as provide them with copies of the nondisclosure agreement I have
pre-executed with each contractor.” Every company we talked to also stressed
the importance of thorough background checks.
But while Klein says
his insistence is genuine, his NDA recognizes that even he can’t guarantee the
identity of his contractors: “Rent-A-Hacker hereby warrants that it has made its
best-faith effort to verify the legal identity of its subcontractors, however,
Rent-A-Hacker makes no warranties concerning
the validity, accuracy, quality, or completeness of any of the representations
made by any subcontractors.”
But Wong pooh-poohs
any notion that hired guns have a hidden agenda. The ex-hacker is pragmatic
about the idea of going beyond the scope of his assignment, saying simply, “I
could be sued.”
services like Rent-A-Hacker are just the beginning. Companies are learning
that they need more comprehensive protection.
Chief among the
outsourced security companies is Counterpane Internet Security (wwwcounterpane.com),
founded by noted cryptographer Bruce Schneier (see “Hot Seat,” April 2000,
page 42). Counterpane installs hardware on its customers’ premises that
patrols the network for security violations. At one base of operations,
Counterpane keeps tabs on clients’ networks 24 hours a day, and the company
can act the moment something suspicious arises.
skeptical about his competition: “What hire-a-hacker services do is run a
tiger team against your system, which is good for finding out what the
vulnerabilities are. What we do is alarm monitoring…24 - 7, real-time.”
To better illustrate
the difference, Schneier offers a physical analogy: “You might want to hire
someone to break into your warehouse to see if you’re vulnerable, but that
doesn’t mean you’re going to fire your burglar alarm company. Both are
valuable, but certainly a burglar alarm is more valuable. Experts are expensive,
and they don’t tell you if you’re safe or not. They tell you whether that
particular expert was able to break in on that particular day using that
particular set of tools.”