Avenues of Attack

A computer system is attacked for two general reasons: it is specifically targeted by the attacker, or it is a target of opportunity. In the first case, the attacker has chosen the target not because of the hardware or software the organization is running but for another reason, such as a political reason. For example, an individual in one country might attack a government system in another country to gather secret information. Or the attacker might target an organization as part of a "hacktivist" attack-the attacker could deface the web site of a company that sells fur coats because the attacker believes using animals in this way is unethical, for example. Perpetrating some sort of electronic fraud is another reason a specific system might be targeted for attack. Whatever the reason, an attack of this nature is usually begun before the hardware and software of the organization is known.

The Steps in an Attack

Attackers are like bank robbers in the sense that they undergo an organized process when performing an attack. The steps an attacker takes in attempting to penetrate a targeted network are similar to those that a security consultant performs during a penetration test. The following outlines the common steps of the hacking process:

1. Reconnaissance (also known as profiling)

2. Scanning

3. Researching vulnerability

4. Performing the attack


The attacker can gather as much information about the organization as possible via several means, including studying the organization's own web site, looking for postings on news groups, or consulting resources such as the Securities and Exchange Commission's (SEC's) Filings & Forms (EDGAR) web site (www.sec.gov/edgar.shtml). A number of different financial reports are available through the EDGAR site that can provide information about an organization that can prove useful for an attack, especially for social engineering attacks. The attacker wants information about IP addresses, phone numbers, names of important individuals, and what networks the organization maintains. The attacker can also use tools such as Whois.Net (www.whois.net) to link IP addresses to registrants.


The next step begins the technical part of an attack that determines what target systems are available and active. This is often done using a ping sweep, which simply sends a ping (an Internet Control Message Protocol echo request) to the target machine. If the machine responds, the attacker knows it is reachable. His next step is often to perform a port scan to help identify which ports are open, which indicates which services may be running on the target machine. The program nmap is the de facto standard for ping sweeping and port scanning. Running nmap with the -sv option will perform a banner grab in an attempt to determine the version of the software behind open ports. An alternative GUI program for Windows is SuperScan

Researching Vulnerability

After the hacker has a list of software running on the systems, he will start researching the Internet for vulnerabilities associated with that software. Numerous web sites provide information on vulnerabilities in specific application programs and operating systems. This information is valuable to administrators who need to know what problems exist and how to patch them In addition to information about specific vulnerabilities, some sites also provide tools that can be used to exploit the vulnerabilities. An attacker can search for known vulnerabilities and tools to exploit them, download the information and tools, then use them against a site. If the administrator for the targeted system has not installed the correct patch, the attack may be successful; if the patch has been installed, the attacker will move on to the next possible vulnerability. If the administrator has installed all the appropriate patches so that all known vulnerabilities have been addressed, the attacker may have to resort to a brute-force attack, which involves calculating user ID and password combinations. Unfortunately, this type of attack, which could be easily prevented, sometimes proves successful.

Performing the Attack

Now the attacker is ready to execute an attack, which could have many different results- the system could crash, information could be stolen off the system, or a web site could be defaced. Hackers often install a backdoor and build their own user accounts with administrative privileges so that even when you do patch the system, they can still gain access.

This discussion of attack steps is by no means complete. A system can be attacked in many different ways. The driving force behind the type of attack is the attacker's objective; if activism can be accomplished by website defacement, he may consider this a sufficient attack. If the target is more sinister, such as intellectual property theft or identity theft, data theft may be the hacker's object and hence guide his attack.

Minimizing Possible Avenues of Attack

By understanding the steps an attacker can take, you can limit the exposure of your system and minimize the possible avenues an attacker can exploit. Your first step to minimize possible attacks is to ensure that all patches for the operating system and applications are installed. Many security problems, such as viruses and worms, exploit known vulnerabilities for which patches actually exist. These attacks are successful only because administrators have not taken the appropriate actions to protect their systems.

The next step is to limit the services that are running on the system. As mentioned in earlier chapters, limiting the number of services to those that are absolutely necessary provides two safeguards: it limits the possible avenues of attack (the possible services for which a vulnerability may exist and be exploited), and it reduces the number of services the administrator has to worry about patching in the first place. Another step is to limit public disclosure of private information about your organization and its computing resources. Since the attacker is after this information, don't make it easy to obtain.