Question of the Day: How do I become a security specialist (ethical hacker, malware researcher, digital forensics, etc.)

First things, do you like solving puzzles, do you like a challenge, can you stare at a screen for many hours, poring through code, logs, etc?

Were you the sort of child that liked to take things apart to understand how they worked, and more importantly could you put them back together again, without having left over pieces, and did the thing still work at least as well as it did before?

Do you look at things and think, well that should work as expected if I follow the logic, but, if I do this instead, it will bypass that logic and let me access another part of the site/code or infrastructure?

Or, maybe when hearing about a new threat, you quickly see how it works and how you can either slow it down, or stop it dead in its tracks using simple techniques or processes, or by using an existing security control in a different way?

If you answered yes to several or more of the above, then you might have the right mindset for a career in cyber security as an ethical hacker, social engineer, malware analyst or in digital forensics and incident response. If you didn’t answer yes to one or more of the above, don’t worry, you can still work very successfully in other areas of cyber security, just probably not as an ethical hacker or in incident response or malware research.

“If you have the right mindset, you can be taught the skills,
but it is very hard to teach a mindset…”

So, if you do have the right mindset, how should you develop the required skills to get into cyber security?

First, decide, do you like technology or the human side of the problem. That will be your first step. If you are lucky you might be able to do both…

The next step is dependant on the answer to the first question. If technology, then you need to become very familiar with as many operating system, applications, programming languages as you can (you don’t have to be proficient in all of them to start off, just pick one or two for starters).

If the human side is more your bag, then learn about cons, social engineering, and psychology in as much depth as you can. Then try some of the techniques on friends and family (without breaking the law).

After that, find a mentor, someone that is skilled in the discipline you want to learn, soak up as much knowledge from them as you can.

Read everything you can on the subjects, if available, go on courses, go to events, conferences, local meets to meet likeminded people, be they newbies like you, or security professionals with a decade or more of real world experience to mine for tips and tricks, etc.

If you are looking at doing malware research, ethical hacking or forensics, you will find lots of CTF and analysis challenges that are freely available, do as many as you can; when you fail (and you will) learn from the failure, it won’t be the last time. Even the best fail often, but they always learn as much (if not more)  from the setbacks ass the successes. Often doing security work is hard and even boring, but when you solve a problem (reverse a malware and understand how it works and how to stop it, or gain access to a system or network, or identify how a bad guy or girl got in, the rush is amazing).

Expect to have to start in a junior role, maybe even working on an IT Helpdesk, doing patching, hardening, server/system builds, etc. We all have to start somewhere.

I started by building and configuring PC’s (building them and installing the OS and applications, configuring them, etc.) Then I moved on to reviewing hardware and software for the same company (doing research, etc.), then I got involved with security (malware at first), worked on the IT Helpdesk, did AIX support (a Unix flavour), and finally I built and ran the Internet Security team (defence, as well as ethical hacking). It takes 5-10 years to become proficient enough with a wide range of operating systems, applications, hardware, networking, security tooling, attack methods, malware analysis, and so on. Be patient, don’t take shortcuts, as it will not help you in the long run.

You don’t need degrees or certificates to do well in this area, you do need the right mindset, be willing to learn and experiment, and work long and odd hours, as the job will not be your usual 9-5 one. I left school at 16 and have no degrees or diplomas and have only been on two cyber security courses in over 31 years of working in this field. (One on advanced hacking and the other on advanced digital forensics, both of which I attended to confirm that what I had learnt and been doing for over 20 years (at that time), being mainly self-taught, was right after all, it was! In fact I taught the course instructors a few things that they didn’t know)

Be very wary of the problem of stress; this is a major risk when working in cyber security, especially in Incident Response. Burn out is quite common, if you don’t manage stress correctly.

One thing I will strongly recommend is to look back in history, see what has happened in the past, both from breaches, attack methods, malware types and tricks, etc. There is very little that is “new”, most of the things you will encounter will build on old (tried and trusted) tricks and methodology; usually just updated to the latest OS versions, applications, etc. or re-used to take advantage of the new victim pool (ones that were not around or didn’t take notice the first, second or third time that technique was used).

If you want to learn about web application testing, then there a several training VMs out there, such as SecurityShepherd that will test your skills in a safe and secure environment quite legally.

On the subject of legality, whatever you do, do not be tempted to step over the line and do something illegal with your skills, as you will constantly be looking over your shoulder waiting for law enforcement to apprehend you. It will also make you less employable in the cyber security world.

You don’t have to be a black hat to be a skilled hacker or to understand how an attack is done or how malware works. As I said earlier in this episode, good ethical hackers may be able to think like a bad guy or girl, they just don’t act like one, in other words you don’t need to break the law to be very skilled in any security field.

After that, expect a lifetime of learning, building on and refining you existing skills, and as things are right now, you will have a long and productive, well paid career helping to counter the bad guys and girls, rather than being one of them…

Anyone that states that you “need to be a thief to catch a thief” or that you “need to be a poacher to be a gamekeeper” or any of the other examples, I say to them, rubbish! There are very few real world cases where being an ex-criminal has made a difference that hasn’t or couldn’t have been made, more effectively by a good researcher that can think like a bad guy or girl, but hasn’t gone over to the dark side to prove their skills.. In fact many of those that were caught, even though the press made them out to be some form of Uber hacker or malware writer, the vast majority had very poor skills, they often used other criminals code/techniques to carry out the attack… what most of us in cyber security would call “script kiddies”…

You can make a difference, be on the right side, help defend and protect those in society that are often the victims of the many cyber crimes that happen each and every minute of every hour or every day…

To quote Del Boy Trotter, from Only Fools and Horses, You know it makes sense, don’t be a plonker

If you think I have missed anything important, or I should add something to this article, please let me know.

Question of the Day: Are Passwords the New Exploit?

The quick answer is NO, they are not, however as with most things it isn’t quite as simple as that, let me walk you through how things have changed over the last 10+ years and how passwords have NOW become the main exploit technique (other than unpatched systems/application, config/coding errors and end-users). To start we need to go back into cyber history…

Back in Time…

Let’s go back to the 80’s, 90’s and early 00’s and look how passwords were captured and misused:

As an ethical hacker (penetration tester and web application tester), I have over 15 years of experience and “hacks” to call on to cover this.

In the years prior to 2005, most passwords were stolen via Social Engineering (Phishing, etc.) or via hacking a system/application and using that as a pivot point (beach-head) to scour an organisations network for the password file (usually imaginatively called password.txt, password.doc or password.xls, yes really!) or to find other vulnerable or insecure systems (including ones with default or weak credentials).

This file usually would contain either personal passwords for the user of that system, or if I was really lucky it would be the password file for the system administrator, IT manager, help-desk, or other technical resource that had the much sought after “root”, “admin” or other privileged account credentials to allow me to escalate my privileges (upgrade them from user or other restricted account access level).

In the best cases this could then be used to become “Domain Admin”; which means that I would have unrestricted access to ALL systems on the Domain (Microsoft Active Directory)… Once I had that level of access, it was “Game Over”, as I could do anything; access ALL the systems and ALL the data on them!

There were other ways for me to get passwords, the most common other way was to dump the password hashes from Windows or Linux (other UNIX flavours are available) and then “crack” them; this means doing either a so-called “dictionary” (using a list of known words/passwords until a match is found) or “brute-force” (trying every combination of letters, number and other characters until a match is found) attacks, or even using “rainbow tables” (Rainbow Tables are pre-computed password hashes in a database, these are used to simply compare the stolen password hash to those in the tables until a match is found), this is harder to do nowadays as hashes are often protected by techniques such as salting, which means the hash for “P4ssW0rd123” on one system, will not be the same on another server/system/site (as long as the salt is not the same on both).

Back to the Future…

So, what about password misuse since 2005 until today?

Over the last 10+ years we have seen numerous mega-breaches (as well as loads of smaller data breaches), this has meant that over 7 Billion sets of credentials (current best estimate) have now been stolen (user IDs and password combinations).

These data/credential dumps are widely used by cyber criminals (and other hackers) to carry out attacks using “credential stuffing”. You can see if your email address and credentials have been seen in on of these dumps on haveibeenpwnd (run by well respected security researcher Troy Hunt); this site has over 5 Billion sets of credentials that have turned up in data dumps from hacked/compromised sites/servers.

In summary, yes, nowadays passwords are the new exploit and we need to move beyond them,or at least make them less of an exploit…

What’s Credential Stuffing and Why Should I Care?

Credential Stuffing is a type of automated attack which is very similar to a “dictionary attack”; this is where a list (often huge) of passwords are tried one after another until the list runs out, the account gets locked out, or the hacker finds the correct (valid) password for the account.

The way that Credential Stuffing is different is that the hacker has a list of user IDs (often email addressed) and passwords dumped from a breach. They simply run these against each web site that they think you may have an account on.

I hear you say, “so what!”, well the problem is if you use the same userid and password on multiple sites, and that userid and password is compromised (stolen in a hack), the bad guys and girls now have your credentials for other sites where you have re-used the same password!

What Else are the Bad Guys and Girls Doing With Stolen Credentials?

As covered in a previous blog entry on “Sextortion“, stolen credentials (user IDs and passwords) are being used to add credibility to the email extortion scams. We will see this technique used for other scams, again to give “proof” that they have your data/access to your account or system, etc.

How do I Protect Myself?

There are a number of ways to reduce the risk of Credential Stuffing and related attacks (including Phishing and Social Engineering), these include:

  1. Never use the same password on multiple sites (known as password re-use), as you make is easier for the bad guys and girls to take over your accounts.
  2. Use strong, long, unique passwords for each and every site and store these in a Password Safe (and encrypted database), you can find out more about these in one of my other blog postings, here.
  3. Even better enable what is known as 2FA (Two Factor Authentication); sometimes called MFA (Multi-Factor Authentication). I hear you ask “what the hell is that?”Let me explain; when you use a user id and password, that is a single factor (something you know), the second factor, often a token or one-time code, is the second factor (something you have or are).This can include solutions such as Google Authenticator, Authy, Duo, RSA, Yubikey or even biometric controls such as Face Recognition, Fingerprint, Voice, etc.Using 2FA will mean that it doesn’t matter if your user id and password is compromised (as long as the site you are using uses 2FA and you have enabled it, and the site has implemented it properly so that it can’t be bypassed easily).

    Most large sites, including Google, Microsoft, Dropbox, Facebook, etc. all have 2FA support.BUT, don’t use a 2FA that sends you the one-time code via SMS (text message) as this can easily be captured, either via the network or via what it known as “SIM Porting” or “SIM Swapping”. This is becoming a major threat and has cost some victims the contents of their bank accounts, their bitcoin (or other digital currency) wallet contents… Also, Reddit were compromised via SMS based 2FA!

    This extra protection means that even if they have your valid user id and password for that site, they can’t access your account as they don’t have the second factor (only you do)… In theory this makes it impossible for anyone but you to gain access to your account on that site…However, as usual there are still ways (non-trivial) for the Bad Guys and Girls to get you to give them the second factor, but that’s another story!

Stay safe out there, and don’t make the “Bad Guys and Girls” job easier!