For teaching hacking/cybersecurity, I thought I'd create of the most obvious hacks of all time. Not the best hacks, the most sophisticated hacks, or the hacks with the biggest impact, but the most obvious
hacks -- ones that even the least knowledgeable among us should be able to understand. Below I propose some hacks that fit this bill, though in no particular order.
The reason I'm writing this is that my niece wants me to teach her some hacking. I thought I'd start with the obvious stuff first.
If you use the same password for every website, and one of those websites gets hacked, then the hacker has your password for all your websites. The reason your Facebook account got hacked wasn't because of anything Facebook did, but because you used the same email-address and password when creating an account on "beagleforums.com", which got hacked last year.
I've heard people say "I'm sure, because I choose a complex password and use it everywhere". No, this is the very worst thing you can do. Sure, you can the use the same password on all sites you don't care much about, but for Facebook, your email account, and your bank, you should have a unique password, so that when other sites get hacked, your important sites are secure.
And yes, it's okay to write down your passwords on paper.
PIN encrypted PDFs
My accountant emails PDF statements encrypted with the last 4 digits of my Social Security Number. This is not encryption -- a 4 digit number has only 10,000 combinations, and a hacker can guess all of them in seconds.
PIN numbers for ATM cards work because ATM machines are online, and the machine can reject your card after four guesses. PIN numbers don't work for documents, because they are offline -- the hacker has a copy of the document on their own machine, disconnected from the Internet, and can continue making bad guesses with no restrictions.
Passwords protecting documents must be long enough that even trillion upon trillion guesses are insufficient to guess.
, John the Ripper
SQL and other injection
The lazy way of combining websites with databases is to combine user input with an SQL statement. This combines code with data, so the obvious consequence is that hackers can craft data to mess with the code.
No, this isn't obvious to the general public, but it should be obvious to programmers. The moment you write code that adds unfiltered user-input to an SQL statement, the consequence should be obvious. Yet, "SQL injection" has remained one of the most effective hacks for the last 15 years because somehow programmers don't understand the consequence.
CGI shell injection is a similar issue. Back in early days, when "CGI scripts" were a thing, it was really important, but these days, not so much, so I just included it with SQL. The consequence of executing shell code should've been obvious, but weirdly, it wasn't. The IT guy at the company I worked for back in the late 1990s came to me and asked "this guy says we have a vulnerability, is he full of shit?", and I had to answer "no, he's right -- obviously so".
XSS ("Cross Site Scripting") [*
] is another injection issue, but this time at somebody's web browser rather than a server. It works because websites will echo back what is sent to them. For example, if you search for Cross Site Scripting with the URL https://www.google.com/search?q=cross+site+scripting
Cross site injection issues like this should probably be their own category, but I'm including it here for now.
More: Wikipedia on SQL injection
, Wikipedia on cross site scripting
In the C programming language, programmers first create a buffer, then read input into it. If input is long than the buffer, then it overflows. The extra bytes overwrite other parts of the program, letting the hacker run code.
Again, it's not a thing the general public is expected to know about, but is instead something C programmers should be expected to understand. They should know that it's up to them to check the length and stop reading input before it overflows the buffer, that there's no language feature that takes care of this for them.
We are three decades after the first major buffer overflow exploits, so there is no excuse for C programmers not to understand this issue.
What makes particular obvious is the way they are wrapped in exploits, like in Metasploit. While the bug itself is obvious that it's a bug, actually exploiting it can take some very non-obvious skill. However, once that exploit is written, any trained monkey can press a button and run the exploit. That's where we get the insult "script kiddie" from -- referring to wannabe-hackers who never learn enough to write their own exploits, but who spend a lot of time running the exploit scripts written by better hackers than they.
More: Wikipedia on buffer overflow
, Wikipedia on script kiddie
, "Smashing The Stack For Fun And Profit
" -- Phrack (1996)
Tools: bash, Metasploit
SendMail DEBUG command (historical)
The first popular email server in the 1980s was called "SendMail". It had a feature whereby if you send a "DEBUG" command to it, it would execute any code following the command. The consequence of this was obvious -- hackers could (and did) upload code to take control of the server. This was used in the Morris Worm of 1988. Most Internet machines of the day ran SendMail, so the worm spread fast infecting most machines.
This bug was mostly ignored at the time. It was thought of as a theoretical problem, that might only rarely be used to hack a system. Part of the motivation of the Morris Worm was to demonstrate that such problems was to demonstrate the consequences -- consequences that should've been obvious but somehow were rejected by everyone.
More: Wikipedia on Morris Worm
I'm conflicted whether I should add this or not, because here's the deal: you are supposed to click on attachments and links within emails. That's what they are there for. The difference between good and bad attachments/links is not obvious. Indeed, easy-to-use email systems makes detecting the difference harder.
On the other hand, the consequences of bad attachments/links is obvious. That worms like ILOVEYOU spread so easily is because people trusted attachments coming from their friends, and ran them.
We have no solution to the problem of bad email attachments and links. Viruses and phishing are pervasive problems. Yet, we know why they exist.
Default and backdoor passwords
The Mirai botnet was caused by surveillance-cameras having default and backdoor passwords, and being exposed to the Internet without a firewall. The consequence should be obvious: people will discover the passwords and use them to take control of the bots.
Surveillance-cameras have the problem that they are usually exposed to the public, and can't be reached without a ladder -- often a really tall ladder. Therefore, you don't want a button consumers can press to reset to factory defaults. You want a remote way to reset them. Therefore, they put backdoor passwords to do the reset. Such passwords are easy for hackers to reverse-engineer, and hence, take control of millions of cameras across the Internet.
The same reasoning applies to "default" passwords. Many users will not change the defaults, leaving a ton of devices hackers can hack.
Masscan and background radiation of the Internet
I've written a tool that can easily scan the entire Internet in a short period of time. It surprises people that this possible, but it obvious from the numbers. Internet addresses are only 32-bits long, or roughly 4 billion combinations. A fast Internet link can easily handle 1 million packets-per-second, so the entire Internet can be scanned in 4000 seconds, little more than an hour. It's basic math.
Because it's so easy, many people do it. If you monitor your Internet link, you'll see a steady trickle of packets coming in from all over the Internet, especially Russia and China, from hackers scanning the Internet for things they can hack.
People's reaction to this scanning is weirdly emotional, taking is personally, such as:
- Why are they hacking me? What did I do to them?
- Great! They are hacking me! That must mean I'm important!
- Grrr! How dare they?! How can I hack them back for some retribution!?
I find this odd, because obviously such scanning isn't personal, the hackers have no idea who you are.
If you connect to the Starbucks WiFi, a hacker nearby can easily eavesdrop on your network traffic, because it's not encrypted. Windows even warns you about this, in case you weren't sure.
At DefCon, they have a "Wall of Sheep", where they show passwords from people who logged onto stuff using the insecure "DefCon-Open" network. Calling them "sheep" for not grasping this basic fact that unencrypted traffic is unencrypted.
To be fair, it's actually non-obvious to many people. Even if the WiFi itself is not encrypted, SSL traffic is. They expect their services to be encrypted, without them having to worry about it. And in fact, most are, especially Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, and other major services that won't allow you to log in anymore without encryption.
But many services (especially old ones) may not be encrypted. Unless users check and verify them carefully, they'll happily expose passwords.
What's interesting about this was 10 years ago, when most services which only used SSL to encrypt the passwords, but then used unencrypted connections after that, using "cookies". This allowed the cookies to be sniffed and stolen, allowing other people to share the login session. I used this on stage at BlackHat to connect to somebody's GMail session. Google, and other major websites, fixed this soon after. But it should never have been a problem -- because the sidejacking of cookies should have been obvious
Tools: Wireshark, dsniff
Stuxnet LNK vulnerability
Again, this issue isn't obvious to the public, but it should've been obvious to anybody who knew how Windows works.
When Windows loads a .dll, it first calls the function DllMain(). A Windows link file (.lnk) can load icons/graphics from the resources in a .dll file. It does this by loading the .dll file, thus calling DllMain. Thus, a hacker could put on a USB drive a .lnk file pointing to a .dll file, and thus, cause arbitrary code execution as soon as a user inserted a drive.
I say this is obvious because I did this, created .lnks that pointed to .dlls, but without hostile DllMain code. The consequence should've been obvious to me, but I totally missed the connection. We all missed the connection, for decades.
Social Engineering and Tech Support [* * *]
After posting this, many people have pointed out "social engineering", especially of "tech support". This probably should be up near #1 in terms of obviousness.
The classic example of social engineering is when you call tech support and tell them you've lost your password, and they reset it for you with minimum of questions proving who you are. For example, you set the volume on your computer really loud and play the sound of a crying baby in the background and appear to be a bit frazzled and incoherent, which explains why you aren't answering the questions they are asking. They, understanding your predicament as a new parent, will go the extra mile in helping you, resetting "your" password.
One of the interesting consequences is how it affects domain names (DNS). It's quite easy in many cases to call up the registrar and convince them to transfer a domain name. This has been used in lots of hacks. It's really hard to defend against. If a registrar charges only $9/year for a domain name, then it really can't afford to provide very good tech support -- or very secure tech support -- to prevent this sort of hack.
Social engineering is such a huge problem, and obvious problem, that it's outside the scope of this document. Just google it to find example after example.
A related issue that perhaps deserves it's own section is OSINT [*], or "open-source intelligence", where you gather public information about a target. For example, on the day the bank manager is out on vacation (which you got from their Facebook post) you show up and claim to be a bank auditor, and are shown into their office where you grab their backup tapes. (We've actually done this).
More: Wikipedia on Social Engineering
, Wikipedia on OSINT
, "How I Won the Defcon Social Engineering CTF
" -- blogpost (2011), "Questioning 42: Where's the Engineering in Social Engineering of Namespace Compromises
" -- BSidesLV talk (2016)
Blue-boxes (historical) [*]
Telephones historically used what we call "in-band signaling". That's why when you dial on an old phone, it makes sounds -- those sounds are sent no differently than the way your voice is sent. Thus, it was possible to make tone generators to do things other than simply dial calls. Early hackers (in the 1970s) would make tone-generators called "blue-boxes" and "black-boxes" to make free long distance calls, for example.
These days, "signaling" and "voice" are digitized, then sent as separate channels or "bands". This is call "out-of-band signaling". You can't trick the phone system by generating tones. When your iPhone makes sounds when you dial, it's entirely for you benefit and has nothing to do with how it signals the cell tower to make a call.
Early hackers, like the founders of Apple, are famous for having started their careers making such "boxes" for tricking the phone system. The problem was obvious back in the day, which is why as the phone system moves from analog to digital, the problem was fixed.
More: Wikipedia on blue box
, Wikipedia article on Steve Wozniak
Thumb drives in parking lots [*]
A simple trick is to put a virus on a USB flash drive, and drop it in a parking lot. Somebody is bound to notice it, stick it in their computer, and open the file.
This can be extended with tricks. For example, you can put a file labeled "third-quarter-salaries.xlsx" on the drive that required macros to be run in order to open. It's irresistible to other employees who want to know what their peers are being paid, so they'll bypass any warning prompts in order to see the data.
Another example is to go online and get custom USB sticks made printed with the logo of the target company, making them seem more trustworthy.
We also did a trick of taking an Adobe Flash game "Punch the Monkey" and replaced the monkey with a logo of a competitor of our target. They now only played the game (infecting themselves with our virus), but gave to others inside the company to play, infecting others, including the CEO.
Thumb drives like this have been used in many incidents, such as Russians hacking military headquarters in Afghanistan
. It's really hard to defend against.
More: "Computer Virus Hits U.S. Military Base in Afghanistan
" -- USNews (2008), "The Return of the Worm That Ate The Pentagon
" -- Wired (2011), DoD Bans Flash Drives
-- Stripes (2008)
Search engines like Google will index your website -- your entire website. Frequently companies put things on their website without much protection because they are nearly impossible for users to find. But Google finds them, then indexes them, causing them to pop up with innocent searches.
There are books written on "Google hacking" explaining what search terms to look for, like "not for public release", in order to find such documents.
More: Wikipedia entry on Google Hacking
, "Google Hacking
URL editing [*]
At the top of every browser is what's called the "URL". You can change it. Thus, if you see a URL that looks like this:
Then you can edit it to see the next document on the server:
The owner of the website may think they are secure, because nothing points to this document, so the Google search won't find it. But that doesn't stop a user from manually editing the URL.
An example of this is a big Fortune 500 company that posts the quarterly results to the website an hour before the official announcement. Simply editing the URL from previous financial announcements allows hackers to find the document, then buy/sell the stock as appropriate in order to make a lot of money.
Another example is the classic case of Andrew "Weev" Auernheimer who did this trick in order to download the account email addresses of early owners of the iPad, including movie stars and members of the Obama administration. It's an interesting legal case because on one hand, techies consider this so obvious as to not be "hacking". On the other hand, non-techies, especially judges and prosecutors, believe this to be obviously "hacking".
DDoS, spoofing, and amplification [*]
For decades now, online gamers have figured out an easy way to win: just flood the opponent with Internet traffic, slowing their network connection. This is called a DoS, which stands for "Denial of Service". DoSing game competitors is often a teenager's first foray into hacking.
A variant of this is when you hack a bunch of other machines on the Internet, then command them to flood your target. (The hacked machines are often called a "botnet", a network of robot computers). This is called DDoS, or "Distributed DoS". At this point, it gets quite serious, as instead of competitive gamers hackers can take down entire businesses. Extortion scams, DDoSing websites then demanding payment to stop, is a common way hackers earn money.
Another form of DDoS is "amplification". Sometimes when you send a packet to a machine on the Internet it'll respond with a much larger response, either a very large packet or many packets. The hacker can then send a packet to many of these sites, "spoofing" or forging the IP address of the victim. This causes all those sites to then flood the victim with traffic. Thus, with a small amount of outbound traffic, the hacker can flood the inbound traffic of the victim.
This is one of those things that has worked for 20 years, because it's so obvious teenagers can do it, yet there is no obvious solution. President Trump's executive order of cyberspace specifically demanded that his government come up with a report on how to address this, but it's unlikely that they'll come up with any useful strategy.
More: Wikipedia on DDoS
, Wikipedia on Spoofing
Tweet me (@ErrataRob
) your obvious hacks, so I can add them to the list.