3 Lessons From 30 Years of Penetration Testing

I’ve been doing penetration tests for 30 years and here are 3 things that have stuck with me.

I’ve been doing penetration testing for around 3 decades now. I started doing security testing back when the majority of the world was dial-up access to systems. I’ve worked on thousands of devices, systems, network and applications – from the most sensitive systems in the world to some of the dumbest and most inane mobile apps (you know who you are…) that still have in-game purchases. 

Over that time, these three lessons have stayed with me. They may not be the biggest lessons I’ve learned, or the most impactful, but they are the ones that have stuck with me in my career the longest. 

Lesson 1: The small things make or break a penetration test. The devil loves to hide in the details.

Often people love to hear about the huge security issues. They thrill or gasp at the times when you find that breathtaking hole that causes the whole thing to collapse. But, for me, the vulnerabilities that I’m most proud of, looking back across my career are the more nuanced ones. The ones where I noticed something small and seemingly deeply detailed. You know the issues like this, you talk about them to the developer and they respond with “So what?” and then you show them that small mistake opens a window that allows you to causally step inside to steal their most critical data…

Time and time again, I’ve seen nuance vulnerabilities hidden in encoded strings or hex values. Bad assumptions disguised in application session management or poorly engineered work flows. I’ve seen developers and engineers make mistakes that are so deeply hidden in the protocol exchanges or packet stream that anyone just running automated tools would have missed it. Those are my favorites. So, my penetration testing friend, pay attention to the deep details. Lots of devils hide there, and a few of those can often lead to the promised land. Do the hard work. Test every attack surface and threat vector, even if the other surfaces resisted, sometimes you can find a subtle, almost hidden attack surface that no one else noticed and make use of it.

Lesson 2: A penetration test is usually judged by the report. Master report writing to become a better penetration tester. 

This is one of the hardest things for my mentees to grasp. You can geek out with other testers and security nerds about your latest uber stack smash or the elegant way you optimized the memory space of your exploit – but customers won’t care. Save yourself the heartbreak and disappointment, and save them the glazed eyes look that comes about when you present it to them. They ONLY CARE about the report.

The report has to be well written. It has to be clear. It has to be concise. It has to have make them understand what you did, what you found and what they need to do about it. The more pictures, screen shots, graphs and middle-school-level language, the better. They aren’t dumb, or ignorant, they just have other work to do and need the information they need to action against in the cleanest, clearest and fastest way possible. They don’t want to Google technical terms and they have no patience for jargon. So, say it clear and say it in the shortest way possible if you want to be the best penetration tester they’ve seen. 

That’s hard to swallow. I know. But, you can always jump on Twitter or Slack and tell us all about your L33T skillz and the newest SQL technique you just discovered. Even better, document it and share it with other testers so that we all get better.

Lesson 3: Penetration tests aren’t always useful. They can be harmful.

Lastly, penetration tests aren’t always a help. They can cause some damage, to weak infrastructures, or to careers. Breaking things usually comes with a cost, and delivering critical failure news to upper management is not without its risks. I’ve seen CIOs and CISOs lose their jobs due to a penetration test report. I’ve seen upper management and boards respond in entirely unkind and often undeserved ways. In fact, if you don’t know what assets your organization has to protect, what controls you have and/or haven’t done some level of basic blocking and tackling – forget pen-testing altogether and skip to an inventory, vulnerability assessment, risk assessment or mapping engagement. Save the pen-testing cost and dangerous results for when you have more situational awareness. 

Penetration testing is often good at finding the low water mark. It often reveals least resistant paths and common areas of failure. Unfortunately, these are often left open by a lack of basic blocking and tackling. While it’s good news that basics go a long way to protecting us and our data, the bad news is that real-world attackers are capable of much more. Finding those edge cases, the things that go beyond the basics, the attack vectors less traveled, the bad assumptions, the short cut and/or the thing you missed when you’re doing the basics well – that’s when penetration tests have their biggest payoffs.

Want to talk more about penetration testing, these lessons or finding the right vulnerability management engagement for your organization? No problem, get in touch and I’ll be happy to discuss how MicroSolved can help. We can do it safely, make sure it is the best type of engagement for your maturity level and help you drive your security program forward. Our reports will be clean, concise and well written. And, we’ll pay attention to the details, I promise you that. 🙂 

To get in touch, give me a call at (614) 351-1237, drop me a line via this webform or reach out on Twitter (@lbhuston). I love to talk about infosec and penetration testing. It’s not just my career, but also my passion.

3 Reasons You Need Customized Threat Intelligence

Many clients have been asking us about our customized threat intelligence services and how to best use the data that we can provide.

1. Using HoneyPoint™, we can deploy fake systems and applications, both internally and in key external situations that allow you to generate real-time, specific to your organization, indicators of compromise (IoC) data – including a wide variety of threat source information for blacklisting, baseline metrics to make it easy to measure changes in the levels of threat actions against your organization up to the moment, and a wide variety of scenarios for application and attack surface hardening.

2. Our SilentTiger™ passive assessments, can help you provide a wider lens for vulnerability assessment visibility than your perimeter, specifically. It can be used to assess, either single instance or ongoing, the security posture of locations where your brand is extended to business partners, cloud providers, supply chain vendors, critical dependency API and data flows and other systems well beyond your perimeter. Since the testing is passive, you don’t need permission, contract language or control of the systems being assessed. You can get the data in a stable, familiar format – very similar to vulnerability scanning reports or via customized data feeds into your SEIM/GRC/Ticketing tools or the like. This means you can be more vigilant against more attack surfaces without more effort and more resources.

3. Our customized TigerTrax™ Targeted Threat Intelligence (TTI) offerings can be used for brand specific monitoring around the world, answering specific research questions based on industry / geographic / demographic / psychographic profiles or even products / patents or economic threat research. If you want to know how your brand is being perceived, discussed or threatened around the world, this service can provide that either as a one-time deliverable, or as an ongoing periodic service. If you want our intelligence analysts to look at industry trends, fraud, underground economics, changing activist or attacker tactics and the way they collide with your industry or organization – this is the service that can provide that data to you in a clear and concise manner that lets you take real-world actions.

We have been offering many of these services to select clients for the last several years. Only recently have we decided to offer them to our wider client and reader base. If you’d like to learn how others are using the data or how they are actively hardening their environments and operations based on real-world data and trends, let us know. We’d love to discuss it with you! 

Sometimes, It Happens…

Sometimes things fail in interesting ways. Sometimes they fail in dangerous ways. Occasionally, things fail in ways that you simply can’t predict and that are astounding.

In a recent assessment of a consumer device in our lab, we found the usual host of vulnerabilities that we have come to expect in Internet of Things (IoT) devices. But, while testing this particular device, which is also tied to a cloud offering for backup and centralization of data – I never would have predicted that a local device would have a full bi-directional trust with a virtual instance in the cloud.

Popping the local device was easy. It had an easy to compromise “hidden” TCP port for telnet. It took my brute force tool only moments to find a default login and password credential set. That’s pretty usual with IoT devices.

But, once I started poking around inside the device, it quickly became apparent that the device configuration was such that it tried to stay continually connected to a VM instance in the “cloud storage and synchronization” environment associated with the device and vendor. How strong was the trust? The local device had mount points on the remote machine and both systems had full trust to each other via a telnet connection. From the local machine, simply telnet to the remote machine on the right port, and without credential check, you have a shell inside the cloud. Not good…

But, as clear of a failure as the scenario above was, the rabbit hole went deeper. From the cloud VM, you could see thousands of other VMs in the hosted cloud environment. Connect from the VM to another, and you need the default credentials again, but, no sweat, they work and work and work…

So, from brute force compromise of a local piece of consumer hardware to a compromise of thousands of cloud instance VMs in less than 30 minutes. Ugh… 

Oh yeah, remember that storage centralization thing? Yep, default credentials will easily let you look through the centralized files on all those cloud VMs. Double ugh…

Remember, I said bi-directional? Yes, indeed, a connection from a VM to an end-point IoT device also works with assumed trust, and you get a shell on a device with local network visibility. Now is the time you kinda get sick to your stomach…

These kinds of scenarios are becoming more common as new IoT devices get introduced into our lives. Yes, the manufacturer has been advised, but, closing the holes will take a complete redesign of the product. The moral of this story is to pay careful attention to IoT devices. Ask questions. Audit. Assess. Test. There are a lot of bad security decisions being made out there in the IoT marketplace, especially around consumer products. Buyer beware!

Getting Smart with Mobile App GeoLocation to Fight Fraud

If your mobile application includes purchases with credit cards, and a pickup of the merchandise, then you should pay attention to this.

Recently, in our testing lab and during an intelligence engagement, we identified a fraud mechanism where stolen credit cards were being used via the mobile app in question, to fraudulently purchase goods. In fact, the attackers were selling the purchase of the goods as a service on auction and market sites on the dark web.

The scam works like this. The bad guys have stolen credit cards (track data, likely from dumps), which they use to make a purchase for their client remotely. The bad guys use their stolen track data as a card not present transaction, which is standard for mobile apps. The bad guys have access to huge numbers of stolen cards, so they can burn them at a substantial rate without impacting their inventory to a large extent. The bad guy’s customer spends $25 in bitcoins to get up to $100 in merchandise. The bad guy takes the order from the dark net, uses the mobile app to place the order, and then delivers the receipt and/or pickup information to the bad guys customer. The customer then walks into the retailer and shows the receipt for their mobile order, picking up the merchandise and leaving.

The bad guy gets paid via the bitcoins. For them, this is an extremely low risk way to convert stolen credit card info to cash. It is significantly less risky for them than doing physical card replication, ATM use or other conversion methods that have a requirement for physical interaction.

The bad guy’s customer gets paid by picking up the merchandise. They get up to $100 value for a cost of $25. They take on some risk, but if performed properly, the scam is low risk to them, or so they believe. In the odd event, they simply leave the store after making their demands for satisfaction. There is little risk of arrest or prosecution, it would seem, especially at the low rate of $100 – or at least that was how the bad guy was pitching it to their prospective customers…

The credit card issuer or the merchant gets stuck. They are out the merchandise and/or the money, depending on their location in the world, and the merchant agreement/charge back/PCI compliance issues they face.

Understanding the fraud and motivations of the bad guys is critical for securing the systems in play. Organizations could up their validation techniques and vigilance for mobile orders. They could add additional fraudulent transaction heuristics to their capability. They could also implement geo-location on the mobile apps as a control – i.e.. If the order is being physically placed on a device in Ukraine, and pick up is in New York, there is a higher level of risk associated with that transaction. Identifying ways  to leverage the sensors and data points from a mobile device, and rolling it into fraud detection heuristics and machine learning analytics is the next wave of security for some of these applications. We are pleased to be helping clients get there…

To hear more about modern fraud techniques, application security testing or targeted threat intelligence like what we discussed above, drop us a line (info at microsolved dot com) or via Twitter (@lbhuston). We look forward to discussing it with your team.

Hosting Providers Matter as Business Partners

Hosting providers seem to be an often overlooked exposure area for many small and mid-size organizations. In the last several weeks, as we have been growing the use of our passive assessment platform for supply chain assessments, we have identified several instances where the web site hosting company (or design/development company) is among the weakest links. Likely, this is due to the idea that these services are commodities and they are among the first areas where organizations look to lower costs.

The fall out of that issue, though, can be problematic. In some cases, organizations are finding themselves doing business with hosting providers who reduce their operational costs by failing to invest in information security.* Here are just a few of the most significant issues that we have seen in this space:
  • “PCI accredited” checkout pages hosted on the same server as other sites that are clearly under the control of an attacker
  • Exposed applications and services with default credentials on the same systems used to host web sites belonging to critical infrastructure organizations
  • Dangerous service exposures on hosted systems
  • Malware infested hosting provider ad pages, linked to hundreds or thousands of their client sites hosted with them
  • Poorly managed encryption that impacts hundreds or thousands of their hosted customer sites
  • An interesting correlation of blacklisted host density to geographic location and the targeted verticals that some hosting providers sell to
  • Pornography being distributed from the same physical and logical servers as traditional businesses and critical infrastructure organizations
  • A clear lack of DoS protection or monitoring
  • A clear lack of detection, investigation, incident response and recovery maturity on the part of many of the vendors 
It is very important that organizations realize that today, much of your risk extends well beyond the network and architectures under your direct control. Partners, and especially hosting companies and cloud providers, are part of your data footprint. They can represent significant portions of your risk, and yet, are areas where you may have very limited control. 
 
If you would like to learn more about using our passive assessment platform and our vendor supply chain security services to help you identify, manage and reduce your risk – please give us a call (614-351-1237) or drop us a line (info /at/ MicroSolved /dot/ com). We’d love to walk you through some of the findings we have identified and share some of the insights we have gleaned from our analysis.
 
Until next time, thanks for reading and stay safe out there!
 
*Caveat: This should not be taken that information security is correlated with cost. We have seen plenty of “high end”, high cost hosting companies with very poor security practices. The inverse is also true. Validation is the key…

Old School Google Hacking Still Works…

Did some old school Google hacking last night.

“Filetype:xls & terms” still finds too much bad stuff.

Check for it lately for your organization?

Try other file types too. (doc/ppt/pdf/rtf, etc.)

Information leakage happens today, as it always has. Keeping an eye on it should be a part of your security program.

Clients Finding New Ways to Leverage MSI Testing Labs

Just a reminder that MSI testing labs are seeing a LOT more usage lately. If you haven’t heard about some of the work we do in the labs, check it out here.

One of the ways that new clients are leveraging the labs is to have us mock up changes to their environments or new applications in HoneyPoint and publish them out to the web. We then monitor those fake implementations and measure the ways that attackers, malware and Internet background radiation interacts with them.

The clients use these insights to identify areas to focus on in their security testing, risk management and monitoring. A few clients have even done A/B testing using this approach, looking for the differences in risk and threat exposures via different options for deployment or development.

Let us know if you would like to discuss such an approach. The labs are a quickly growing and very powerful part of the many services and capabilities that we offer our clients around the world! 

Social Media Targeting: A Cautionary Tale

I was recently doing some deep penetration testing against an organization in a red-team, zero knowledge type exercise. The targets were aware of the test at only the highest levels of management, who had retained myself and my team for the engagement. The mission was simple, obtain either a file that listed more than 100 of their key suppliers, or obtain credentials and successfully logon to their internal supply system from an account that could obtain such a file.

Once we laid some basic groundwork, it was clear that we needed to find the key people who would have access to such data. Given the size of this multi-national company and the thousands of employees they had across continents, we faced two choices – either penetrate the network environment and work our way through it to find and obtain the victory data and/or find a specific person or set of persons who were likely to have the data themselves or have credentials and hack them get a shortcut to victory.
 
We quickly decided to try the shortcut for a week or less, preserving time for a hack the network approach should we need it as a backup. We had approximately 6 weeks to accomplish the goal. It turned out, it took less than 6 hours…
 
We turned our TigerTrax intelligence & analytics platform to the task of identifying the likely targets for the shortcut attack. In less than 30 minutes, our intelligence team had identified three likely targets who we could direcly link to the internal systems in question, or the business processes associated with the victory condition. Of these three people, one of them was an extensive participant in their local dance club scene. Their social media profile was loaded with pictures of them dancing at various locales and reviewing local dance clubs and DJs. 
 
A plan was quickly developed to use the dance club angle as an approach for the attack, and a quick malware serving web site was mocked up to look like an new night club in the target’s city. The team them posted a few other sites pointing to a new club opening and opened a social media account for the supposed club’s new name. The next day, the penetration team tested the exploits and malware against the likely OS installs of the victim (obtained from some of their social media data that was shared publicly). Once the team was sure the exploits and malware were likely to function properly, the club’s social media account sent a tweet to the account of the target and several other people linked to the club scene, inviting them to a private “soft opening” of the club — starring the favorite DJ of the target (obtained from his twitter data). Each person was sent a unique link, and only the target’s link contained the exploit and malware. Once the hook was delivered, the team sat back and waited a bit. They continued to tweet and interact with people using the club’s account throughout the rest of the day. Within hours, the target followed the club’s account and visited the exploit site. The exploit worked, and our remote access trojan (RAT) was installed and connected back to us.
 
It took the team about an hour to hoover through the laptop of the target and find the file we needed. About the same time, an automated search mechanism of the RAT returned a file called passwords.xls with a list of passwords and login information, including the victory system in question. The team grabbed the victory files, screen shotted all of our metrics and data dashboards and cleaned up after themselves. The target was none the wiser.
 
When we walked the client through this pen-test and explained how we performed our attack, what controls they lacked and how to improve their defenses, the criticality of social media profiling to attackers became crystal clear. The client asked for examples of real world attackers using such methods, and the team quickly pulled more than a dozen public breach profiles from the last few years from our threat intelligence data.
 
The bottom line is this – this is a COMMON and EFFECTIVE approach. It is trivial for attackers to accomplish these goals, given the time and will to profile your employees. The bad guys ARE doing it. The bigger question is – ARE YOU?
 
To learn more about our penetration testing, social engineering and other security testing services, please call your account executive to book a free education session or send us an email to info@microsolved.com. As always, thanks for reading and until next time, stay safe out there!

Ask The Experts: Why Do Security Testing of Internal Computer Networks?

Most organizations have realized the need to have vulnerability assessments of their internet-facing (external) computer networks performed periodically. Maybe they are alarmed by all the data compromises they hear about on the news or perhaps they are subject to regulatory guidance and are required to have vulnerability assessments done. But many organizations draw the line there and never have the security of their internal networks tested. This is a mistake! At least it’s a mistake if your goal is actually to protect your computer systems and the private information they store and process.

It is true that the most attacks against information systems come from external attackers, but that does not mean the internal threat is negligible. About one sixth of data compromises are due to employees and privileged insiders such as service providers and contractors. But there are many other reasons for testing the security of your internal networks besides the internal threat. For one thing, once cyber-criminals find a hole in your external defenses they are suddenly “insiders” too. And if your internal systems are not configured correctly, hardened and monitored, it becomes trivial for these attackers to own your systems and compromise all the private information you have.

The type of testing that gives you the most bang for the buck is internal vulnerability assessment. Doing this type of testing regularly has many benefits. One benefit that people usually don’t associate with internal vulnerability assessment is that it can be used to make maps and inventories of the network. These are essentials of information security. After all, if you don’t know what you have on your network and where it is, how can you protect it? Another benefit is that it allows you to view your internal network with perspective. In other words, it lets you see it the way an attacker would. It will reveal:

  • Access control issues such as default and blank passwords mistakenly left on the network during administration, open files shares or anonymous FTP sites that may contain private data or user accounts that are suspicious or inappropriate.
  • Systems that are missing security patches or that are running out of date software or operating systems that are no longer supported by the vendors.
  • Systems that have been misconfigured or that reveal too much information to unauthorized users.
  • Ports that are inappropriately left open or dangerous services such as Telnet or Terminal Services present on the network.
  • Poor network architecture that fails to properly segment and enclave information assets so that only those with a business need can access them.
  • How well third party systems present on your network are patched, updated and secured.

Also, from a business perspective, performing regular internal vulnerability assessments shows your customers that you are serious about information security; a factor that could influence them to choose your organization over others.

In addition to vulnerability testing, it is also more than just desirable to have penetration testing of the internal network performed occasionally. While vulnerability assessment shows you what flaws are available for attackers to exploit (the width of your security exposure), penetration testing shows you what attackers can actually do with those flaws to compromise your systems and data (the depth of your security exposure). Internal penetration testing can:

  • Reveal how attackers can exploit combinations of seemingly low risk vulnerabilities to compromise whole systems or networks (cascading failures).
  • Show you if the custom software applications you are using are safe from compromise.
  • Show you not only what is bad about your network security measures, but what is working well (this can really save you money and effort by helping you chose only the most effective security controls).

One other type of penetration testing that is well worth the time and expense is social engineering testing. As network perimeters become increasingly secure, social engineering techniques such as Phishing emails or bogus phone calls are being used more and more by attackers to gain a foothold on the internal network. We at MSI are very aware of just how often these techniques work. How well do you think your employees would resist such attacks?

Thanks to John Davis for this post.

Co-Op & Municipal Utilities Get Discounts in July

Attention Co-Op & Municipal utilities — MSI is offering discounts to your organizations on professional services (policy/process, assessments, pen-testing, etc.), lab services (device & AMR/AMI assessments, threat assessments, etc.) and HoneyPoint Security Server for the month of July. Book the business before July 31’st and have the work/implementation completed before December 31st of 2014 and you receive a discount up to 30% off!

Do you need pen-testing against your business network? Need web app assessments on billing or payment systems? Have a call for risk assessments, smart grid device testing or fraud testing against your meters and field gear? All of this and more qualifies!

Check out our ICS/SCADA specific services by clicking here!

Give Allan Bergen a call today at 513-300-0194 to learn more about our program. We truly appreciate the hard work and dedication that Co-op and Municipal utility teams do, and we look forward to working with you!