Archive for June, 2010

Security Vulnerability Penetration Assessment Test?

Our philosophy here at Netragard is that security-testing services must produce a threat that is at least equal to the threat that our customers are likely to face in the real world. If we test our customers at a lesser threat level and a higher-level threat attempts to align with their risks, then they will likely suffer a compromise. If they do suffer a compromise, then the money that they spent on testing services might as well be added to the cost in damages that result from the breach.
This is akin to how armor is tested. Armor is designed to protect something from a specific threat. In order to be effective, the armor is exposed to a level of threat that is slightly higher than what it will likely face in the real world. If the armor is penetrated during testing, it is enhanced and hardened until the threat cannot defeat the armor. If armor is penetrated in battle then there are casualties. That class of testing is called Penetration Testing and the level of threat produced has a very significant impact on test quality and results.

What is particularly scary is that many of the security vendors who offer Penetration Testing services either don’t know what Penetration Testing is or don’t know the definitions for the terms. Many security vendors confuse Penetration Testing with Vulnerability Assessments and that confusion translates to the customer. The terms are not interchangeable and they do not define methodology, they only define testing class. So before we can explain service quality and threat, we must first properly define services.

Based on the English dictionary the word “Vulnerability” is best defined as susceptibility to harm or attack. Being vulnerable is the state of being exposed. The word “Assessment” is best defined as the means by which the value of something is estimated or determined usually through the process of testing. As such, a “Vulnerability Assessment” is a best estimate as to how susceptible something is to harm or attack.

Lets do the same for “Penetration Test”. The word “Penetration” is best defined as the act of entering into or through something, or the ability to make way into or through something. The word “Test” is best defined as the means by which the presence, quality or genuineness of anything is determined. As such the term “Penetration Test” means to determine the presence of points where something can make its way through or into something else.

Despite what many people think, neither term is specific to Information Technology. Penetration Tests and Vulnerability Assessments existed well before the advent of the microchip. In fact, the ancient Romans used a form of penetration testing to test their armor against various types of projectiles. Today, we perform Structural Vulnerability Assessments against things like the Eiffel Tower, and the Golden Gate Bridge. Vulnerability Assessments are chosen because Structural Penetration Tests would cause damage to, or possibly destroy the structure.

In the physical world Penetration Testing is almost always destructive (at least to a degree), but in the digital world it isn’t destructive when done properly. This is mostly because in the digital world we’re penetrating a virtual boundary and in the physical world we’re penetrating a physical boundary. When you penetrate a virtual boundary you’re not really creating a hole, you’re usually creating a process in memory that can be killed or otherwise removed.

When applied to IT Security, a Vulnerability Assessment isn’t as accurate as a Penetration Test. This is because Vulnerability Assessments are best estimates and Penetration Tests either penetrate or they don’t. As such, a quality Vulnerability Assessment report will contain few false positives (false findings) while a quality Penetration Testing report should contain absolutely no false positives. (though they do sometimes contain theoretical findings).

The quality of service is determined by the talent of the team delivering services and by the methodology used for service delivery. A team of research capable ethical hackers that have a background in exploit development and system / network penetration will usually deliver higher quality services than a team of people who are not research capable. If a team claims to be research capable, ask them for example exploit code that they’ve written and ask them for advisories that they’ve published.

Service quality is also directly tied to threat capability. The threat in this case is defined by the capability of real world malicious hackers. If testing services do not produce a threat level that is at least equal to the real world threat, then the services are probably not worth buying. After all, the purpose for security testing is to identify risks so that they can be fixed / patched / eliminated before malicious hackers exploit them. But if the security testing services are less capable than the malicious hacker, then chances are the hacker will find something that the service missed.

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We Are Politically Incorrect

Back in February of 2009 we released an article called FaceBook from the hackers perspective. As far as we know, we were the first to publish a detailed article about using Social Networking Websites to deliver surgical Social Engineering attacks. Since that time, we noticed a significant increase in marketing hype around Social Engineering from various other security companies. The problem is that they’re not telling you the whole truth.

The whole truth is that Social Engineering is a necessary but potentially dangerous service. Social Engineering at its roots is the act of exploiting the human vulnerability and as such is an offensive and politically incorrect service. If a customer’s business has any pre-existing social or political issues then Social Engineering can be like putting a match to a powder keg. In some cases the damages can be serious and can result in legal action between employee and employer, or visa versa.

It’s for this reason that businesses need to make sure that their environments are conducive to receiving social attacks, and that they are prepared to deal with the emotional consequences that might follow. If employees are trained properly and if security policies are enforced that cover the social vector, then things “should” be ok. If those policies don’t exist and if there’s any internal turmoil, high-risk employees, or potentially delicate political situations, then Social Engineering is probably not such a great idea as it will likely identify and exploit one of those pre-existing issues.

For example, we recently delivered services to a customer that had pre-existing issues but assumed that their environment was safe for testing with Social Engineering. In this particular case the customer had an employee that we’ll call Jane Doe who was running her own business on the side. Jane Doe was advertising her real employers name on her business website making it appear as if there was a relationship between her employer and her business. She was also advertising her business address as her employers address on her FaceBook fan page. From our perspective, Jane Doe was a perfect Social Engineering target.

With this social risk identified, we decided that we’d impersonate Jane Doe and hijack the existing relationships that she had with our customer (her employer). We accomplished this with a specially crafted phishing attack.

The first step in the phish was to collect content for the phishing email. In this case Jane Doe posted images to her FaceBook fan page that included a photo of herself and a copy of her businesses logo. We used those images to create an email that looked like it originated from Jane Doe’s email address at our customers network and was offering the recipient discounted pricing. (Her FaceBook privacy settings were set to allow everybody.)

Once we had the content for the phishing email set up we used an IDN homograph attack to register a new domain that appeared to be identical to our customers domain. For example, if our customer was SNOsoft and their real domain was, the fake domain looked just like “”.

We embedded a link into the phishing email using the fake domain to give it a legitimate look and feel. The link was advertised as the place to click to get information about specially discounted offerings that were specific to our customer’s employees. Of course, the link really pointed to our web server where we were hosting a browser based exploit.

Then we collected email addresses using an enumerator and loaded those into a distribution list. We sent a test email to ourselves first to make sure that everything would render ok. Once our testing was complete, we clicked send and the phish was on its way. Within 15 minutes of delivering the attack our customer called us and requested that all testing be stopped. But by that time, 38 people had already clicked on our embedded URL, and more clicks were on their way.

As it turns out, our customer wasn’t prepared to receive Social Engineering tests despite the fact that they requested them. At first they accused us of being unprofessional because we used Jane Doe’s picture in the phishing email, which was apparently embarrassing to Jane Doe. Then they accused us of being politically incorrect for the same reason.

So we asked our customer, “Do you think that a black-hat would refrain from doing this because it’s politically incorrect?” Then we said, “Imagine if a black-hat launched this attack, and received 38 clicks (and counting).” (Each click representing a potential compromise).

While we can’t go into much more detail for reasons of confidentiality, the phishing attack uncovered other more serious internal and political issues. Because of those issues, we had to discontinue testing and move to report delivery. There was no fault or error on our part as everything was requested and authorized by the customer, but this was certainly a case of the match and the powder keg.

Despite the unfortunate circumstances, the customer did benefit significantly from the services. Specifically, the customer became aware of some very serious social risks that would have been extremely damaging had they been identified and exploited by black-hat hackers. Even if it was a painfu
l process for the customer, we’re happy that we were able to deliver the services as we did because they enabled our customer to reduce their overall risk and exposure profile.

The moral of the story is that businesses should take care and caution when requesting Social Engineering services. They should be prepared for uncomfortable situations and discoveries, and if possible they should train and prepare their employees in advance. In the end it boils down to one of two things. Is it more important for a company to understand their risks or is it more important to avoid embarrassing or offending an employee.

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