By Art Reisman
Inspired by the recent accusations regarding the alleged Russian Hacking of the DNC e-mail servers, I ask the question, is it really possible for our intelligence agencies to say with confidence exactly who hacked those servers? I honestly don’t think so. To back up my opinion, I have decided to take our faithful blog readers through the mind and actions of a professional hacker, intent on breaking into a corporate e-mail server, without leaving a trace. From there you can draw your own conclusions.
My hacking scenario below is based on actual techniques that our own ethical hackers use to test security at corporations. These companies contract with us to deliberately break into their It systems, and yes sometimes we do break in.
First we will follow our hacker through the process of a typical deliberate illegal break in, and then we will analyze the daunting task of a forensic expert must deal with after the fact.
Here we go….
- First I need a platform for the first phase of my attack. I want to find a computer with no formal ties to my identity. Just like the public telephone booth of the 70’s and 80’s were used for calling in bomb threats, the computers in your public libraries can easily conceal my identity.
- To further cover my trail, I bring my own flash memory with me to the library, it contains a software program commonly referred to as “BOT”. This allows me to move data programs onto the library computer without doing something like logging into my personal e-mail , which would leave a record of me being there. In this case my BOT specializes in crawling the Internet looking for consumer grade desktop computers to break into.
- My BOT searches the Internet at random looking for computers which are un-protected. It will hit several thousand computers an hour for as long as I let it run
- I don’t want to go to long with my BOT running from the Library, because all the outbound activity it generates, may be detected as a virus by an Upstream ISP. The good news in my favor is that BOTs both friendly and malicious are very common. At any time of the day there are millions of them running all over the world.
Note, running a bot in itself is not a crime, it is just bad etiquette and annoying. It is extremely unlikely that anybody would actually be able to see that I am trying to hack into computers (yes this is a crime) with my BOT , because that would take very specialized equipment , and since I chose my Library at random the chances of drawing attention at this stage are minuscule. Typically a law enforcement agency must attain a warrant to set up their detection equipment. all the upstream provider would sense is an unusual high rate of traffic coming out of the library.
- Once my bot has found some unprotected home computers and I have their login credentials, I am ready for phase 2 . I save off their IP addresses and credentials, and delete the bot from the computer in the Library and leave never to return.
You might be wondering how does a BOT get access to home computers? Many are still out there running very old versions of Windows or Linux and have generic passwords like “password”. The BOT attempts to login through a well known service such as SSH ( remote Login) and guesses the password. The BOT may run into 1,000 dead ends or more before cracking a single computer. Just like a mindless robot should, it works tirelessly without complaint
- I again go to the Library and set up shop. Only this time instead of a BOT I come armed with phishing scam e-mail on my Flash. From a computer in the library I remotely login into one of the home computers whose credentials I attained in Phase 1 and set up shop.
- I set up a program that will send e-mails from the home computer to people who work at the DNC with my trojan horse content.
If I am smart, I do a little research on their back ground(s) of the poeple I sending to so as to make the e-mails as authentic as possible. Most consumers have seen the obvious scams where you get some ridiculous out of context e-mail with a link to open some file you never asked for, that works for mass e-mailing to the public, hopeing to find a few old ladies, or the computer illiterate, but I would assume that people who work at the DNC , would just think it is a spam e-mail and delete it. Hence, they get something a little more personalized.
How do I find the targeted employ e-mails at the DNC ? That is a bit easier , many times they are published on a Web site, or I simply guess at employee e-mails addresses , such as email@example.com.
- If any of the targeted e-mails I have sent to a DNC employee are opened they will, unbeknowest to them, be installing a keystroke logger that captures everything they type. In this way when they login into the DNC e-mail server I also get a login and access to all their e-mails
How do I insure my victim does not suspect they have been hacked ? Stealth , Stealth , Stealth. All of my hacking my tools such as my keystroke logger have very small inconspicuous footprints. I am not trying to crash or detroy anything at the DNC. The person or persons who systems I gaing entry through most likely will never know. Also I will only be using them for a very short period of time, and I will delete them on my way out.
- Getting e-mail access. Once the keystroke logger is in place I have it report back to another one of my hacked personal computers. In this way the information I am collecting will sit on a home computer with no ties to back to me. WHen I go to collet this information , I again go to a Library with my flash card and download key stroke information, eventually I directly load up al the e-mails I can get onto my flash drive while in the Library. I then take them to the Kremlin ( or whoever I work for and hand over the flash drives containing 10’s of thousands of e-mails for off line analysis.
Debunking the Russian Hacking Theory
The FBI purports to have found a “Russian Signature file ” on the DNC server?
- It’s not like the hacking community has dialects associated with their hacking tools. Although If I was a Chinese hacker I might make sure I left a path pointing back at Russia , why not ? . If you recall I deleted my hacking tools on the way out, and yes I know how to scrub them so there is no latent foot print on the disk drive
- As you can infer from my hacking example , I can hack pretty much autonomously from anywhere in the US or the world for that matter, using a series of intermediaries and without ever residing at permanent location.
- Even if the FBI follows logs of where historical access into the DNC has come from, the trail is going to lead to some Grandma’s computer at some random location. Remember all my contacts directly into the DNC were from my Hijacked Grandma computers. Perhaps that is enough to draw a conclusion so the FBI can blame some poor Russian Grandma. As the real hacker all the better for me, let Grandma take the diversion, somebody else is going to get the blame.
- Now let’s suppose the FBI is really on the ball and somehow figures that Grandma’s computer was just a shill hijacked by me. So they get a warrant and raid Grandma’s computer and they find a trail . This path is going to lead them back to the Library where I sat perhaps 3 months ago.
- We can go another step farther, suppose the library had video surveillance and they caught me coming and going , then just perhaps they could make an ID match
By now you get the idea, assuming the hacker was a foreign sponsored professional and was not caught in the act, the trail is going to be impossible to make any definite conclusions from.
To see another detailed account of what it takes to hack into a server please visit our 2011 article “Confessions of a hacker“