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NOTE: CentOS Enterprise Linux 5 is built from the Red Hat Enterprise Linux source code. Other than logo and name changes CentOS Enterprise Linux 5 is compatible with the equivalent Red Hat version. This document applies equally to both Red Hat and CentOS Enterprise Linux 5.

41.3. Attackers and Vulnerabilities

To plan and implement a good security strategy, first be aware of some of the issues which determined, motivated attackers exploit to compromise systems. But before detailing these issues, the terminology used when identifying an attacker must be defined.

41.3.1. A Quick History of Hackers

The modern meaning of the term hacker has origins dating back to the 1960s and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Tech Model Railroad Club, which designed train sets of large scale and intricate detail. Hacker was a name used for club members who discovered a clever trick or workaround for a problem.

The term hacker has since come to describe everything from computer buffs to gifted programmers. A common trait among most hackers is a willingness to explore in detail how computer systems and networks function with little or no outside motivation. Open source software developers often consider themselves and their colleagues to be hackers, and use the word as a term of respect.

Typically, hackers follow a form of the hacker ethic which dictates that the quest for information and expertise is essential, and that sharing this knowledge is the hackers duty to the community. During this quest for knowledge, some hackers enjoy the academic challenges of circumventing security controls on computer systems. For this reason, the press often uses the term hacker to describe those who illicitly access systems and networks with unscrupulous, malicious, or criminal intent. The more accurate term for this type of computer hacker is cracker — a term created by hackers in the mid-1980s to differentiate the two communities. Shades of Gray

Within the community of individuals who find and exploit vulnerabilities in systems and networks are several distinct groups. These groups are often described by the shade of hat that they "wear" when performing their security investigations and this shade is indicative of their intent.

The white hat hacker is one who tests networks and systems to examine their performance and determine how vulnerable they are to intrusion. Usually, white hat hackers crack their own systems or the systems of a client who has specifically employed them for the purposes of security auditing. Academic researchers and professional security consultants are two examples of white hat hackers.

A black hat hacker is synonymous with a cracker. In general, crackers are less focused on programming and the academic side of breaking into systems. They often rely on available cracking programs and exploit well known vulnerabilities in systems to uncover sensitive information for personal gain or to inflict damage on the target system or network.

The gray hat hacker, on the other hand, has the skills and intent of a white hat hacker in most situations but uses his knowledge for less than noble purposes on occasion. A gray hat hacker can be thought of as a white hat hacker who wears a black hat at times to accomplish his own agenda.

Gray hat hackers typically subscribe to another form of the hacker ethic, which says it is acceptable to break into systems as long as the hacker does not commit theft or breach confidentiality. Some would argue, however, that the act of breaking into a system is in itself unethical.

Regardless of the intent of the intruder, it is important to know the weaknesses a cracker may likely attempt to exploit. The remainder of the chapter focuses on these issues.

41.3.2. Threats to Network Security

Bad practices when configuring the following aspects of a network can increase the risk of attack. Insecure Architectures

A misconfigured network is a primary entry point for unauthorized users. Leaving a trust-based, open local network vulnerable to the highly-insecure Internet is much like leaving a door ajar in a crime-ridden neighborhood — nothing may happen for an arbitrary amount of time, but eventually someone exploits the opportunity. Broadcast Networks

System administrators often fail to realize the importance of networking hardware in their security schemes. Simple hardware such as hubs and routers rely on the broadcast or non-switched principle; that is, whenever a node transmits data across the network to a recipient node, the hub or router sends a broadcast of the data packets until the recipient node receives and processes the data. This method is the most vulnerable to address resolution protocol (arp) or media access control (MAC) address spoofing by both outside intruders and unauthorized users on local hosts. Centralized Servers

Another potential networking pitfall is the use of centralized computing. A common cost-cutting measure for many businesses is to consolidate all services to a single powerful machine. This can be convenient as it is easier to manage and costs considerably less than multiple-server configurations. However, a centralized server introduces a single point of failure on the network. If the central server is compromised, it may render the network completely useless or worse, prone to data manipulation or theft. In these situations, a central server becomes an open door which allows access to the entire network.

41.3.3. Threats to Server Security

Server security is as important as network security because servers often hold a great deal of an organization's vital information. If a server is compromised, all of its contents may become available for the cracker to steal or manipulate at will. The following sections detail some of the main issues. Unused Services and Open Ports

A full installation of Red Hat Enterprise Linux contains 1000+ application and library packages. However, most server administrators do not opt to install every single package in the distribution, preferring instead to install a base installation of packages, including several server applications.

A common occurrence among system administrators is to install the operating system without paying attention to what programs are actually being installed. This can be problematic because unneeded services may be installed, configured with the default settings, and possibly turned on. This can cause unwanted services, such as Telnet, DHCP, or DNS, to run on a server or workstation without the administrator realizing it, which in turn can cause unwanted traffic to the server, or even, a potential pathway into the system for crackers. Refer To Section 42.2, “Server Security” for information on closing ports and disabling unused services. Unpatched Services

Most server applications that are included in a default installation are solid, thoroughly tested pieces of software. Having been in use in production environments for many years, their code has been thoroughly refined and many of the bugs have been found and fixed.

However, there is no such thing as perfect software and there is always room for further refinement. Moreover, newer software is often not as rigorously tested as one might expect, because of its recent arrival to production environments or because it may not be as popular as other server software.

Developers and system administrators often find exploitable bugs in server applications and publish the information on bug tracking and security-related websites such as the Bugtraq mailing list ( or the Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) website ( Although these mechanisms are an effective way of alerting the community to security vulnerabilities, it is up to system administrators to patch their systems promptly. This is particularly true because crackers have access to these same vulnerability tracking services and will use the information to crack unpatched systems whenever they can. Good system administration requires vigilance, constant bug tracking, and proper system maintenance to ensure a more secure computing environment.

Refer to Section 41.5, “Security Updates” for more information about keeping a system up-to-date. Inattentive Administration

Administrators who fail to patch their systems are one of the greatest threats to server security. According to the System Administration Network and Security Institute (SANS), the primary cause of computer security vulnerability is to "assign untrained people to maintain security and provide neither the training nor the time to make it possible to do the job."[14] This applies as much to inexperienced administrators as it does to overconfident or amotivated administrators.

Some administrators fail to patch their servers and workstations, while others fail to watch log messages from the system kernel or network traffic. Another common error is when default passwords or keys to services are left unchanged. For example, some databases have default administration passwords because the database developers assume that the system administrator changes these passwords immediately after installation. If a database administrator fails to change this password, even an inexperienced cracker can use a widely-known default password to gain administrative privileges to the database. These are only a few examples of how inattentive administration can lead to compromised servers. Inherently Insecure Services

Even the most vigilant organization can fall victim to vulnerabilities if the network services they choose are inherently insecure. For instance, there are many services developed under the assumption that they are used over trusted networks; however, this assumption fails as soon as the service becomes available over the Internet — which is itself inherently untrusted.

One category of insecure network services are those that require unencrypted usernames and passwords for authentication. Telnet and FTP are two such services. If packet sniffing software is monitoring traffic between the remote user and such a service usernames and passwords can be easily intercepted.

Inherently, such services can also more easily fall prey to what the security industry terms the man-in-the-middle attack. In this type of attack, a cracker redirects network traffic by tricking a cracked name server on the network to point to his machine instead of the intended server. Once someone opens a remote session to the server, the attacker's machine acts as an invisible conduit, sitting quietly between the remote service and the unsuspecting user capturing information. In this way a cracker can gather administrative passwords and raw data without the server or the user realizing it.

Another category of insecure services include network file systems and information services such as NFS or NIS, which are developed explicitly for LAN usage but are, unfortunately, extended to include WANs (for remote users). NFS does not, by default, have any authentication or security mechanisms configured to prevent a cracker from mounting the NFS share and accessing anything contained therein. NIS, as well, has vital information that must be known by every computer on a network, including passwords and file permissions, within a plain text ASCII or DBM (ASCII-derived) database. A cracker who gains access to this database can then access every user account on a network, including the administrator's account.

By default, Red Hat Enterprise Linux is released with all such services turned off. However, since administrators often find themselves forced to use these services, careful configuration is critical. Refer to Section 42.2, “Server Security” for more information about setting up services in a safe manner.

41.3.4. Threats to Workstation and Home PC Security

Workstations and home PCs may not be as prone to attack as networks or servers, but since they often contain sensitive data, such as credit card information, they are targeted by system crackers. Workstations can also be co-opted without the user's knowledge and used by attackers as "slave" machines in coordinated attacks. For these reasons, knowing the vulnerabilities of a workstation can save users the headache of reinstalling the operating system, or worse, recovering from data theft. Bad Passwords

Bad passwords are one of the easiest ways for an attacker to gain access to a system. For more on how to avoid common pitfalls when creating a password, refer to Section 42.1.3, “Password Security”. Vulnerable Client Applications

Although an administrator may have a fully secure and patched server, that does not mean remote users are secure when accessing it. For instance, if the server offers Telnet or FTP services over a public network, an attacker can capture the plain text usernames and passwords as they pass over the network, and then use the account information to access the remote user's workstation.

Even when using secure protocols, such as SSH, a remote user may be vulnerable to certain attacks if they do not keep their client applications updated. For instance, v.1 SSH clients are vulnerable to an X-forwarding attack from malicious SSH servers. Once connected to the server, the attacker can quietly capture any keystrokes and mouse clicks made by the client over the network. This problem was fixed in the v.2 SSH protocol, but it is up to the user to keep track of what applications have such vulnerabilities and update them as necessary.

Section 42.1, “Workstation Security” discusses in more detail what steps administrators and home users should take to limit the vulnerability of computer workstations.

  Published under the terms of the GNU General Public License Design by Interspire