1.3. 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. However, before detailing these issues, the terminology used when identifying an attacker must be defined.
1.3.1. 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.
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.