When a group of Web vandals hacked into the Web site of USA Today on July 11 and inserted fraudulent news stories, the Internet security community got a taste of just how serious Web page defacements can be.
Most security professionals consider Web page defacement as little more than a nuisance. However, in interviews with Computerworld, analysts, hackers and members of some of the most infamous Web site defacement groups said newspaper officials at the subsidiary of McLean, Va.-based Gannett Co. got off easy.
Subtle changes could have been much more damaging, hackers and analysts said. In addition, the hack demonstrates the continued vulnerability of Web sites resulting from poor administration.
Although the USA Today defacement led to only minor downtime for the Web site, Peggy Weigle, CEO of Sanctum Inc., a security consulting firm in Santa Clara, Calif., said companies should fear the real economic ramifications of such hacks.
"Imagine a press release being posted that says the CEO and CFO are resigning due to undisclosed ethical or financial concerns," Weigle said. "The stock price would likely plummet immediately." Companies should always audit Web applications before "taking them live" on the Internet, she said.
"We found in our auditing that 90% of all attacks stem from poor configuration and administrators that do not consistently update the software they use," said EPiC, the leader of a "white hat" hacker group known as Hack3r.com.
A hacker who goes by the handle Hackah Jak said he agrees. "I can in minutes code a scanner to scan the Internet for two year-old, known vulnerabilities," said Hackah Jak, a former member of the Web page defacement group Hackweiser. "I've hit a lot of workstations this way and then worked my way through the network to the server."
Although he no longer hacks, Jak said he has managed to break through the security of major corporations, including Sony Corp., Anheuser-Busch Cos. and Jenny Craig International Inc.
A hacker nicknamed RaFa is the ex-leader of the now defunct World of Hell defacement group, which racked up thousands of Web site defacements before disbanding last year. He said that in addition to making simple configuration mistakes, most administrators don't keep up with updates and patches released by their software vendors.
"They don't update services running on the system, and they set up permissions and software settings the wrong way on the Web server," said RaFa. "Think about all of the zero-day exploits I've used. The vendors knew about 90% of those."
However, the real problem is not laziness, it's trust, said Genocide, the leader of the Genocide2600 hacker group. Most administrators and corporate managers simply trust that they are secure, he said.
"That is their first and biggest mistake," said Genocide. "People believe that since their company may not have anything that someone would want that they are free from attack." What administrators really need to do is treat every day as if they were at war and as if the enemy is always planning an attack, he added.
"It's the companies, administrators and CEOs that don't see it that way who become the easy targets," said Genocide. "They are the ones who don't keep their firewalls, intrusion-detection systems and software upgraded." And even if a company's systems are up to date now, eventually, a hole will appear, said Genocide. "Patience comes in handy if there isn't a hole readily exploitable," he said.
ScorpionKTX, a member of the hacker group known as Silver Lords, said there are many other ways administrators can slip up.
"Sometimes, we can access the server because it is configured poorly," he said. "That happens many times in Unix. Administrators also install Linux in the server because it's free, but Linux isn't easy to configure," ScorpionKTX explained.
"People also install software, such as PHP Hypertext Processor [a general purpose scripting language used in Web development], that they don't really need," he said. "Then, it is hard to verify if everything is secure. Administrators should install only the necessary software in their servers."