Once relegated to the shadows of the digital underground, hacking has gone mainstream. Hardly a day goes by without the announcement of a major cybersecurity breach, sometimes conducted by groups, such as Anonymous and LulzSec, that are virtually becoming household names. Hacking has become so prevalent that it has even been allegedly used by major news organizations in the United Kingdom for news gathering. This year alone, there have been a number of high-profile attacks on major companies, such as Sony; international organizations, such as NATO; and even entire governments, as was the case most recently with Syria. Although the major players are becoming more familiar, to many, their methods are as opaque as they've always been. In this slideshow, explore some of the techniques used by hackers to exploit and overcome cybersecurity vulnerabilities.
Eavesdropping and Other Passive Attacks With a passive attack, computer systems and networks are monitored in order for a hacker to gain some information. One technique involves eavesdropping, where a hacker listens in on a network. The point isn't to cause damage to the computer system itself, but to harvest information as it's transmitted. This technique is also known as sniffing or snooping. Eavesdropping is not only a concern for computers, but also mobile devices as they become ubiquitous.
Viruses, Worms and Other Active Attacks Active attacks, such as viruses and trojans, are techniques where a hacker manipulates or deletes data to create the desired result. Computer viruses were first seen in the late 1980s just as home computers were growing more popular. As its name suggests, a virus is a piece of code attached to a seemingly innocuous program and passed between computers. Once inside a system, the virus spreads and can bring down a computer. Like a virus, a Trojan horse is simply a computer program. As the name implies, a Trojan horse fools the user into thinking it's another kind of program, and once installed, releases a malicious code. Another cousin of the virus is the computer worm. Worms burrow into network security holes to pass and install malicious code from user to user. One of the most severe cyber-attacks of all time was through the accidental use of a worm by a graduate student in 1988, who was looking to determine the size of the Internet. Software used for a variety of functions from disrupting a system to gaining access to a network is often called malware. Spyware serves to collect information on users and may or may not be malicious. Not all spyware is malware and vice versa. There are also more niche subcategories of malware, such as ransomware, a term used for an attack meant to scare the user into paying what is essentially a form of blackmail, or scareware, a product falsely sold under the premise that it will protect your computer from outside threats.
Denial of Service A denial of service attack is a technique intended to impede normal operations of a website or network. The basic idea is to overrun a computer or server with requests from outside a network to overwhelm the system's available resources. By flooding the intended target with requests, hackers incapacitate the site. These attacks often employ botnets, also known as zombie computers, which are systems that are taken over, sometimes unknowingly though occasionally voluntarily, by a hacker. This technique was most notably employed by the hacking group known as Anonymous against various websites, including Mastercard, Visa, Paypal and others, in the wake of the controversy surrounding the online whistleblower Wikileaks.
Going In The Back Door Earlier this year, hackers shut down Sony's PlayStation Network and stole the personal information, including some credit card data, from nearly 100 millions users. According to a letter by Sony following a Congressional inquiry into the matter, the company asserted that the heist was the result of two groups of hackers: the first launched a denial of service attack while the second stole the data. Before this series of attacks took place, however, Sony itself was accused of slipping malicious code -- a rootkit -- into one of its firmware updates for the PlayStation 3. A rootkit, also known as a back door, is software that gives a hacker access to a computer or network, often without an administrator's knowledge. Gaming security experts, however, dismissed the rumors as false.
Phishing and Sidejacking Behind almost all secure data both online and off is a username and password. If a hacker can gain user information and crack a password, that attacker can access a network and create, modify or delete data maliciously. Different techniques, however, are used to steal a user's password. One of the most popular methods is known as phishing. It starts when a hacker sends an electronic communication to an unsuspecting user under the illusion that the message is from a trusted institution. The user is duped into supplying his information, which may not only include a username and password but also a social security number and bank account information. Another method, known as sidejacking, session IDs, which can be unencrypted data in a URL or cookie, to gain access to an account. Other automated attacks simply guess passwords using predetermined dictionaries and often exploits systems without lockout policies for successive login failures.
Keylogging Keylogging is a technique that could be used for password cracking, but goes a step further. It allows hackers to monitor every stroke of the key entered by a user, which could include other information besides passwords, such as social security numbers, credit card data and much more.
Spoofing With spoofing attacks, hackers pretend to be a user designated to access a particular system or network by mimicking that person's IP address. Once a hacker is inside the system, that attacker can steal or delete data, or access other resources within a particular network.
Computer-savvy teens are putting down their game controllers -- at least temporarily -- for code writing and virus-sweeping. Call it "Red Dawn: Part Deux: Teen Cyber-Commandos."
At events like the CyberLympics, CyberPatriot contest or just-announced "Toaster Wars," sponsored by the National Security Agency, high school geek squads are competing to see who does the best job at preventing unauthorized computer intrusions.
This growing interest in cyberdefense comes at a time when the Pentagon officials are warning against damaging computer attacks from China and other nations, while stoking concerns that the United States education system hasn't trained enough cyber-warriors to protect either military or civilian computer systems.
Utilities, power companies, tech firms, banks, Congress, universities and media organizations, all have faced suspected Chinese attacks in recent months.
"The threat has evolved so quickly," said Diane Miller, Northrop Grumman’s director of information security and cyber initiatives. "It really has created a sense of urgency."
The Pentagon and its defense contractors are behind these contests, which are designed to recruit kids to future careers in cyberdefense and IT security. The CyberPatriot contest, which is sponsored by the Air Force Association, has grown from eight high school squads in 2009 to more than 1,200 this year.
The finals were held last week at National Harbor just outside Washington, D.C., in a hotel ballroom next door to a meeting of conservative Republican activists. The event occured as several top-level Obama administration officials warned Congress and the Washington press of dire consequences from Chinese cyberattacks, and pledged to expand the size of the Pentagon's cyber command division.
The Marshall team advanced through three preliminary rounds to make it to the final round of 12. During a break in the contest, Houck compared the contest to gaming, and talked about what his future holds.
"Cyberwarfare is the war of tomorrow and we don’t have enough soldiers on the cyber battlefield," he said. "I just want to be one of those."
Houck said computer games and cyberdefense exercises are both competitions "but in fighting another human being on the cyber-plane, you always have to keep on your toes. You can fight a computer and it becomes predictable."
A recent Pentagon report called for tripling the number of workers at the U.S. Cyber Command, but there's one big hitch. To become a cyber professional working in government, potential employees have to have exceptionally clean records. That means no arrests or expulsions for hacking into school computers or shutting down websites.
While the students are taught advanced computer skills, they also receive training in computer ethics, according to Scott Kennedy, assistant vice president and principal systems engineering manager at SAIC, a defense contractor and cybersecurity provider based in Northern Virginia. In fact, some students have been kicked out for getting into other team’s computers, or issuing denial of service attacks.
"It’s more obnoxious than anything else," Kennedy said. "In prior competitions, we have caught them trying to cheat and trying to game the game. We give them a warning and then they are expelled."
Houck and other students interviewed at the contest say they know the fine line between white hat and black hat. Houck said hacking and defending are two sides of the same coin and that the only way to make a proper defense is to understand your weaknesses.
"We are trained in offensive security, or ethical hacking, but we do know how to monitor a network like a school and watch all the traffic going through," Houck said. "And if it’s encrypted, we do know how to break that." Houck and the Marshall team placed second at this year’s event, and will sharing a $100,000 pot of scholarship money with other winning teams.