Unhackable System Claimed: Could It Be True?
A Hungarian company has challenged hackers to try and break into their system.
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.
A Hungarian company is trying to capitalize on fears of big government spy programs by promising NSA-proof data storage, and challenging anyone to break inside their systems or website. But some experts say tech firm Tresorit's $25,000 “hacker challenge” is just a public relations gambit that doesn’t prove much.
The firm, founded in 2011 by graduates of the Budapest University of Technology and Economics, says it offers secure cloud data and client-encrypted data. That means that it gives encryption keys to clients who want to store files and other kinds of data so customers do the encryption rather than trusting the firm itself to protect it, says Tresorit spokesman Szabolcs Nagy. Those keys can then be shared with others.
"What we get is data, and we can’t decrypt it," Nagy said. "Our founders are very paranoid, they are very cryptographic guys. We don’t want you to trust us."
Since Tresorit launched its Dropbox-like storage system in April, Nagy says it has signed up 100,000 users. Revelations last summer of snooping by the National Security Agency on customers of Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Dropbox and PayPal have shaken the tech sector as well as driven calls for legal reforms and greater privacy.
The privacy debate has led companies to offer NSA-proof cellphones, email or storage. AeroFS, for example, a start-up based in Menlo Park, Calif., announced in November its version of a file storage software that works inside each customer’s own firewall, rather than using a third-party system that could be vulnerable.
To prove the capability of their secure systems, Tresorit executives announced recently that it would give $25,000 to anyone who could break in. Nagy says 700 people from 49 countries have participated in the challenge which expires in the spring of 2014, including students from MIT, Stanford, Princeton as well as private firms like Vodafone and Tata Consulting.
Is there such a thing as a hacker-proof system?Getty Images
But David Evans, a cryptography expert and professor of computer science at the University of Virginia, is skeptical about the usefulness of the Tresorit contest.
"Anytime you have software run by them, you are trusting them with all that data," Evans said. "It's a murky security proposition that they are offering you."
Evans said that many firms actually pay professional hackers to attempt to break into their systems and expose various weaknesses.
"If they really cared about doing a security assessment about their design they wouldn't be doing this kind of challenge," Evans said. "The problem is that hiring someone good is going to cost a lot more than $25,000 and won’t get them any publicity."
For his part, Tresorit's Nagy says the hacker challenge is a valuable exercise, no matter who takes part.
"We want to make sure our system is safe," he said, "but most of the time vulnerabilities exist in unlikely places."
Whether or not Tresorit's effort works, the value of such contests isn't lost on the NSA either. The spy agency joined Carnegie Mellon University in April to sponsor "Toaster Wars," challenging high school code geeks to play a online game of "capture the flag" by hacking a make-believe space-traveling robot.