Hackers motto - what they don't see will hurt them

Hackers motto - what they don't see will hurt them

A California computer security consultant says that while organisations are building strong firewalls to protect them from intruders on the Internet, many are inadvertently leaving their dial-up corporate networks exposed.

Peter Shipley, a security expert who does third-party penetration testing, says: "Many organisations have armed guards at the front door, yet the side door is left ajar with a brick as the smokers come and go to have a cigarette. The same thing can be said of computer environments."

Organisations pay Shipley to try to hack into their computer networks. About a year ago, he began using a technique called war dialling as part of a report he's preparing on network security in the San Francisco Bay Area. If you've seen the movie War Games, you know the technique: Shipley sets up his computers to mass-dial hundreds of thousands of phone numbers, hoping a modem will answer on the other end.

So far, he's dialled about 1.4 million phone numbers and found that about one per cent - that's 14,000 - have modems connected. Of those, Shipley estimates that 30 per cent have insufficient security to prevent hackers from getting in. Many are corporate Unix machines that almost seem to be inviting hackers in.

Nitty gritty details

In Australia, the nuts and bolts of network security don't mean all that much to most resellers unless their clients are the types who tear their hair out at the roots over any security breach.

"Most resellers have a general understanding of the importance of security; however, they don't understand the mechanics in the slightest," claimed Leigh Costin, Symantec's regional product manager, pcAnywhere.

The latest release of pcAnywhere version 8, contains several features to protect security, all of which can be set up when the software is installed.

The product can define caller lists of people who have access rights to a particular machine, and define appropriate passwords. It also includes Windows NT-based authentication which ensures that only end users with an account name can access the network.

Costin said the key to explaining this complex security concept to resellers lies in the simplicity with which vendors distribute their message. Symantec relies on two key words when educating its channel partners - consistency and access.

Costin said resellers can address the consistency issues with their customers by establishing a standards security interface across the organisation using firewalls or encryption, for example.

As for access, the message is again plain and simple.

"Don't leave any point of access to a customer's network untouched. A good knowledge of network security could save a customer's business," Costin added.

The ramifications of any minor security breach on either host or remote client can be quite damaging, as Shipley discovered in his hacking travels. "When you access with the modem, you get a log-in banner or a log-in prompt," says Shipley.

While his research mainly aims to uncover weaknesses in Unix systems, Shipley says that war dialling has also detected numerous home PCs running Windows-based remote access software to allow their owners to dial in from the road or access the corporate LAN. Shipley says that such software isn't always configured properly to prevent unauthorised access.

Shipley says he plans to publish a report in the coming months with the results of his war-dialling project. And he assures everyone that he hasn't actually accessed the systems his dialler has found - he calls it the "look but don't touch" philosophy.

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