A Hacker's Final Exam: Federal Systems

More and more cybervandals are turning their attention to U.S. federal government networks to test their virus-development skills and prove their hacking prowess, according to one of the U.S. Army's top security experts.

In the hacker community, "you get your gold certificate by [hacking] the Department of Defense or another federal agency," said Philip Loranger, chief of the Command and Control Protect Division in the Army's Information Assurance Office. Hackers on Tuesday threatened to take down the Army's home page on the World Wide Web today.

Loranger said hacker groups consider a successful hack against a U.S. government system a right of passage. Hacker groups also are crawling out from the underground and establishing commercial Web sites where other hackers can download hacking tools, he said.

One such group - Lopht Heavy Industries - offers via its Web site what Loranger called one of the most effective network surveillance tools available. "They used to [hack] us, and now they're going to sell to us," said Loranger. "And guess what? We're buying."

Loranger noted that in India, graduate programs in computer science are known to require students to conduct a successful hack against a system in the United States before they can get their degree. However, many of the tools available on the Internet are so easy to use that any computer novice can become a dangerous hacker, he said.

During the Army Directors of Information Management Conference here, Loranger demonstrated how fast these "point-and-click" tools can help hackers map out networks, uncover security gaps such as "guest" log-on accounts and password files, gain root access to major network servers, and locate computers belonging to high-level officials. The same types of tools exist for creating viruses, he said.

"If you've ever been [listed] in the White Pages [in the phone book], you're going to show up," said Loranger, demonstrating how Network Solutions Inc.'s popular Whois service can provide hackers with anybody's full name, e-mail address, phone and fax number, and the server address that supports those accounts.

Using a notebook computer with a 2,400 megabits/sec Internet connection, Loranger displayed a network map of all the systems associated with an Army official at the Pentagon. From there, he gained access to the system using a program called "John the Ripper," which cracked all but one of the passwords in the Caldera Inc. Open Linux-based system.

"This is like taking candy from a baby," said Loranger. "This is about a two-minute hack. And I haven't used a single hacker tool yet."

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