Saturday, June 18, 2011

CIA Website Hack Recalls Early Days of eCommerce

Recent hacking of the CIA website brings back memories of the earliest days of eCommerce on the Web and the first wave of website hacking. The first defacing of the CIA website was carried out in September 1996. For those too young to remember, here's what it looked like:
The hacking was done by Swedish hackers using the name "Group Power Through Resistance" and their goals went beyond embarrassing the CIA. According to TechWorld Sweden:

"The attack messages were primarily intended for the then Swedish state prosecutor [Bo Skarinder] who accused members of the Swedish Hackers Association of hacking. The sentence "Stop lying Bo Skarinder!" is remembered to this day."

The most recent CIA website hack, as of this post, was the following effort by an Indian hacker who goes by “lionaneesh":

Lionaneesh claims to have gained access by exploiting an XSS or cross-site scripting vulnerability (here's a detailed explanation of XSS written by my brother Mike).

When Lionaneesh tweeted about his exploits on a Twitter account his name was listed as Aneesh Dogra (that name has since been removed, but the Twitter account is still active). Posting a "follow me" message on a hacked CIA web page is one of the more interesting ways to gain followers (of which @lionaneesh now has 206).

Via Twitter, Aneesh expressed affinity with LulzSec, the hacker group that claimed responsibility for an attack on the CIA earlier in the week.The page defaced by Mr. Dogra was taken down quite quickly, but a screenshot of it was posted on The Hacker News (as reported on GMA NEWS, the Filipino news site).

That first round of government agency website hacks in 1996 served as a wakeup call to eCommerce sites which were starting to come on line at that time (a time when I was providing consulting services to such companies, via the NCSA that later became ICSA Labs, and the Miora Systems Consulting company that later became InfoSec Labs, founded by Michael Miora, Vincent Schiavone, David Brussin, and of course me).

When I was writing my first paper on the topic of Internet Commerce, delivered at a conference in Hong Kong in early 1996, I struggled to find examples of website defacing. The one that does stick with me is a fur dealer who was targeted by animal rights activists. That sent a strong message about brand-tarnishing and activist-hacking, which became known as hacktivism. It also alerted companies to the truly global nature of the world wide web. you might write your website content for your customers, but the entire world can read it if they choose to do so.

To this day I would advise companies against publishing content on their websites that advocates an unpopular point-of-view or employs insensitive language, unless they are well-prepared to repel attacks from people who do not share that point of view. An example I used to cite was a timber industry website that was thinking of putting its newsletters online, the content of which was standard stuff within the industry, but a red flag to environmental extremists (who would be able to find it much more easily on the web than by getting a copy of the printed edition.)

A quick read of the Wikipedia page on hactivism will tell you the term is still emotion-laden because both hacking and activism remain ambiguous terms, seen as the illegal actions of bad actors by those on the receiving end, and the right thing, done for good reason, by the doers. The issue is not made any easier by the pugnacious "shoot-the-messenger" reaction of many organizations to news that their systems are vulnerable.

My wife encountered this when she questioned a suspicious network connection at a government facility containing highly sensitive classified data. She was angrily asked: "What do you think you're doing probing this network?" As a graduate of the Stephen Cobb School of Tact and Diplomacy she avoided snapping back with the obvious: "My job!" Instead, she calmly explained that her boss had asked her to create a map of the network for which he was responsible and, in doing so, she had found an undocumented connection to an insecure network. Thanks to a boss who stood by his employee [my wife] the issue was resolved, but not before the threat of prosecution was raised by the "offended" party who owned the insecure network (and who chose to remain in denial of its insecurity).

Many such stories are documented on the web and one can imagine a hacker finding a flaw in the CIA website wondering what to do about it. Tell the CIA? Who may come looking for you because they can't accept that a. their site is insecure, b. your intentions are honorable. Clearly this is a dilemma. When you exploit the vulnerability that you have found you create an example that can be used to remind governments and companies that web security is not a fix-and-forget challenge but an ongoing effort. Nevertheless, the right thing to do is NOT hack the site. And hacking it for personal glory does nothing to help your claim that you were trying to do the right thing.

Finally, it has to be said that if any federal government agency ought to be a showcase of website security best practices it is the CIA. I'm NOT saying they deserved to be hacked, but they deserve to be on the receiving end of probing questions. As do other government entities. For example, the method that Private Bradley Manning used to remove copies of classified government documents from SIPRNET, the ones that ended up on Wikileaks, was clearly a violation of policies and procedures that my wife laid down over ten years ago to address such problems. It is hard to argue that the people who chose not to enforce such policies are entirely blameless for what their actions, or inaction, allowed to transpire.