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Think Like a Hacker!

And succeed in dealing with threat actors

By Felipe Ruiz | September 10, 2021 | Category: Philosophy

Already a decade ago, columnist Roger A. Grimes commented as follows: "Career advisers often ask me what trait would most help an IT security pro excel. My answer is always the same: Think like a hacker." However, he immediately clarified that he was not referring to malicious (black-hat) hackers but to people who can devise ways to penetrate any computer system without engaging in illegal activities (white-hat hackers). Nevertheless, we could assume that only the motivations and ultimate purposes may differentiate the two groups. "By looking at systems through the eyes of a hacker, you can better identify weaknesses and create defenses. The best antihackers are hackers themselves," said Grimes. (In fact, this is Fluid Attacks' core, employing ethical hackers on behalf of client companies' cybersecurity.)

Related to these observations, this time, I took as the primary reference for this blog post the research conducted by Esteves, Ramalho, and de Haro, published in 2017 in the MIT Sloan Management Review. Basically, they surveyed 23 experienced hackers and, from the collected data, created a framework to help organizations respond to cyberattack threats. Let’s see what we could take away from their article and other sources.

Nowadays, we need to know that a good fight against cybersecurity risks requires that, within the companies concerned, everyone involved understands the traits, stratagems, and mindsets of those who can become intruders. All these people in charge need to maintain an open and flexible posture to see the threat actors and problems from different angles.

Among the first characteristics of hackers (both black-hat and white-hat) mentioned by the referenced authors, we have their high intellectual capacity, their supporting knowledge in computer science, and their tendency to enjoy taking risks. When it comes to malicious hackers specifically, they are often attracted by the idea of making thousands or millions of dollars with their cyber assaults. These attacks can easily be directed at individuals or organizations considerably distant from their places of action. Today, unlike in the past, these criminals work in groups, which can undoubtedly make them stronger. Each individual can contribute to the team with their particular expertise and specialties.

Mindsets and actions of hackers

Trying to think like the attacker is to act preventively. It is to want to anticipate what the criminal can do with your systems and information assets in order to reduce risks. For this purpose, it is pretty helpful to know the mindsets or sets of attitudes conferred to hackers. (But, again, these basic tendencies, far from bad intentions, can also be attributed to ethical hackers, who can best understand threat actors.) Precisely, Esteves and colleagues offer us two mindsets associated with hackers in an attack: explorative and exploitative. When an attack is just beginning, "hackers typically use an exploration mindset that combines deliberate and intuitive thinking and relies on intensive experimentation. […​] Once access to a system is gained, hackers rely on an exploitation mindset to meet their goals" (e.g., information theft).

Linked to these two previous sets of attitudes, the researchers refer to four steps typically followed by hackers in their attacks. Two exploration steps: (1) identifying vulnerabilities and (2) scanning and testing. Two exploitation steps: (3) gaining access and (4) maintaining access.

In the first step (identifying vulnerabilities), hackers tend to demonstrate patience and determination, as well as cleverness and curiosity. Having chosen, for example, a company as a target, they thoroughly examine the systems for vulnerabilities. They collect as much data as possible (i.e., footprinting technique). As our Offensive Team Leader Andres Roldan once mentioned in a presentation, hackers (including ethical ones) obtain, for example, technical details of the target, technical constraints, and enumeration of possible controls and data.

By detecting many of the security flaws available for exploitation, human error often comes into the hackers' sights as well. Access to systems can be facilitated by deceptive communication with company insiders who may unknowingly hand over credentials to attackers. From this, characteristics such as social and persuasive skills also stand out in some hackers.

In the second step (scanning and testing), hackers are bent on making progress. Their advancement with unauthorized access can be facilitated by the vulnerabilities they detect with scanning tools in apps on the systems. These flaws, though they may be small, can contribute to opening an even bigger hole.

In the third step (gaining access), hackers intrude into the system after having defined the potential vulnerability paths to follow or exploit. As Roldan said in his presentation, hackers can use public exploits or craft their own. They can abuse authorization flaws, crack credentials, and gain admin-like access. From there, they exfiltrate as much information as possible, abuse privileges, and access other domains with lateral movement.

Then, according to the authors, in the final step (maintaining access), "hackers try to retain their ownership of the system and access for future attacks while remaining unnoticed." At this stage, it is common for hackers to erase traces and evidence to avoid detection.

How can all this help us?

All this is just a glimpse. Finding out broadly how a hacker thinks and acts, discovering their behavior patterns, for example, by studying attacks that have already occurred or seeing them attack (ethical hackers, of course), can incredibly educate your firm in the field of cybersecurity. It can especially help your engineers and developers to generate plans, prepare for possible future events and reduce risks.

From the work of Esteves and colleagues, you can follow several recommendations. First of all, try to get specialized individuals, hopefully already qualified as hackers, to join your staff or work as outsiders, who, apart from evaluating your systems, help instruct other of your employees from an offensive standpoint. For instance, some organizations have invited hackers to penetrate their software and discover flaws for rewards and recognition (bug bounties). Moreover, for a long time now, some black-hat hackers have begun to switch sides. They have been sought out and hired to work ethically, even in companies on which they directed attacks.

Look for ways to do footprinting in your firm on a regular basis, and go over your systems and their weaknesses with a fine-tooth comb. Take care to educate your employees about your data handling policies and the techniques malicious hackers might use to deceive them. Conduct penetration tests on your apps with the help of your experts and companies such as Fluid Attacks to find out how far cybercriminals could get into your systems and why. Keep an eye on all potential paths to close or block them asap. Finally, maintain active vigilance for suspicious events and ensure that your control and monitoring systems remain up to date.

If you want to start immersing yourself in the ideas and ways of thinking of hackers or broaden your spectrum in this regard, I invite you to take a look at our posts (1.0, 2.0, 3.0, 4.0, 5.0) based on the Tribe of Hackers Red Team book by Carey and Jin (2019).

One of the most important steps to preventing a cybersecurity breach is understanding your adversary; the techniques they’re using, the malware they’re armed with, what they’re targeting, and the vulnerabilities that put you most at risk. Threatpost