October 09, 2001, 12:00 AM — What do Bubbles Car Wash in Houston, Primal Elements Inc. in Garden
Grove, Calif., and the city of Kerville, Texas, have in common?
Security analysts said all three are examples of how automated scanning
tools and hacking probes can make random prey out of any Web site,
including those that might otherwise seem to be improbable targets of
malicious attackers bent on defacing home pages or compromising
Web sites run by the two companies and Kerville's local government were
victims of the recent spat between Chinese and American hackers that
broke out after the recent spy plane crisis involving the two
countries. But there likely wasn't any particular reason why those
sites were defaced by anti-American graffiti.
Sites often get hacked simply because they present an opportunity for
vandalism and not because they espouse any ideology or cause that an
attacker may oppose, said Ira Winkler, president of the Internet
Security Advisors Group in Severna Park, Md., and author of Corporate
Espionage (Prima Publishing, 1999). "To a hacker, you're just an IP
address," Winkler said. "You get hit because you let yourself be an
Because most automated scanning tools are prowling the Web in search of
systems that are susceptible to known security vulnerabilities, he
added, companies often can mitigate their risks by applying recommended
software patches and updates whenever they become available.
Two other things companies can do to minimize their exposure to attacks
is to make their home pages "read only" and to get rid of the cmd.exe
DOS prompt on their Web servers, said Russ Cooper, an analyst at
Reston, Va.-based security firm TruSecure Corp. The DOS prompt is often
exploited by attackers to generate malicious commands, he noted.
In attacks that rely on automated hacking tools, "the first thing to
remember is that the actual target is often not one that is chosen, but
one that is found," Cooper said. The tools basically search entire
ranges of IP addresses for systems that aren't protected against known
vulnerabilities that can then be exploited.
Cooper said that even large companies with vigorous security measures
protecting their main Web servers often overlook smaller Internet-
connected systems within their IT networks, such as an Exchange server
with Internet e-mail access. Such servers can be easily discovered by
scanning and then used to enter corporate sites, he added.
In May, the CERT Coordination Center at Carnegie Mellon University in
Pittsburgh issued an updated warning about a "dramatic increase in
network reconnaissance activity" involving known security holes in
various network services.