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Analysts: Any Web site can be a hacking target


By Jaikumar Vijayan

(IDG) -- 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 systems.

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 a book called Corporate Espionage. "To a hacker, you're just an IP address," Winkler said. "You get hit because you let yourself be an easy mark."

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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 of being hit simply 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.

Last week, 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.

CERT, a security research and information service, also posted an advisory warning users about new worm code that it said can infect computers running Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Solaris operating system and then use the machines to attack Web servers based on Microsoft Corp.'s software (see story).

The self-propagating worm, known as "sadmind/IIS," takes advantage of a Solaris security hole that was discovered two years ago and one in Microsoft's Internet Information Services (IIS) Web server software that was uncovered last fall. Software patches that are supposed to fix the problems have long been available from both Sun and Microsoft.

Meanwhile, the FBI-affiliated National Infrastructure Protection Center (NIPC) recently warned about a significant increase in Unix-based network scanning and probing activities. The scans were looking for vulnerabilities that could be used to launch denial-of-service attacks, according to the NIPC's alert (see story).

At Bubbles Car Wash, the company's home page was defaced with crude anti-American graffiti last Sunday. "I was real surprised, because we are not a high-profile site," said CEO William Lawrence. He added that the company quickly closed down the site, applied a security patch and had it back up and running by midday on Monday.

Primal Energy, a manufacturer of soaps and beauty products, was also hit by hackers who claimed to be pro-Chinese. "Obviously, we were all aware of the issue, but we certainly didn't expect to be a target," said Allan Guarino, a vice president at the company. From now on, he added, Primal Energy plans to quickly install all recommended patches.

• National Infrastructure Protection Center (NIPC)
• Internet Security Advisors Group

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