Stop hack attacks

How tough is your average hacker?

The vast majority are what Ira Winkler, president of the Internet Security Advisor's Group, calls "ankle biters" - that is, hackers whose antics would be easy to protect against if only system administrators weren't so busy trying to keep their printers running.

Winkler, author of Corporate Espionage and the forthcoming book Security for System and Network Administrators, recently revised his estimate of the number of hackers. He says that there now are 50,000 to 100,000 worldwide -- up from an estimated 35,000 to 50,000 two years ago. They are mostly teenagers who know how to exploit known vulnerabilities, according to Winkler.

Beyond that, the number of hackers who are good enough to write their own tools has grown from 1,000 to somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000. The number of most highly skilled hackers now stands at about 1,000, up from only a few hundred, Winkler says.

Systems administrators should follow a few basic steps to protect their systems from hackers, such as obtaining service packs that supply fixes to known vulnerabilities, which are what the majority of hackers usually try to exploit, says Winkler. As many as 95 per cent of systems administrators don't do this, he adds.

Simple fixes

"You can get rid of all the ankle biters by using basic things, and people don't realise that," Winkler says.

Unless the fixes are in place, a hacker can download a scanning tool from a hacker Web site and run it against a TCP/IP address; it will let the hacker know, for example, that the company is using an old version of Windows 95. The next step is to attack the code using tools also available on the Internet that exploit the known vulnerabilities in that particular software.

Another basic precaution against the small-fry hacker is to turn on security features built into the operating system, Winkler says.

To guard against more sophisticated hackers, administrators should make sure systems are configured to maximise security. Many systems are configured in such a way that they allow users to share too much data, for example, which is an indication that poor administrator training is an underlying problem, according to Winkler.

One of the problems for new administrators is they are rarely told that, in addition to keeping the system running, they must also make sure it's secure. If they are given that directive, it usually comes in the form of a superficial requirement to prevent passwords from being breached and old accounts from being reactivated, Winkler indicates.

Microsoft often takes the rap for security vulnerabilities from critics who say the company fails to properly test its software. Winkler says that situation has improved at Microsoft, even as the company faces a more testing challenge because of the added functionality that's being built into Windows.

"The more functionality you have, the more likelihood there is for a security vulnerability, and Windows NT just keeps building more and more functionality in there," explains Winkler.

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