Fugitive hacker suggests ways to bolster IT security

A British hacker facing extradition for breaking into U.S. military computers says administrators fail to take easy steps to deter unwanted intrusions.

A British computer hacker facing extradition for breaking into US military computers said Thursday that computer administrators fail to take easy steps that deter unwanted intrusions.

Gary McKinnon, who spoke on a panel at Infosec Europe 2006 in London, made a critical miscalculation when poking around one of his targets that started an international investigation.

"I got caught because I was using a graphical remote control tool and I forgot what time zone I was in," McKinnon said. "Somebody was in the office when I was moving the mouse around."

McKinnon's probes occurred when computers were left on but employees were gone. Simply shutting down computers at night reduces the risk, he said.

A London court will decide May 10 whether to grant the U.S. extradition request. McKinnon, who reportedly is interested in UFOs, is charged with breaking into Pentagon, U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and NASA computers, installing remote administration tools and accessing unclassified files.

McKinnon has been out on bail and sat on the panel with Robert Schifreen, another noted British ex-hacker. Schifreen and a co-defendant were the first in the world to face a trial for computer hacking by tampering with BT Group PLC's Prestel network in the mid-1980s.

Hacking, Schifreen said, is just one of many threats facing the computer security landscape, which now encompasses spam, phishing and credit card fraud.

"Despite what Microsoft says about Windows Vista, computer crime and hacking and fraud will continue, and no single product is going to make it go away," Schifreen said.

Users are a weak link, he said. Everyone is vulnerable to social engineering, and security products can't protect against it, he said.

USB (Universal Serial Bus) devices are also increasingly a threat, as rogue employees can copy databases onto high-storage devices such as Apple Computer Inc.'s iPod hard-disk drive, Schifreen said.

Administrators can take several steps to reduce the risk. McKinnon, who frequently modified log files on computers he infiltrated, said log files would be better stored in off-site servers. Schifreen said those logs should also be made tamper-proof.

But even log files only show what has happened after a breach, and by then it may be too late, said Bob Ayers, who headed a program at the U.S. Department of Defense to improve computer security in the mid-1990s.

Passwords are a consistent weak point. McKinnon was able to hack a few unguarded passwords that gave him access; stronger passwords are recommended, he said. Misconfiguration by administrators made it easier, as some password protection was simply not enabled, he said.

The first line of defense is the operating system, McKinnon said. In Windows, that means enabling antivirus software and firewalls plus turning off registry servers, he said.

Ayers said security also depends on people more than the technology. "Locate, hire and retain the highest quality system administrator you possible can find," he said.

The remedies discussed by panelists, Schifreen noted, didn't involve the purchase of any new products.

"It doesn't have to be high tech," Schifreen said. "It doesn't have to be expensive."

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