Seven ways to avoid getting hacked by Anonymous

The hactivist group Anonymous used a series of simple technical and social exploits to crack the network of security-technology firm HBGary Federal, giving the company a schooling that other network security pros can learn from.

The overriding lesson: Meticulously follow the basic best-practices of corporate defense. But there are more detailed takeaways for those who are willing to learn from HBGary Federal's mistakes. (For a detailed account of just how Anonymous cracked HBGary Federal, check out this thorough Ars Technica story.)

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HBGary Federal ran afoul of Anonymous when CEO Aaron Barr said he planned to name members of the secretive international group that famously came to the defense of WikiLeaks. Anonymous DDoSed businesses that tried to take down WikiLeaks sites that expose U.S. State Department diplomatic cables.

HBGary Federal suffered the public posting of tens of thousands of its e-mails and the defacing of its Web site and Barr's Twitter page, as well as a black eye to its reputation as a security firm.

Here are seven lessons to learn:

1. Don't assume what type of attack you will suffer. Barr thought Anonymous would only launch a DDoS attack against the company's Web site, just as it had against others. That turned out not to be the case.

2. Use a tried and tested content management system that comes with updates, patches and support. HBGary used a custom CMS for its Web site that was susceptible to SQL injection attacks that led to Anonymous accessing data in HBGary's database.

3. Thoroughly hash and rehash passwords stored in databases. HBGary did hash its passwords, but didn't add extra characters that have to be removed to reveal the actual password. Nor did it rehash the hashed passwords to add layers of complexity to brute forcing the passwords out of the hash. The passwords would still have been susceptible to brute-force attacks, but it would have taken a lot longer to succeed.

4. Use strong passwords. Long passwords that use the full range of characters represented on computer keyboards are much harder to break because they rule out the use of rainbow tables -- lists of hashes and the passwords they represent. If passwords are composed of long strings of characters and the characters are drawn from all the characters on the computer keyboard (not just letters and numbers), hashes of the passwords become so complex that it isn't practical to create rainbow tables for them. Two key HBGary Federal executives used simple eight-character passwords -- two numbers and six letters. Rainbow tables worked on them.

5. Don't reuse passwords. Some HBGary executives used the same passwords for access to the company's CRM system as they did for its Google Apps e-mail, as they did for Twitter, as they did for SSH authentication to company storage servers. One of the cracked passwords was for the company's e-mail administrator's Google account, which led to all the company's e-mails being hacked.

6. Keep current with patches. Key HBGary servers had a known privilege-elevation flaws for which patches existed. Anonymous exploited the vulnerabilities.

7. Heighten user awareness of social engineering. Anonymous sent e-mails from the hacked account of HBGary founder Greg Hoglund to a network administrator requesting key information as if Hoglund himself were asking. In response, the admin opened firewall ports and gave up Hoglund's user name and password for root access to the servers supporting the company's rootkit.com Web site.

Read more about wide area network in Network World's Wide Area Network section.

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Tim Greene

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