Lessons learned thanks to HBGary and Anonymous

Lessons to be learned from the events surrounding the exposure of HBGary by Anonymous

A week or so ago, I had never heard of HBGary. I assume you probably hadn't either. Now we know HBGary all too well after an attempt to make a name by unmasking the anonymous hackers of Anonymous backfired in more ways than one.

Anonymous has become a virtual household name following the group's "hacktivism" against companies and Web sites that made efforts to knock Wikileaks offline and cut off Wikileaks' funding. The activities conducted by Anonymous were illegal, but to many the attacks were a heroic defense of disclosure and the freedom of speech. Anonymous has since embraced this role as Robin Hood of the Internet and has continued striking new target -- recently threatening to take down Westboro Baptist Church and its site godhatesfags.com. It's hard not to like them.

Then, HBGary -- a small Sacramento-based security firm -- claimed to know the true identities of the leaders behind Anonymous, and threatened to reveal them. Anonymous did not appreciate the threat, so within a matter of hours it hacked and defaced the HBGary Web site, and compromised its servers. Tens of thousands of HBGary e-mails were then exposed on the Web, and that is where HBGary's problems begin.

As if getting pwn3d by Anonymous and having sensitive information compromised wasn't bad enough, the content of the exposed e-mails uncovered a larger scandal involving an HBGary affiliate -- HBGary Federal. Apparently, HBGary Federal was involved in an ethically dubious plan to use fake social networking profiles to discredit groups that criticize the US Chamber of Commerce.

So, what pearls of wisdom can we derive from this sordid tale? Well, first, that locking down servers and protecting data is a complex and difficult task. HBGary is an information security firm -- implying some higher than average understanding of information security -- and it was hacked in a matter of hours.

Second, this incident demonstrates that skilled hackers are a formidable force. There are tons of script-kiddy bad guys out there who use automated tools and don't really know how to hack. But, for an attacker with real skill, security measures are more like speed bumps than steel walls -- breaking or circumventing them is more a matter of when than if.

Third, we learn that sometimes there is a fine line between the good guys and the bad guys. Ostensibly, the two have roughly the same skill set and all that truly separates them are ethics and some sort of moral code. Lacking that, there is nothing stopping an otherwise legitimate security professional from using his skills for evil rather than -- or in addition to good.

For the first two lessons, IT admins need to understand that there are no silver bullets, and that there is never a point where you are "done" securing the network and data. You must implement a layered defense of reasonable security controls, then diligently monitor for threats and suspicious activities 24/7.

As for the third lesson, make sure you do your due diligence before doing business with a security consultant or hiring a security firm. Do your best to make sure you are doing business with someone with the skills necessary to get the job done, and the moral compass to not cross the line.

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Tony Bradley

PC World (US online)
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