I have given a few talks recently to non-hacker audiences. In so doing, I learned that even at its most basic level, the idea of what hacking is, is kind of lost on “normal people.” The “Wanna Cry” malware couldn’t have better illustrated the things I was trying to teach.
It’s not that normies aren’t capable of understanding, it’s that they have been given the wrong information by the government, the media, and popular culture for years. There is this fairly lame idea of hackers following this sort of monochromatic gradient matching that of the old-west: the good guys wear white hats, the bad guys wear black hats, and there is a spectrum of moralities in between. There are legitimate ethics that guide hackers, they just aren’t the kinds that you hear about in movies and on TV:
- The Sharing Imperative – Hacking is a gift economy. You get tools, knowledge and code for free, so you have to share what you have learned to keep growing the pool.
- The Hands-On Imperative – Just like “real” science, you have to learn by doing. Take things apart, break them even, and learn how they work. Use that knowledge to create interesting things.
- The Community Imperative – Communities (geographic, philosophical, etc.) are how it gets done. Crews, clubs, chat rooms, hackerspaces, conferences, email lists, are all places for n00bs to ask questions and get flamed, and for l33ts to hold court.
The typical whitehat is a security researcher, penetration tester, or security consultant that only hacks the computers and networks that they have permission to hack. This can either be a lab environment built for research, a client who has retained security services, or an employer who has granted express permission. Whitehats then disclose their findings. This disclosure may be for the benefit of a client or an employer, or it may be to benefit the public. The key difference is that the whitehat first seeks permission and then shares their discovery for the benefit of others.
The typical blackhat is a generally considered to be a criminal. They hack systems that do not belong to them and then do not disclose their findings. The exploits that they develop are then hoarded and stockpiled for their benefit alone. The key difference is that blackhats do not seek permission, they do not disclose their findings, and they hack for the benefit of themselves.
The gray areas have to do with the degree to which a hacker has permission, discloses their findings, and how they profit from their activities. Whitehats are supposed to have “real” jobs and share everything, blackhats supposedly don’t have jobs and therefore hack for money. A typical grayhat might hack systems that don’t belong to them but then anonymously share their findings, or they might develop their exploits in a lab, but then sell those exploits rather than disclosing them.
In my professional life, I routinely employ hacking tools for the benefit of my employer, whether it’s scanning networks to find and fix problems, or cracking passwords to help users who have lost access to their computers. In previous jobs, I have exfiltrated research data from one network to another at the request of the data’s owner. While I don’t always have my employer’s explicit permission to do what I do, they hired me to fix problems for their users, so I do what it takes. The things that I learn, I then share and teach to others, whether that’s talks at conferences or Cinci2600 meetings, or posts on this blog. I have no idea where that falls in the white/gray spectrum.
Instead of black and white, I prefer to look at hacking from a red vs. blue perspective. Regardless of your moral compass (or that of your employer), you are either on the offensive end which is the red team or the defensive end, which is blue team.
Teams are better terms to think in because hacking is a social activity. You may or may not be physically alone, but you are always learning from others. You read docs and code, you try stuff, you get stuck, you look up answers and ultimately ask someone for help. The idea of hackers as introverted smart kids living in their mom’s basements isn’t nearly as accurate as TV would have you believe.
Regardless of the reason why you are hacking a computer or a network, you are either the attacker or the defender. You are either probing defenses looking for a way in, or you are hardening defenses to keep others out. You can further divide these activities into application vs. network security, but at that point the discussion is more about tools.
A great example of this is the people that run botnets. Once a bot-herder gets control of a computer (bad), they will then patch that computer (good) so that some other bot-herder doesn’t snatch it away from them (???).
Thinking about hacking in terms of offense and defense takes away all of the politics, business, and patriotism of your red and blue teams. If you are a red teamer, backed by your country’s military, you might be doing black hat stuff like seizing control of things that don’t belong to you for a “good” cause. You might be a blue teamer working for organized crime syndicate, doing white hat stuff like analyzing malware for “bad” people. You might be a whistle-blower or a journalist, exfiltrating stolen data to expose bad acts by a government.
Wanna Cry: with the good comes the bad, with the bad comes the good
The Wanna Cry debacle is interesting because of its timing, its origin, its disclosure, and its impact.
Its timing is interesting because nation-state political hacking is like half of all discussions when it comes to the Presidential election. Turns out that the USA hacks as much or more shit than Russia does.
Its origin is interesting because the tools in the leaked sample appear to come from the NSA. The leak comes from a group known as “Shadow Brokers.” They said they would auction the rest for a large sum of money. The world got a head start on an inevitable malware outbreak thanks to some bad guys doing a good thing by releasing something that they discovered. Something that the US Government had been hoarding to use against its enemies.
The disclosure is interesting because the first release is a free sample to prove the quality of the goods they intend to auction. This is the Golden Key problem in a nutshell: a tool, used by the good guys, falls into the hands of the bad guys, and chaos ensues.
The zero-day exploit exposed by the leaked tools was then used to implement a large scale ransomware attack that severely affected systems in Europe and the UK. A researcher was able to locate a call in the ransomware to deactivate the malware, which stopped the attack dead in its tracks. There are lots of theories about this strange turn of events, but my personal theory is that the ransomware campaign was a warning shot. Possibly to prove out a concept, possibly to urge everyone to patch against the vulnerability before a proper villain did some real damage with it.
The idea that NSA tools were compromised and disclosed by a criminal organization, turns the whole black hat/white hat thing on its head. The NSA was hoarding exploits and not disclosing them, which is total black hat move. Shadow Brokers exposed the tools, prompting a widespread campaign to fix a number of vulnerabilities, which is a total white hat move. So you have a government agency, a “good guy”, doing black hat things, and a criminal organization, a “bad guy”, doing white hat things.
If you want to talk about the specifics of the hack, the NSA’s blue team didn’t do its job, and the Shadow Brokers’ red team ate the NSA’s lunch. The blue team’s principle was a server where attacks were either launched or controlled. This server was the red team’s target. It’s a pretty epic win for the red team because the NSA is a very advanced hacking group, possibly the best in the world.