Ethical Hacking Terminology

Being able to understand and define terminology is an important part of a CEH's responsibility. This terminology is how security professionals acting as ethical hackers communicate. This "language" of hacking is necessary as a foundation to the follow-on concepts in later chapters of this book. In this section, we'll discuss a number of terms you need to be familiar with for the CEH certification exam:
  • Threat An environment or situation that could lead to a potential breach of security. Ethical hackers look for and prioritize threats when performing a security analysis. Malicious hackers and their use of software and hacking techniques are themselves threats to an organization's information security.
  • Exploit A piece of software or technology that takes advantage of a bug, glitch, or vulnerability, leading to unauthorized access, privilege escalation, or denial of service on a computer system. Malicious hackers are looking for exploits in computer systems to open the door to an initial attack. Most exploits are small strings of computer code that, when executed on a system, expose vulnerability. Experienced hackers create their own exploits, but it is not necessary to have any programming skills to be an ethical hacker as many hacking software programs have ready-made exploits that can be launched against a computer system or network. An exploit is a defined way to breach the security of an IT system through a vulnerability.
  • Vulnerability The existence of a software flaw, logic design, or implementation error that can lead to an unexpected and undesirable event executing bad or damaging instructions to the system. Exploit code is written to target a vulnerability and cause a fault in the system in order to retrieve valuable data.
  • Target of Evaluation (TOE) A system, program, or network that is the subject of a security analysis or attack. Ethical hackers are usually concerned with high-value TOEs, systems that contain sensitive information such as account numbers, passwords, Social Security numbers, or other confidential data. It is the goal of the ethical hacker to test hacking tools against the high-value TOEs to determine the vulnerabilities and patch them to protect against exploits and exposure of sensitive data.
  • Attack An attack occurs when a system is compromised based on a vulnerability. Many attacks are perpetuated via an exploit. Ethical hackers use tools to find systems that may be vulnerable to an exploit because of the operating system, network configuration, or applications installed on the systems, and to prevent an attack.
There are two primary methods of delivering exploits to computer systems:
  • Remote The exploit is sent over a network and exploits security vulnerabilities without any prior access to the vulnerable system. Hacking attacks against corporate computer systems or networks initiated from the outside world are considered remote. Most people think of this type of attack when they hear the term hacker, but in reality most attacks are in the next category.
  • Local The exploit is delivered directly to the computer system or network, which requires prior access to the vulnerable system to increase privileges. Information security policies should be created in such a way that only those who need access to information should be allowed access and they should have the lowest level of access to perform their job function. These concepts are commonly referred as "need to know" and "least privilege" and, when used properly, would prevent local exploits. Most hacking attempts occur from within an organization and are perpetuated by employees, contractors, or others in a trusted position. In order for an insider to launch an attack, they must have higher privileges than necessary based on the concept of "need to know." This can be accomplished by privilege escalation or weak security safeguards.

An Ethical Hacker's Skill Set

Ethical hackers who stay a step ahead of malicious hackers must be computer systems experts who are very knowledgeable about computer programming, networking, and operating systems. In-depth knowledge about highly targeted platforms (such as Windows, Unix, and Linux) is also a requirement. Patience, persistence, and immense perseverance are important qualities for ethical hackers because of the length of time and level of concentration required for most attacks to pay off. Networking, web programming, and database skills are all useful in performing ethical hacking and vulnerability testing.
Most ethical hackers are well rounded with wide knowledge on computers and networking. In some cases, an ethical hacker will act as part of a "tiger team" who has been hired to test network and computer systems and find vulnerabilities. In this case, each member of the team will have distinct specialties, and the ethical hacker may need more specialized skills in one area of computer systems and networking. Most ethical hackers are knowledgeable about security areas and related issues but don't necessarily have a strong command of the countermeasures that can prevent attacks.

What Do Ethical Hackers Do?

Ethical hackers are motivated by different reasons, but their purpose is usually the same as that of crackers: they're trying to determine what an intruder can see on a targeted network or system, and what the hacker can do with that information. This process of testing the security of a system or network is known as a penetration test, or pen test.
Hackers break into computer systems. Contrary to widespread myth, doing this doesn't usually involve a mysterious leap of hackerly brilliance, but rather persistence and the dogged repetition of a handful of fairly well-known tricks that exploit common weaknesses in the security of target systems. A pen test is no more than just performing those same steps with the same tools used by a malicious hacker to see what data could be exposed using hacking tools and techniques.
Many ethical hackers detect malicious hacker activity as part of the security team of an organization tasked with defending against malicious hacking activity. When hired, an ethical hacker asks the organization what is to be protected, from whom, and what resources the company is willing to expend in order to gain protection. A penetration test plan can then be built around the data that needs to be protected and potential risks.
Documenting the results of various tests is critical in producing the end product of the pen test: the pen test report. Taking screenshots of potentially valuable information or saving log files is critical to presenting the findings to a client in a pen test report. The pen test report is a compilation of all the potential risks in a computer or system. 

Goals Attackers Try to Achieve

Whether perpetuated by an ethical hacker or malicious hacker, all attacks are an attempt to breach computer system security. Security consists of four basic elements:
  • Confidentiality
  • Authenticity
  • Integrity
  • Availability
A hacker's goal is to exploit vulnerabilities in a system or network to find a weakness in one or more of the four elements of security. For example, in performing a denial-of-service (DoS) attack, a hacker attacks the availability elements of systems and networks. Although a DoS attack can take many forms, the main purpose is to use up system resources or bandwidth. A flood of incoming messages to the target system essentially forces it to shut down, thereby denying service to legitimate users of the system. Although the media focuses on the target of DoS attacks, in reality such attacks have many victims—the final target and the systems the intruder controls.
Information theft, such as stealing passwords or other data as it travels in cleartext across trusted networks, is a confidentiality attack, because it allows someone other than the intended recipient to gain access to the data. This theft isn't limited to data on network servers. Laptops, disks, and backup tapes are all at risk. These company-owned devices are loaded with confidential information and can give a hacker information about the security measures in place at an organization.
Bit-flipping attacks are considered integrity attacks because the data may have been tampered with in transit or at rest on computer systems; therefore, system administrators are unable to verify the data is as the sender intended it. A bit-flipping attack is an attack on a cryptographic cipher: the attacker changes the cipher text in such a way as to result in a predictable change of the plain text, although the attacker doesn't learn the plain text itself. This type of attack isn't directed against the cipher but against a message or series of messages. In the extreme, this can become a DoS attack against all messages on a particular channel using that cipher. The attack is especially dangerous when the attacker knows the format of the message. When a bit-flipping attack is applied to digital signatures, the attacker may be able to change a promissory note stating "I owe you $10.00" into one stating "I owe you $10,000."
MAC address spoofing is an authentication attack because it allows an unauthorized device to connect to the network when Media Access Control (MAC) filtering is in place, such as on a wireless network. By spoofing the MAC address of a legitimate wireless station, an intruder can take on that station's identity and use the network.

Understanding the Purpose of Ethical Hacking

When I tell people that I am an ethical hacker, I usually hear snickers and comments like "That's an oxymoron." Many people ask, "Can hacking be ethical?" Yes! That best describes what I do as a security professional. I use the same software tools and techniques as malicious hackers to find the security weakness in computer networks and systems. Then I apply the necessary fix or patch to prevent the malicious hacker from gaining access to the data. This is a never-ending cycle as new weaknesses are constantly being discovered in computer systems and patches are created by the software vendors to mitigate the risk of attack.
Ethical hackers are usually security professionals or network penetration testers who use their hacking skills and toolsets for defensive and protective purposes. Ethical hackers who are security professionals test their network and systems security for vulnerabilities using the same tools that a hacker might use to compromise the network. Any computer professional can learn the skills of ethical hacking.
The term cracker describes a hacker who uses their hacking skills and toolset for destructive or offensive purposes such as disseminating viruses or performing denial-of-service (DoS) attacks to compromise or bring down systems and networks. No longer just looking for fun, these hackers are sometimes paid to damage corporate reputations or steal or reveal credit card information, while slowing business processes and compromising the integrity of the organization.
Another name for a cracker is a malicious hacker.

Hackers can be divided into three groups:
  • White Hats Good guys, ethical hackers
  • Black Hats Bad guys, malicious hackers
  • Gray Hats Good or bad hacker; depends on the situation
Ethical hackers usually fall into the white-hat category, but sometimes they're former gray hats who have become security professionals and who now use their skills in an ethical manner.

White Hats

White hats are the good guys, the ethical hackers who use their hacking skills for defensive purposes. White-hat hackers are usually security professionals with knowledge of hacking and the hacker toolset and who use this knowledge to locate weaknesses and implement countermeasures. White-hat hackers are prime candidates for the exam. White hats are those who hack with permission from the data owner. It is critical to get permission prior to beginning any hacking activity. This is what makes a security professional a white hat versus a malicious hacker who cannot be trusted.

Black Hats

Black hats are the bad guys: the malicious hackers or crackers who use their skills for illegal or malicious purposes. They break into or otherwise violate the system integrity of remote systems, with malicious intent. Having gained unauthorized access, black-hat hackers destroy vital data, deny legitimate users service, and just cause problems for their targets. Black-hat hackers and crackers can easily be differentiated from white-hat hackers because their actions are malicious. This is the traditional definition of a hacker and what most people consider a hacker to be.

Gray Hats

Gray hats are hackers who may work offensively or defensively, depending on the situation. This is the dividing line between hacker and cracker. Gray-hat hackers may just be interested in hacking tools and technologies and are not malicious black hats. Gray hats are self-proclaimed ethical hackers, who are interested in hacker tools mostly from a curiosity standpoint. They may want to highlight security problems in a system or educate victims so they secure their systems properly. These hackers are doing their "victims" a favor. For instance, if a weakness is discovered in a service offered by an investment bank, the hacker is doing the bank a favor by giving the bank a chance to rectify the vulnerability.
From a more controversial point of view, some people consider the act of hacking itself to be unethical, like breaking and entering. But the belief that "ethical" hacking excludes destruction at least moderates the behavior of people who see themselves as "benign" hackers. According to this view, it may be one of the highest forms of "hackerly" courtesy to break into a system and then explain to the system operator exactly how it was done and how the hole can be plugged; the hacker is acting as an unpaid—and unsolicited—tiger team (a group that conducts security audits for hire). This approach has gotten many ethical hackers in legal trouble. Make sure you know the law and your legal liabilities when engaging in ethical hacking activity.
Many self-proclaimed ethical hackers are trying to break into the security field as consultants. Most companies don't look favorably on someone who appears on their doorstep with confidential data and offers to "fix" the security holes "for a price." Responses range from "thank you for this information, we'll fix the problem" to calling the police to arrest the self-proclaimed ethical hacker.
The difference between white hats and gray hats is that permission word. Although gray hats might have good intentions, without the correct permission they can no longer be considered ethical.
Now that you understand the types of hackers, let's look at what hackers do. This may seem simple—they hack into computer systems—but sometimes it's not that simple or nebulous. There is a process that should be followed and information that needs to be documented. In the next section, we'll look at what hackers, and most importantly ethical hackers, do.

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