As I was looking for an old email in my archives, I stumbled on discussions about a security incident that happened almost 13 years ago. That was that time when, well, there's no other way of saying it....I was hacked.
Thursday, March 4, 2021
An Analysis of Past Mistakes
The good thing about looking at incidents like that one after a long time is that it helps us understand what really happened and also run a less passionate and unbiased assessment of our own actions. I have to say this case is really enlightening, in many ways. There are good lessons to learn and mistakes to acknowledge from multiple perspectives: Technical, Managerial and even Political.
The year was 2008. I was part of the Board for the Brazil ISSA chapter. We were trying to push for a more inclusive posture of the association, promoting free monthly encounters and other initiatives. Our group took over the board when we felt there were too many security vendors dominating the association, many of them pulling things to where their business would benefit most. A group of friends and acquaintances discussed this and after some deliberation, I was chosen as the head of the ballot. It was an honor for me at that time, as each one in that group was capable of taking the central role. We won the election using our network and a popular email discussion board at that time to spread our word and our plans for the association.
So, back to the "breach". We had set up a portal for the association using an open source CMS, Joomla. Joomla was plagued by vulnerabilities at that time, and someone managed to access the user database and crack the passwords. The password for my test account there...well, I was using it in some other places. It was my old password from before I started working with security. I had replaced it almost everywhere, but it was still used on a few places I had forgot about, like LinkedIn and a hotmail account I used to have so I could use MS Messenger. Well, those, and a couple of other services were quickly found by the attackers, and an embarrassing message with all that was posted in that popular email forum, and other places. In summary, an application breach on a website ran by...security professionals, and some pretty lame secops practices by one those guys exposed.
What have I been able to extract from that incident? A lot. Here it is.
The easiest to mention. We were using a horrible tool from a security perspective (Joomla). We had been warned by some people, but some of our group believed we could run it securely by not using crappy plugins and keeping it always up to date. But we didn't have a dedicated security operations team to keep watching it. In addition to it, we knew there were technically competent people out there trying to hack us. So, the threat component was high. It was an explosive combination. In short, we should have made choices that would simplify the challenge of keeping the vulnerability profile low, as we didn't have time to protect it like it should be.
Then, there was my own personal mistake, reusing a password. It is certainly something no one, especially a security professional, should do. Of course, I was already aware of that, and I was already using unique, different passwords on almost everything that mattered at that time. But this old password ("trustno1", if you really wanna know!) was something I started using long before getting involved with security. As I became more aware of the risks of password reuse I started changing it everywhere, but there were still a few places I had forgotten to do it. To make things worse, I started using it as my "throwaway" password for testing needs. An account I had for testing on the ISSA chapter website was using that password. Bad secops…bang, they got me.
This is where I think we can start getting good lessons from the incident. This is about our organizations, the ISSA chapter. How come a security professionals organization be hacked?
We fell for the same mistakes we see in many other organizations. First, the fact that we were all security people caused the "too many cooks in the kitchen" issue. Who was the "CISO" for our organization? That was never defined, so there weren't clear roles and responsibilities defined regarding our own security. I brought the site up and did some of the initial hardening, but at that time I was already moving those responsibilities to other people and completely focused on other issues (I was preparing to move to Canada at that time). People generally know about vulnerability management, but on that case, I believe no one was actually the owner of that process and consciously doing it for us.
Here's another point from where I extract a lot of personal lessons. When we took over the chapter, our group had as one of its objectives to close the gap between the "security professionals" community (the CISSPs :-)), in fact those dealing with risk management, security policies and other less technology oriented topics, and those with the technology background or IT security jobs. That should also include the "hacking" community (or "scene").
That divide between the "management people" and the "technical people" was also related to professionals in different stages in their careers. It was very hard to find technical individual contributors in a highly paid position in Brazil at that time. It wasn't interesting to make them part of ISSA for some of the previous directors because there was low value in junior people as potential customers to their products and services. Trying to be more inclusive of professionals with technical backgrounds was really the attempt to make the association useful for people in the early stages of their careers as well.
But although I have a technical background, I was never close the underground scene in Brazil. I knew people who were, some volunteers helping us during those days were very connected to that community. Still, I've never been a fan of some of the more juvenile aspects of hacking communities. The use of leetspeak, piercings, crazy haircuts...nothing against that, it's just not my thing. This, on top of my effort to make the technical professionals voices heard in the community, made me adopt a gatekeeping position, as in my view they were not being helpful in solving the problem I wanted to solve. In more traditional environments, appearances matter a lot. At that time, it was hard to be taken seriously wearing shorts, a mohawk and writing “3 n0iZ M4n0!!”.
In the end, I believe we didn't do enough to reach out and include them, and they felt excluded. Our posture about a "professional organization", plus a growing number of charlatans in the market put fire in a "take down a whitehat" movement, which I ultimately fell victim of.
I had helped create the animosity against security professionals, then underestimated their abilities and their motivations against me. What a stupid combination, right? Yes, I know. Talk about not having control over the "Threat" component of the risk equation...
In summary, that was my collection of mistakes. Technical blunders, classical management mistakes and a dose of simple immaturity. For those also hurt in the process, I'm sorry. I hope I can keep learning from mistakes like those and make better decisions in the future. This is an extremely important part of working in security, knowing we'll never be able to reach perfection.
Posted by Augusto Barros at 12:35 PM