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Author: Hacking has its boundaries

What evil lurks in the hearts of hackers? Joe Grand knows, and he believes that systems administrators should know, too. Those who can't think and act like a hacker are doomed to be outsmarted by one, says Grand, an author, electrical engineer and former member of The L0pht, a hacker think tank. In this interview, Grand explains how IT pros can protect their systems from hackers and why "hacker" isn't synonymous with "criminal." It's a message that he promotes in a new book from Syngress Publishing, Hardware Hacking: Have Fun While Voiding Your Warranty. He co-authored this book with Ryan Russell and notorious hacker Kevin Mitnick.

Besides trying to hack their own systems, what should sys admins do to stop malicious hackers?
Stay on top of the latest attack trends by browsing security Web sites that [keep] track of the latest vulnerabilities. Keep patches current. That sounds simple, but it's a tough job for a system administrator in a large organization. Unfortunately, updating is an ongoing process. What are the common tricks of the hacker trade?
Malicious hackers zero in on products' security vulnerabilities. In general, they love to take advantage [of] poor programming practices that allow them to execute code on a target machine. Buffer overflows are a favorite.

Malicious hackers love to take advantage of companies that have unknowing users executing programs. The users are susceptible to malicious hackers' favorite trick of sending someone an e-mail that says, 'Hey, run this program!' or 'Hey, check out this cute dancing baby!' This is an easy way to bypass your firewall and any security mechanisms you have in place. What else should corporate systems administrators do every day to protect their systems?
Frequently analyze your software's defense mechanisms. Don't wait for an attacker to find and exploit an existing problem. Research the tools and products that are installed in the system on a continual basis. Don't just rely on the vendor or consultant to find and fix problems.

This is where having hacking skills comes in handy. Say, if I'm running StarOffice on Linux, I will run test attacks on those products. I try and break the product in every way I know how.

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Why should hacking be in a systems administrator's skill set?
System administrators who know how to hack can protect themselves against hackers. They shouldn't let themselves live in fear, uncertainty and doubt, not knowing if there is a weakness that hackers can exploit. With hacking skills, they can be proactive. They can take apart their devices in their lab to find vulnerabilities. They can try and break into their own systems.

In order to stop a hacker, you have to think like one. You have to understand the mindset of the attacker and what they are trying to do to gain access to your system. I am an electrical engineer by trade, and I look at hardware products and try to find their security problems. I've found that most product designers in the industry don't have any insight into the hacker community, so their products end up with vulnerabilities. The designers and administrators need to be able to understand the attacks in order to protect their products and systems against them. What sort of relationship do Linux and hacking have?
Linux and hacking, meaning hacking in a good sense, basically go hand in hand. Linus [Torvalds] and his open source developers work on lots of different pieces of Linux code and share their hacks with a community. For example, people modify their Linux-based devices to do something that they weren't intended to do or to add some sort of personal touch to them. Then they share what they did. They couldn't do that with closed operating systems like Windows.

Malicious hackers zero in on products' security vulnerabilities. In general, they love to take advantage [of] poor programming practices that allow them to execute code on a target machine.
Joe Grand,

With Linux, you get a lot of low-level control of the operating system. So, if you want to implement codes on your own, run Linux. A lot of Linux hackers like to be able to modify certain parameters or source codes, or they might want to know how a program is running on their system. With Linux and open source applications, you can actually look through source code and make sure [you know what] the operating system or application is doing. They're not at the mercy of those closed black-box software packages. When is hacking a good thing?
The words hacking and hacker got a negative connotation though the media, but 'hacking' started as a term for modifying hardware or software to do something that it wasn't intended to do, or improve it. For instance, patching a piece of software could be a hack. The media has totally twisted it into just being a criminal activity. Hacking should be a harmless activity in which you are not committing a crime. Hacking can be totally legal if you do it within certain boundaries.

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