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How Do Social Networks Get Hacked? A Lulzsec Case Study

How do social networking sites get attacked by hackers? What methods are used? Why are attacks successful? What can be done to improve security on social networks?

How do social networking sites get attacked by hackers? What methods are used?  Why are attacks successful? What can be done to improve security on social networks?

These are just some of the questions that are addressed in a recently-published Hacker Intelligence Report by Imperva. The report’s executive summary offers an intriguing glimpse into the hacktivist world that threatens almost every online service. Here’s an excerpt:

 “At the end of March 2012, the Lulzsec hackers had attacked and disclosed sensitive information on more than 170,000 members.

This report analyzes the anatomy of the attack methods deployed by the “new” Lulzsec. Overall, the attack, using Remote File Inclusion, is nothing new. But it underscores how today’s hackers adhere to Sun-Tzu’s maxim: “Strike where your enemy is most vulnerable.” RFI vulnerabilities are prevalent in PHP applications which comprise 77% of total applications on the web.

This attack also underscores the need for proper password encryption. In this case, archaic methods of password encryption meant hackers could decrypt the full list of passwords in just 9 hours.”

The report points out that the main strength of Web 2.0, user-generated content, has become the “Achilles Heel” of the Internet. The reason is the trusted sites can quickly be offering unknown (and untrustworthy) content to other users. Possible examples mentioned include: file execution, local file inclusion, malware hosting, cross-site scripting or phishing. (See the report for a complete description of each example.)

A Government Computer News (GCN) article highlighted the risk that military personnel faced in this particular situation, and also focused on the question: Should government personnel be held to a higher standard when they use social networking websites?

Here’s an excerpt of that article:

“When combining the risks of these types of applications hackers’ increasing use of social engineering tricks to get inside networks and frequent targeting of government users, the report suggests that public employees might need to do more than other people to protect themselves.

… A start on those higher standards would be password encryption on top of strong password policies. The report recommends using SHA-2 hashes, such as SHA-256, as recommended by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and adding “salt,” or random bits that make cracking the algorithm even more difficult.”

Finally, the Imperva report closes with some additional steps that can help improve security on social networking sites. A few of their recommendations include assigning minimal permissions to uploaded content, hosting user-generated content on different domains or on different machines and implementing more (or all) security controls on the server side and not trusting the client side computer.

I think Imperva did a nice job on this report, and it is worth reading. I came across this piece as a result of the GCN article, but I'd like to hear from other vendors who want to offer their viewpoints on social network hacking as well. (I’d prefer case studies or white paper links from companies be posted to this blog's comment section.)

 What steps does your organization take to improve security on social networks? Or, are there other good (free) reports available on this topic that you can share?





Daniel J. Lohrmann is an internationally recognized cybersecurity leader, technologist, keynote speaker and author.