Security Advice From a Wanted Hacker

LONDON -- A British computer hacker facing extradition for breaking into United States military computers said today that computer administrators fail to take easy steps that deter unwanted intrusions.

Gary McKinnon, who spoke on a panel at Infosec Europe 2006 here, made a critical miscalculation when poking around one of his targets that started an international investigation.

"I got caught because I was using a graphical remote control tool, and I forgot what time zone I was in," McKinnon said. "Somebody was in the office when I was moving the mouse around."

McKinnon's probes occurred when computers were left on but employees were gone. Simply shutting down computers at night reduces the risk, he said.

Legal Background

A London court will decide May 10 whether to grant the U.S. extradition request. McKinnon, who reportedly is interested in UFOs, is charged with breaking into Pentagon, U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, and NASA computers, installing remote administration tools and accessing unclassified files.

McKinnon, who has been out on bail, sat on the panel with Robert Schifreen, another noted British ex-hacker. Schifreen and a co-defendant were the first in the world to face a trial for computer hacking, after tampering with BT Group PLC's Prestel network in the mid-1980s.

Hacking, Schifreen said, is just one of many threats facing the computer security landscape, which now encompasses spam, phishing, and credit card fraud.

"Despite what Microsoft says about Windows Vista, computer crime and hacking and fraud will continue, and no single product is going to make it go away," Schifreen said.

Users the Weak Link

Users are a weak link, he said. Everyone is vulnerable to social engineering, and security products can't protect against it, he said.

USB (Universal Serial Bus) devices are also increasingly a threat, as rogue employees can copy databases onto high-storage devices such as the hard drive of Apple Computer's iPod, Schifreen said.

Administrators can take several steps to reduce the risk. McKinnon, who frequently modified log files on computers he infiltrated, said log files would be better stored on off-site servers. Schifreen said logs should also be made tamper-proof.

However, log files show only what has happened after a breach, and by then it may be too late, said Bob Ayers, who in the mid-1990s headed a U.S. Department of Defense program to improve computer security.

Passwords are a consistent weak point. McKinnon was able to hack a few unguarded passwords that gave him access; stronger passwords are recommended, he said. Misconfiguration by administrators made it easier, as some password protection was simply not enabled, he said.

The first line of defense is the operating system, McKinnon said. In Windows, that means enabling antivirus software and firewalls, plus turning off Registry servers, he said.

Ayers said that security depends on people more than technology. "Locate, hire, and retain the highest-quality system administrator you possibly can find," he said.

For more on the latest in spyware and security, see PCWorld.com's Info Center.

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