Penetration Testing with Honest-to-goodness Malware


Popular fiction usually dictates that the primary cyber foe of big business is a young, nerdish and exceedingly smart computer hacker, with a grudge against practically anyone and everyone. It may be this particular cliched (and false) stereotype of a hacker that many business analysts and executives have in turn used as justification for testing the defenses of their organization in a particular way. While some may supplement this image of a hacker with concrete bunkers filled with uniformed cyber warriors if they feel worthy of state-initiated attacks, it is a sad fact that many of the methodologies currently employed by organizations to evaluate the tiered defenses of their organization are tired and dated.

The reality of the situation is that organizations are much more likely to be breached through fairly average malware than through the deliberate and chained exploitation of system vulnerabilities. That’s not to say that “classic” hacking isn’t a problem, but the scale of the threat today is like battling mosquitoes while ignoring the lion gnawing at your arm.

Modern penetration testing methodologies continue to follow a very predictable pattern and, in practically every assessment I’ve ever been involved in or overseen for the last decade, has yielded vulnerabilities that were critical in nature. While these vulnerabilities are flagged for remediation and are often fixed within days of identification, the organization is still left to battle a barrage of social engineering attacks designed to install malware upon victim devices and to serve as jump points into other sectors of the business.

In recent years organizations have increased the number and sophistication of the defensive layers they use to battle malware-based intrusion. In general, these defenses have improved the security stature of those organizations that make the investment. However, the increased need for roaming user support, BYOD, encrypted communications, and third-party app markets, has in turn exposed those same organizations to new kinds of attack vectors for which they have little appreciation of the dynamics of the threat, nor the ability to quantify the status of their recently deployed anti-malware defenses.

It has become necessary for penetration testing methodologies to better reflect the true nature of the threat and to replicate the methods used by an attacker. In particular, penetration testers need to now incorporate malware and malware-specific delivery techniques into their testing routine.

As trivial as it may seem, including malware into a penetration test or security assessment is not a simple task. The variety of delivery vectors and the effort needed to stage an attack is something that few penetration testers have had to involve themselves with in the past. There’s also the complexity of crafting malware-based payloads that not only report back their successes, but also provide for rapid cleanup after an engagement is over.

That said, it would be remiss of security consultants or ethical hackers to not test the robustness and capability of their client’s networks to counter malware-based threat vectors. The choice to not employ malware for lateral movement and compromise within the client’s network may be a reflection of inadequate scoping or a poor understanding of the modern threat spectrum.

Regardless, the onus is upon the security consultants themselves to duplicate the means and capability of a modern hacker – and, by foregoing malware, they are playing to outdated threats and past stereotypes.

— Gunter Ollmann, CTO, IOActive Inc.

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