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Understanding the attacks by Messiah – is there anything for us to fear?

line Understanding the attacks by Messiah – is there anything for us to fear?

Update: In an email to Yahoo Singapore, “The Messiah” said “… we reached out to our comrades from other fractions who together with us performed DNS poisoning on the .gov.sg sites, taking them down for a period of time. But there must have also been some patching that was done as some of our favourite point of entries into their networks seemed to be fixed.” – Yahoo News

DNS poisoning? I was right.

1. Fear Mongering & the State of things

There had been a number of cyber attacks over the past few days by someone who calls himself “Messiah”. The attacks sparked panic island-wide, with people fearing about a “cyber” doomsday where everything would magically stop working and the whole island in chaos. I thought it would be prudent to set the records straight, to help layman understand what these attacks actually entail and to prevent the spread of needless panic and fear. Cases of blind-leading-blind when it comes to attacks and its implications are too rampant.

The usual disclaimer:

1) I’m not an IT security professional or a white or black hat hacker, merely a programmer, IT consultant & entrepreneur. If I have made any factual mistakes, please kindly feedback and I will rectify them. 

2) The following are my theories. Many of my assumptions on the capabilities of Messiah I do not know as facts. I may be wrong. Please take it with a kilogram of salt.

Now, let’s consider Messiah’s technical capabilities.

2. Messiah’s Technical Capabilities

2.1  The Difference between “Web Systems” & “Internal Systems”

In order to understand what really went on behind cyber attacks over the past few days, for the sake of simplicity, let’s divide computer systems into two main categories, web systems and internal systems. By “web systems”, I refer to all the servers and systems behind an organization’s website. By “internal systems”, I refer to mission critical systems used by an organization for their day to day functions. For example, LTA’s website is on a “web system”, LTA’s traffic controller system is an “internal” system.

The attacks over the last few days all involved web systems, which are easier targets for attack because these systems are more public while generally having weaker security mechanisms. There is no sign that Messiah was able to gain access to any internal systems to date. Fear-mongers have been preaching and  misleading people in thinking that as an example, if LTA’s website got hacked, our traffic lights will stop working.  That is simply not the case, and Messiah has not yet demonstrated his ability to carry out  “infrastructure crippling” attacks. Sad to tell you, but ERP will still continue to work even if LTA’s website is down.

2.2 Understanding attacks on “Web Systems”

To help layman in understanding the nature of attacks on websites, let’s imagine that every time you type in a URL on your web browser, a tiny truck comes out of your computer (a web request), look up the destination on street directory (a DNS server), drives to the warehouse (website server) to pick something up (the actual website) and bring it back to you (website loads on your screen).

To attack a website, the attacker can either prevent your tiny truck from ever reaching the factory while leaving the factory untouched, or enter the factory to shut it down (a.k.a hack into the server.)

Attacks over the past few days can be categorized into two main types: defacement attacks (when the website got vandalized, such as Straits Times’ Blog) and service availability attacks (when the website becomes inaccessible for a period of time, such as the supposed hack on government websites).

2.2.1 Defacement Attacks

A very strange pattern emerged. It seemed as if only sites running open source CMS (content management systems) and/or or cheaply outsourced were defaced. For example, only the blog section of Straits Times was hacked, because out of the entire Straits Times site, only the blog section uses an open source CMS. Hacking into a CMS involves gaining access to either (1) the CMS admin dashboard  or (2) the web server. The CMS admin dashboard is a simple system that allows non-IT personnel to update the content of a website. Hacking into the CMS admin dashboard does not mean the hacker has complete access the entire web server.

Gaining access to CMS admin dashboard is easy. For open source CMS solutions, exploits are always discovered and published, in order for security fixes to be written and distributed in a very short amount of time. However, most solution vendors in Singapore hand off CMS to their clients immediately after project conclusion, and seldom advice their clients to do constant upgrades, opening huge opportunities for attack.  Many CMS admin dashboards also use the same default username, such as “admin”. In most cases, such accounts are shared among different staff, so to help everyone in remembering the password, plain english passwords are commonly used. It is then easy to use a simple dictionary attack to hack. Dictionary attack simply involves using a program to try different passwords at high speed. Given enough time (days, months, years, centuries), any account could be hacked this way.

From the very specific targets of attack (only open source CMS sections of a website were hacked i.e. Straits Times Blog, and only websites using open source CMS were hacked i.e. CHC website), I think it is safe to conclude that Messiah did not attempt or did not have the necessary skills to hack into an actual server.

2.2.2 Service Availability Attacks

How about supposedly bringing down a couple of government websites as well as Straits Times, Stomp and Hardwarezone (all owned by SPH) for a couple of minutes? For this post, let’s assume the government websites were down because of a cyber attack, not a “scheduled maintenance”.

Server hacks are hard to recover from if there’s damage done. Looking at how fast we recovered from those attacks, it is possible to speculate that the servers were never actually hacked. Using the tiny truck analogy from above, the attacker simply prevented your tiny truck from ever reaching the factory (so when you try to access a website, it could not load). Two common methods are known as DoS (denial of service) and DNS Spoofing or poisoning.

Denial of service attack is an attack that doesn’t require much skills. To prevent your tiny truck from reaching the factory (connecting to the web site), the attacker simply had to send millions of tiny trucks to the same factory at the same time so that the highway became so congested your truck couldn’t get through.

While I am not too familiar with DNS poisoning, DNS servers are like street directories. DNS poisoning attack messes up the directories, causing your tiny truck to lose its way and can never reach the factory. DNS poisoning could also be used to point your truck to a different factory (web server). Variations of such attack could cause a user trying to visit “google.com” to end up at a totally different server.

Let me repeat, both DoS and DNS poisoning attacks do not involve actual hacking (e.g the factory in the analogy above was never compromised). There is no need to infiltrate any government or SPH servers to execute these attacks. DoS attacks requires massive resource and coordination but low amount of skills to execute. DNS poisoning attack requires little resource and coordination but requires higher level of skills.

2.3 What does this say about Messiah?

In summary, Messiah was only able to breach certain web systems; he was not reported to have breached any internal systems. In cases where web systems were breached, Messiah was only able to do so via the CMS. He was never able to hack into the actual web server. For websites that does not use weak CMS, he simply did a service availability attack. This doesn’t sound like someone who is an extremely skilled hacker as proclaimed in the video.

Conversely, the skill-set required for the attacks we have seen so far are very different from those crazy hardcore attacks we have seen Anonymous do on news reports. I am speculating that Messiah may not even be from Anonymous.

3. What’s next?

I think Messiah will continue looking for easy exploits among high profile websites, and when he or they can’t hack, they will simply do a DoS or DNS poisoning attack to make a statement.

I trust the security capabilities of our government sites, and I still believe that unless there are different hackers who join today, our data on government servers and infrastructures will remain safe.

As an average Joe, I don’t think there’s much to fear about these attacks because:
1) As concluded above, Messiah doesn’t seem competent enough to actually compromise important servers
2) Once again, “web systems” and “internal sustems” are different. Hacking into LTA website does not equate hacking into LTA. Your traffic lights will still work. They are different things.
3) Assuming that even if he or they have the ability, there is no reason for Messiah to try to gain unauthorized data, or to abuse or leak them. The youtube video called for support from Singaporeans. There will be more haters than supporters if such things happened.
4) The attacks so far are more in line trying to “make a statement” than to retrieve or leak any sensitive data. This trend may continue.

Hope this post help provide some insights into the confusing world of cyber security, and to maybe help with allaying the fear and reducing confusion after all the blind-leading-blind articles that have been popping up lately.

That said, organizations and individuals should remember to always exercise prudence and preemptive diligence when it comes to security. Cyber attacks are very real and may strike you when you least expect it.

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