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Security expert explains New York Times site break in

September 18, 1998
Web posted at: 11:01 AM ET

by Ellen Messmer


(IDG) -- Although the New York Times is not revealing the details of what happened last weekend when it was hijacked by a hacker group, one security expert has it figured out.

A group of hackers calling themselves Hackers for Girlies broke into the Times news site on Sunday. The hackers took control of the site to display their own diatribe complete with nude images and to protest the arrest of hacker Kevin Mitnick. The Times worked for half a day to regain command of its server.

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Hackers often break in by exploiting security vulnerabilities associated with default Common Gateway Interface scripts that ship with Web servers, according to Patrick Taylor, director of strategic marketing at Internet Security Systems in Atlanta. They exploit these scripts to send a string of long commands to cause a buffer overflow that lets them into the operating system. They first give themselves an account in the system and then stick in a backdoor Trojan horse program such as "rootkit" to gain and maintain root control, he said.

"CGI scripts are intended to pass commands from the Web server to something in the operating system, perhaps to pull database information," Taylor said. "But you should get rid of these superfluous CGI scripts and depend on your own custom scripts."

The Times may have had a long struggle regaining control of its Web site because the latest Trojan horses are designed so well that they hide within the operating system, encrypted or even providing the same checksum as the legitimate operating system.

"It's nefarious--the hacker essentially has remote administration of the Web server," Taylor said. "You can't rely on a backup of the machine. You may have to reinstall the entire operating system."

By coincidence, the Times had once looked at using the ISS security gear, but decided not to, he said. The Times declined to discuss any aspect of its Web operations, saying it was "a matter of security."

The "Hackers for Girlies" ranted in its own posting to have "busted root" on the Times, and directed some invective toward Times reporter John Markoff and security expert Tsutomu Shimomura for their respective roles in the investigation of hacker Kevin Mitnick, now held in jail. Markoff and Shimomura two years ago collaborated on a book entitled "Takedown" about the law enforcement pursuit of Mitnick. In its own account, the Times said the hacker incident at may be related to an upcoming trial in January of Mitnick.

While hacker rantings and pornography can be bad enough to discover on a Web site, a far more serious scenario involves a hijacker more surreptitiously posting information that has been slightly changed, leading the reader to view it as authentic.

"This could end up like 'War of the Worlds,' where people went into a panic because they didn't know what they were hearing on the radio was made up," commented Doug Barney, Network World news editor.

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