White Hats, Black Hats and Skiddies: The Class System in Information Security

There are few terms more widely misunderstood in the world of information security than the word ‘hacking’. Although it’s used in a variety of contexts, it’s most commonly used to refer to all types of cyber crime including everything from fraud and industrial espionage to identity theft and spamming. If you take this view, cyber crimes are the deeds of ‘hackers’.

In reality, hackers do far more good than harm. Many are researchers that practice a form of ethical hacking driven by a desire to improve the state of information security. Ethical hackers are the ‘white hats’ of security. They use everything from port scanning to breaking and entering to simulate an attack against networks and systems, usually with the consent of their targets. Software companies such as SAP owe a huge debt to white hats. Many of the vulnerabilities patched by SAP Security Notes are discovered not by SAP, but independent researchers that are far more adept at finding vulnerabilities than SAP itself.

In the past, white hats would publish details about vulnerabilities as soon as they were discovered. Today, most follow SAP’s Disclosure Guidelines. As a result, very few vulnerabilities are publicized until they are patched by SAP. Whether or not this is in the interest of SAP customers is open to debate. It could be argued that this reduces the incentive for SAP to properly patch its software, A case in point is a session hijacking vulnerability in the Enterprise Portal which wasn’t patched until 18 months after it was reported to SAP.

White hats rule the roost of information security. One step below are the black hats who most closely resemble the stereotypical image of hackers portrayed in pop culture. Black hats use the same tactics as white hats but differ in their motives which are generally malicious. Most are driven by the need for notoriety or personal gain, although some are motivated by more noble goals such as social justice. The latter are often referred to as ‘hacktivits’. Its difficult to stall an attack by talented and determined black hats. The only approach that provides any glimmer of hope is the tried and tested defense-in-depth strategy which may buy enough time to detect a breach before any real damage is done or encourage attackers to direct their efforts towards other less well defended targets outside your network.

White hats look down upon black hats but the two groups have much in common. Firstly, they are both skilled in the art of finding and exploiting vulnerabilities. Secondly, they’re partial to challenges and venerate well-constructed code like a thing of beauty. Thirdly, both white hats and black hats frown upon script kiddies, or skiddies for short.

Skiddies are the hillbillies of the information security world. They don’t look down upon anyone since they’re at the rock bottom of the totem pole. Skiddies are considered social pariahs since they have no appreciation of the concepts and tools of information security. Their sole purpose is to exploit vulnerabilities discovered by black hats. Black hats take pride in their work. Targets are carefully selected and attacks are meticulously planned. They go to great lengths to cover up their tracks. Skiddies, on the other hand, blindly execute scripts developed by black hats hoping to catch victims that happen to be susceptible to whatever vulnerability they’re targeting at a moment in time. Despite this, skiddies should not be underestimated. They far out-number black hats. They also have an uncanny ability to learn about new exploits long before they’re patched. This is fuelled by IRC (Internet Relay Chat) and online trading for zero-day exploits.

The proliferation of easy to use security tools with point and click interfaces has dumbed down hacking and turned the tide in favor of skiddies. Many programming or configuration flaws in systems such as SAP don’t require any technical skill to exploit. Therefore, relying upon security through obscurity no longer works, especially when systems are public-facing.

Intense, focused attacks led by black hats are destructive but far less likely than a random strike performed by a skiddie. However, the latter will quickly reveal vulnerabilities in a poorly patched SAP environment.

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