'Anatomy of an Anonymous Attack' Laid Bare By Imperva
An attempted hack of the Vatican website has shed light on the hacktivist group's methods
By Sophie Curtis
February 28, 2012 — Security firm Imperva has published a detailed analysis of an attack by Anonymous on one of its customers, providing new insight into how the hacktivist group operates, and highlighting the need for better application layer security.
According to The New York Times, the target in question was the Vatican, although Imperva has declined to confirm the identity of the organisation.
The attack, which did not adversely affect the site or compromise any user data, consisted of three distinct phases:
The first, described as "recruitment and communication" involved drumming up support using social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, to suggest and justify an attack.The second, dubbed "reconnaissance and application layer attacks," involved a small number of professional hackers, using common vulnerability assessment tools to probe for security holes and launch application attacks, like SQL injection, to attempt to steal data from the targets.
When these data breach attempts failed, the skilled hackers elicited help from so-called "laypeople" to carry out a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack.
According to Amichai Shulman, co-founder and CTO of Imperva, the attack by Anonymous mimics the approach used by for-profit hackers. The group of 10 to 15 professional hackers used off-the-shelf tools such as Havij, Acunetix and Nikto to check for vulnerabilities and attempt SQL injection attacks.
Shulman said it was clear that these were professional hackers, as they had knowledge of the hacking tools and also took care to disguise their identities using anonymity services.
When the hackers failed to find any vulnerabilities, the DDoS attack was carried out using a custom-built tool that allows users to attack sites with mobile browsers. Unlike more traditional network layer DDoS attacks, this targeted the application layer, with the aim of eating up server resources.
Shulman said that if an organisation's threat landscape includes Anonymous, then it should install application layer security as well as DDoS protection, because that had been the hackers' first choice. However, the real motivation for implementing this kind of security should be financial protection.
"If you look at what Anonymous has done in the past couple of years, it has been more of a nuisance than anything else," he said. "However, Anonymous are using the same tools that financially-motivated criminal hackers are using, and this is what organisations should be worried about."