5 Ways Google Is Shaking the Security World

Whether you're charged with preventing hacks, protecting assets, stopping fraud or defending trademarks, Google and other search engines present a new mix of risks for everybody in the security game.

Ask Google anything—what's happening to GE's stock price, how to get to 881 Seventh Ave. in New York, where Mission Impossible 3 is showing, whatever happened to Brian W. after he moved away in the ninth grade—and you'll get an answer. That's the power of this $6 billion search engine sensation, which is so good at what it does that the company name became a verb.

That kind of power keeps Google on the front page of the news—and sometimes under unfavorable scrutiny, as demonstrated by Google's recent clashes with the U.S. Department of Justice and also with critics displeased by the search giant's stance on Chinese government censorship.

CSOs and CISOs have a different reason to think carefully about Google and the implications of having so much information online, instantly accessible by almost anyone. Although these issues relate to all search engine companies, Google gets most of the attention­—not only because of its huge share of the Web search market but because of its unabashed ambitions to catalog everything from images and libraries to Earth, the moon and Mars.

"We always get enamored of a new technology, and it takes us a while to understand the price of that technology," says Robert Garigue, vice president of information integrity and chief security executive of Bell Canada Enterprises in Montreal. For security pros, the price is that Google can be used to dig up network vulnerabilities and locations of sensitive facilities, to enable fraud and cause other sorts of mayhem against the enterprise. Here, CSO examines the ways Google is shaking the security world, and what companies can do about them.

1. Google Hacking (strictly defined)

What it is: Using search engines to find systems vulnerabilities. Hackers can use carefully crafted searches to find things like open ports, overly revealing error messages or even (egads) password files on a target organization's computer systems. Any search engine can do this; blame the popularity of the somewhat imprecise phrase "Google hacking" on Johnny Long. The author of the well-read book Google Hacking for Penetration Testers, Long hosts a virtual swap meet (http://johnny.ihackstuff.com) where members exchange and rate intricately written Google searches.

How it works: The way Google works is by "crawling" the Web, indexing everything it finds, caching the index information and using it to create the answers when someone runs a Web search. Unfortunately, sometimes organizations set up their systems in a way that allows Google to index and save a lot more information than they intended. To look for open ports on CSO's Web servers, for instance, a hacker could search Google.com for INURL:WWW.CSOONLINE.COM:1, then INURL:WWW.CSOONLINE.COM:2, and so on, to see if Google has indexed port 1, port 2 and others. The researcher also might search for phrases such as "Apache test page" or "error message", which can reveal configuration details that are like hacker cheat sheets. Carefully crafted Google searches sometimes can even unearth links to sloppily installed surveillance cameras or webcams that are not meant to be public.

Why it matters: Suppose someone is scanning all your ports. Normally, this activity would show up in system logs and possibly set off an intrusion detection system. But search engines like Google have Web crawlers that are supposed to regularly read and index everything on your Web servers. (If they didn't, let's face it—no one would ever visit your website.) By searching those indices instead of the systems themselves, "you can do penetration testing without actually touching the victims' sites," points out consultant Nish Bhalla, founder of Security Compass.

What to do: Beat hackers at their own game: Hold your own Google hacking party (pizzas optional). Make Google and other search engines part of your company's routine penetration testing process. Bhalla recommends having techies focus on two things: which ports are open, and which error messages are available.

When you find a problem, your first instinct may be to chase Google off those parts of your property. There is a way to do this—sort of—by using a commonly agreed-upon protocol called a "robots.txt" file. This file, which is placed in the root directory of a website, contains instructions about files or folders that should not be indexed by search engines. (For a notoriously long example, view the White House's file at www.whitehouse.gov/robots.txt.) Many companies that run search engines heed the instructions in this file.

Notice we said "many"? Some search engines ignore robots.txt requests and simply index everything anyway. What's more, the robots.txt file tips off hackers about which public parts of your Web servers you'd prefer to keep quiet. Meanwhile, the information that your pen testers found through Google is already out there. Sure, you can contact search engines individually and ask them, pretty please, to remove the information from their caches. (Visit www.google.com/webmasters for instructions.) But you're better off making the information useless.

"The persistence of these caches is impossible to manage, so you have to assume that if it's there, it's going to be there forever," says Ed Amoroso, CISO of AT&T. His solution? Simple. "Let's say you found a file with a bunch of passwords. Change those passwords."

Then, fix the underlying problem. Eliminate or hide information that shouldn't be publicly available. Long term, you'll have to do the heavy lifting too, by closing unnecessary ports or fixing poorly written applications.

Shock waves: 4 (highest). It's up to you to make sure your company isn't accidentally publishing instructions on how to hack its systems.

2. Google Hacking (loosely defined)

What it is: Using search engines to find intellectual property. It's Google intel: The researcher uses targeted Web searches to find bits and pieces of information that, when put together, form a picture of an organization's strategy. Unlike, say, launching a SQL injection attack, doing competitive intelligence using public sources is quite legal (and may in fact be good business).

How it works: The researcher scours the Web for information that might include research presented at academic conferences, comments made in chat rooms, résumés or job openings. "Companies leave bread crumb trails all over the place on the Web," says Leonard Fuld, founder of Fuld & Co. and author of the forthcoming book The Secret Language of Competitive Intelligence. One common tactic is using search queries that reveal only specific file types, such as Microsoft Excel spreadsheets (filetype:xls), Microsoft Word documents (filetype:doc) or Adobe PDFs (filetype:pdf). This kind of search filters out a lot of noise. Say you want information about General Motors. Searching for "GENERAL MOTORS" "FINANCIAL ANALYSIS" one day in February yielded 56,400 results. Searching for "GENERAL MOTORS" "FINANCIAL ANALYSIS" FILETYPE:XLS brought up only 34 documents. One of those documents was a spreadsheet from a recruiting agency that contains the current jobs and work history (though not the names) of executives at numerous companies (including GM) who may be on the job market.

Another common approach is searching for phrases that may indicate information that wasn't intended to be public. For this, keywords such as "personal", "confidential" or "not for distribution" are invaluable. These targeted searches don't always hit pay dirt, but they can be fascinating. For instance, on that same day in February, the top hit on a search for "GENERAL MOTORS" "NOT FOR DISTRIBUTION" was a PDF from a credit-rating company with poorly redacted information that could be easily viewed by pasting the text into another document. (Oops!)

A final tactic is to target the organization's site itself for information, such as phone lists, that could be useful for social engineering scams. Researchers might use the site search function and look for the phrase "phone list" or "contact list". (An actual search might be SITE:CSOONLINE.COM "PHONE LIST", and if you run that particular search, you'll find stories CSO has published about why your company's phone directory is better kept under wraps.)

Why it matters: "If it's on Google, it's all legal," says Ira Winkler, information security consultant and author of Spies Among Us. Competitive intelligence of this sort is illegal espionage only when it involves a trade secret—and if something is public enough to appear in Google, can you really argue that it was protected like a trade secret?

What to do: That Google hacking party we mentioned earlier should involve a few site searches for sensitive files, such as financial records and documents labeled "not for distribution." Beyond your own borders, it's a good idea to know what people are saying about your organization, even if there's little you can do about it. "Using search engines to figure out what your public-facing view looks like has become a de facto element in any corporate security program," Amoroso says.

Brand protection companies such as MarkMonitor and Cyveillance will work the beat for you, if you'd prefer. Creating (and enforcing) good policies about employee blogging or the use of message boards and chat rooms can also limit your exposure.

Shock waves: 3 (significant). This kind of competitive intelligence has been going on forever, and it is damaging. The Web means more information gets out, and it's easier to find.

3. Google Earth

What it is: A software download that provides highly navigable satellite and aerial photography of the entire globe. (The same images are also available through Google Maps at http://maps.google.com.) The scope and resolution of the photos are eye-popping enough that Google Earth drew ire even as a beta product in 2005. Some people feel threatened that a photo of, say, their backyard is only a few clicks away, and others fear that terrorists will use the images of landmarks or pieces of the critical infrastructure to plot attacks.

How it works: After the user installs the software (the basic version is free at http://earth.google.com), she can zoom to any spot on the planet, often with enough detail to see driveways, if not cars. The virtual globe can be overlaid with information on roads, train tracks, coffee shops, hotels and more. Enterprising researchers are also overlaying Google Maps with everything from locations of murders to public rest rooms that have baby-changing tables. Images are up to three years old and come from commercial and public sources, with widely varying resolution.

Why it matters: The privacy implications of having this information so readily available are certainly worth discussing as a society, but the security risks to U.S.-based companies are low. Much of the information was already available anyway. For instance, Microsoft stitched together images from the U.S. Geological Survey a decade ago with its Terraserver project (http://terraserver.microsoft.com). It just doesn't work as smoothly.

Not only have these types of images long been available online, but they can also be easily purchased from government and private sources, says John Pike, director of the military think tank Global­security.org. There are only a couple of legal restrictions. First, the images must be at least 24 hours old. Second, the U.S. military has what Pike calls "shutter control": the ability to tell commercial satellite companies not to release imagery that might compromise U.S. military operations. To the best of Pike's knowledge, the U.S. military has never invoked this power, nor have the regulations governing satellite imagery changed during the Bush administration's war on terrorism.

"If Rummy's not worried about it," Pike says, referring to Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, "it's hard for me to see how anyone can lose much sleep over it."

What to do: If your organization's security plan is based on no one being able to obtain aerial or satellite photography of a facility, then it probably ain't much of a plan. "Anybody who has the capacity to constitute a threat that rises much above graffiti is going to have it in their power to get imagery of a facility," Pike says. "If security managers have something that they don't want to be seen, they need to put a roof on it."

Beyond that, be prepared for cocktail party banter about the risks and rewards of Google Earth and Google Maps. At the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, for instance, CISO Kevin Stine finds Google Earth personally fascinating, and he likes to muse about its potential for use in, say, disaster planning. "From a CISO perspective, I think we need to be aware of these kinds of tools," he says. But for his security group, the only impact he thinks Google Earth might eventually have, if it begins to encompass more business applications, is a drain on bandwidth. In other words, it's a concern about as big as your lawn chairs seen from space.

Shock waves: 1 (minimal). Security by obscurity is so 20th century. Google Earth just illustrates why.

4. Click Fraud

What it is: The act of manipulating pay-per-click advertising. Perpetrators inflate the number of people who have legitimately clicked an online ad, either to make money for themselves or to bleed a competitor's advertising budget.

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