The Fourth Year of the Fourth Edition

Today is the fourth anniversary of the fourth edition of Anti-Hacker Tool Kit. Technology changes quickly, but many of the underlying principles of security remain the same. The following is an excerpt from the introductory material.

Welcome to the fourth edition of the Anti-Hacker Tool Kit. This is a book about the tools that hackers use to attack and defend systems. Knowing how to conduct advanced configuration for an operating system is a step toward being a hacker. Knowing how to infiltrate a system is a step along the same path. Knowing how to monitor an attacker’s activity and defend a system are more points on the path to hacking. In other words, hacking is more about knowledge and creativity than it is about having a collection of tools.

Computer technology solves some problems; it creates others. When it solves a problem, technology may seem wonderful. Yet it doesn’t have to be wondrous in the sense that you have no idea how it works. In fact, this book aims to reveal how easy it is to run the kinds of tools that hackers, security professionals, and hobbyists alike use.

A good magic trick amazes an audience. As the audience, we might guess at whether the magician is performing some sleight of hand or relying on a carefully crafted prop. The magician evokes delight through a combination of skill that appears effortless and misdirection that remains overlooked. A trick works not because the audience lacks knowledge of some secret, but because the magician has presented a sort of story, however brief, with a surprise at the end. Even when an audience knows the mechanics of a trick, a skilled magician may still delight them.

The tools in this book aren’t magical; and simply having them on your laptop won’t make you a hacker. But this book will demystify many aspects of information security. You’ll build a collection of tools by following through each chapter. More importantly, you’ll build the knowledge of how and why these tools work. And that’s the knowledge that lays the foundation for being creative with scripting, for combining attacks in clever ways, and for thinking of yourself as a hacker.

I chose magic as a metaphor for hacking because it resonates with creative thinking and combining mundane elements to achieve extraordinary effects. Hacking (in the sense of information security) requires knowing how protocols and programs are put together, and the tools to analyze or attack them. I don’t have a precise definition of a hacker because one isn’t necessary. Consider it a title to be claimed or conferred.

Another reason the definition is nebulous is that information security spans many topics. You might be an expert in one, or a dabbler in all. In this book you’ll find background information and tools for most of those topics. You can skip around to chapters that interest you.

The Anti- prefix of the title originated from the first edition’s bias towards forensics and equating Hacker with Attacker. It didn’t make sense to change the title for a book that’s made its way into a fourth edition (plus I wanted to keep the skull theme cover). Instead, consider the prefix as an antidote to the ego-driven, self-proclaimed hacker who thinks knowing how to run canned exploits out of Metasploit makes them an expert. They just know how to perform a trick. Hacking is better thought of as understanding how a trick is put together, or being able to create new tricks on your own.

Each chapter should set you up with some of that knowledge. And even if you don’t recognize a magical allusion to Hermione, Tenar, or Gaius Helen Mohiam, there should be plenty of technical content to keep you entertained along the way. I hope you enjoy the book. At some point there may even be a fifth edition.

Oh, the Secrets You’ll Know

Beware of [hash]CatOh, the secrets you’ll know if to GitHub you go. The phrases committed by coders exhibited a mistaken sense of security.

A password ensures, while its secrecy endures, a measure of proven identity.

Share that short phrase for the public to gaze at repositories open and clear. Then don’t be surprised at the attacker disguised with the secrets you thought were unknown.


It’s no secret that I gave a BlackHat presentation a few weeks ago. It’s no secret that the CSRF countermeasure we proposed avoids nonces, random numbers, and secrets. It’s no secret that GitHub is a repository of secrets.

And that’s how I got side-tracked for two days hunting secrets on GitHub when I should have been working on slides.

Your Secret

Security that relies on secrets (like passwords) fundamentally relies on the preservation of that secret. There’s no hidden wisdom behind that truism, no subtle paradox to grant it the standing of a koan. It’s a simple statement too often ignored, bent, and otherwise abused.

It started with research on examples of CSRF token implementations. But the hunt soon diverged from queries for connect.sid to tokens like OAUTH_CONSUMER_SECRET, to ssh:// and mongodb:// schemes. Such beasts of the wild had been noticed before; they tend to roam with little hindrance.

connect.sid extension:js

Sometimes these beasts leap from cover into the territory of plaintext. Sometimes they remain camouflaged behind hashes and ciphers. Crypto functions conceal the nature of a beast, but the patient hunter will be able to discover it given time.

The mechanisms used to protect secrets, such as encryption and hash functions, are intended to maximize an attacker’s effort at trying to reverse-engineer the secret. The choice of hash function has no appreciable effect on a dictionary-based brute force attack (at least not until your dictionary or a hybrid-based approach reaches the size of the target keyspace). In the long run of an exhaustive brute force search, a “bigger” hash like SHA-512 would take longer than SHA-256 or MD5. But that’s not the smart way to increase the attacker’s work factor.

Iterated hashing techniques are more effective at increasing the attacker’s work factor. Such techniques have a tunable property that may be adjusted with regard to the expected cracking speeds of an attacker. For example, in the PBKDF2 algorithm, both the HMAC algorithm and number of rounds can be changed, so an HMAC-SHA1 could be replaced by HMAC-SHA256 and 1,000 rounds could be increased to 10,000. (The changes would not be compatible with each other, so you would still need a migration plan when moving from one setting to another.)

Of course, the choice of work factor must be balanced with a value you’re willing to encumber the site with. The number of “nonce” events for something like CSRF is far more frequent than the number of “hash” events for authentication. For example, a user may authenticate once in a one-hour period, but visit dozens of pages during that same time.

Our Secret

But none of that matters if you’re relying on a secret that’s easy to guess, like default passwords. And it doesn’t matter if you’ve chosen a nice, long passphrase that doesn’t appear in any dictionary if you’ve checked that password into a public source code repository.

In honor of the password cracking chapter of the upcoming AHT 4th Edition, we’ll briefly cover how to guess HMAC values.

We’ll use the Connect JavaScript library for Node.js as a target for this guesswork. It contains a CSRF countermeasure that relies on nonces generated via an HMAC. This doesn’t mean Connect.js implements the HMAC algorithm incorrectly or contains a design error; it just means that the security of an HMAC relies on the secrecy of its password. Developers should know this.

Here’s a snippet of the Connect.js code in action. Note the default secret, ‘keyboard cat’.

var app = connect()
  .use(connect.session({ secret: 'keyboard cat' }))

If you come across a web app that sets a connect.sess or connect.sid cookie, then it’s likely to have been created by this library. And it’s just as likely to be using a bad password for the HMAC. Let’s put that to the test with the following cookies.

Set-Cookie: connect.sess=s%3AGY4Xp1AWB5PVzYHCANaXHznO.PUvao3Y6%2FXxLAG%2Bp4xQEBAcbqMCJPACQUvS2WCfsmKU; Path=/; Expires=Fri, 28 Jun 2013 23:13:52 GMT; HttpOnly
Set-Cookie: connect.sid=s%3ATdF%2FriiKHfdilCTc4W5uAAhy.qTtH9ZL5pxgClGbZ0I0E3efJTrdC0jia6YxFh3cWKrU; path=/; expires=Fri, 28 Jun 2013 22:51:58 GMT; httpOnly
Set-Cookie: connect.sid=CJVZnS56R6NY8kenBhhIOq0h.0opeJzAPZ3efz0dw5YJrGqVv4Fi%2BWVIThEsGHMRqDw0; Path=/; HttpOnly

Everyone’s Secret

John the Ripper is a venerable password guessing tool with ancient roots in the security community. Its rule-based guessing techniques and speed make it a powerful tool for cracking passwords. In this case, we’re just interested in its ability to target the HMAC-SHA256 algorithm.

First, we need to reformat the cookies into a string that John recognizes. For these cookies, resolve the percent-encoded characters, replace the dot (.) with a hash (#). (Some of the cookies contained a JSON-encoded version of the session value, others contained only the session value.)


Next, we unleash John against it. The first step might use a dictionary, such as a words.txt file you might have laying around. (The book covers more techniques and clever use of rules to target password patterns. John’s own documentation can also get you started.)
$ ./john --format=hmac-sha256 --wordlist=words.txt sids.john

Review your successes with the --show option.
$ ./john --show sids.john

Hashcat is another password guessing tool. It takes advantage of GPU processors to emphasize rate of guesses. It requires a slightly different format for the HMAC-256 input file. The order of the password and salt is reversed from John, and it requires a colon separator.


Hashcat uses numeric references to the algorithms it supports. The following command runs a dictionary attack against hash algorithm 1450, which is HMAC-SHA256.
$ ./ -a 0 -m 1450 sids.hashcat words.txt

Review your successes with the --show option.
$ ./ --show -a 0 -m 1450 sids.hashcat words.txt

Hold on! There’s movement in the brush. Let me check what beastie lurks there. I’ll be right back…

The Resurrected Skull

It’s been seven hours and fifteen days.

No. Wait. It’s been seven years and much more than fifteen days.

But nothing compares to the relief of finishing the 4th edition of The Anti-Hacker Toolkit. The book with the skull on its cover. A few final edits need to be wrangled, but they’re minor compared to the major rewrite this project entailed.

AHT 1st Edition

The final word count comes in around 200,000. That’s slightly over twice the length of Hacking Web Apps. (Or roughly 13,000 Tweets or 200 blog posts.) Those numbers are just trivia associated with the mechanics of writing. The reward of writing is the creative process and the (eventual…) final product.

In retrospect (and through the magnfying lens of self-criticism), some of the writing in the previous edition was awful. Some of it was just inconsistent with terminology and notation. Some of it was unduly sprinkled with empty phrases or sentences that should have been more concise. Fortunately, it apparently avoided terrible cliches (all cliches are terrible, I just wanted to emphasize my distaste for them).

Many tools have been excised; others have been added. A few pleaded to remain despite their questionable relevance (I’m looking at you, wardialers). But such content was trimmed to make way for the modern era of computers without modems or floppy drives.

The previous edition had a few quaint remarks, such as a reminder to save files to a floppy disk, references to COM ports, and astonishment at file sizes that weighed in at a few dozen megabytes. The word zombie appeared three times, although none of the instances were as threatening as the one that appeared in my last book.

Over the next few weeks I’ll post more about this new edition and introduce you to its supporting web site. This will give you a flavor for what the book contains better than any book-jacket marketing dazzle.

In spite of the time dedicated to the book, I’ve added 17 new posts this year. Five of them have broken into the most-read posts since January. So, while I take some down time from writing, check out the archives for items you may have missed.

And if you enjoy reading content here, please share it! Twitter has proven to be the best mechanism for gathering eyeballs. Also, consider pre-ordering the new 4th edition or checking out my current book on web security. In any case, thanks for stopping by.

Meanwhile, I’ll be relaxing to music. I’ve put Sinéad O’Connor in the queue; it’s a beautiful piece. (And a cover of a Prince song, which reminds me to put some Purple Rain in the queue, too). Then it’s on to a long set of Sisters of Mercy, Wumpscut, Skinny Puppy, and anything else that makes it feel like every day is Halloween.