On Episode 84 of The Edge of Innovation, we’re talking with hacker and security expert, Adriel Desautels of Netragard, about why hackers hack!

Sections

Why Does the Hacker Hack?
Hackers: Making a Name For Themselves
What’s Interesting at DEF CON & Black Hat
Alternative Conventions to DEF CON and Black Hat
Hacker Conventions Today Versus In The Past
Recommended Places To Find Information On Hacking
Advice For The Budding Hacker
The Definition of Hacking
More Episodes
Show Notes

Why Does the Hacker Hack?

Why Does the Hacker Hack?

Paul: So, from your experience and from your experience and knowledge of other people you know, why does the hacker hack?

Adriel: It all depends on who they are and what they’re really, I guess, geographic location is, monetary position, you know. So the majority of bad guys that are hacking right now hack for financial gain. They steal information, and they’re able to sell it on the black market. Some information sells for more than others, and that is always changing.

Then, of course, you have nation states. They’re hacking because they want to know about their foe. They want to learn about their enemy.

And then you have the guys that hack on behalf of their country, but they’re not directly affiliated with their country. They go out, and they steal information. The Chinese are notorious for this. They have groups of people that will hack and steal information about aircraft and all kinds of interesting things, and then they sell it to the next highest bidder within their country. And so that’s sort of a way of trying to say, “Hey, we don’t do this stuff,” but they buy the information. So, they’re not hacking, but they’re funding it by buying the information.

Paul: Sure. Let’s peel that back a layer, though. It’s maybe a superficial view, but why does the person sit down and spend that time searching for these obscure ways to exploit systems. What drives that emotion? Because they’re not necessarily going to get paid. So, I’m not saying they’re evil. I’m not saying they’re bad. But why is it that I’m going to try and do everything I can to break into this house, and I’m not going to give up either.

Adriel: Right. So, for some of us, it’s just a puzzle. It’s just a challenge, and it’s fun. It just boils down to that. Why is my partner, Phillipe, why is he building a robot to take his trash and haul it down his driveway that’s a quarter mile long? I mean, he’s literally doing that. And he’s found a way to build this crazy robot that will take his trash out for him. He’s doing it because it’s fun, and it’s a challenge, and it’s exciting. It’s the same reason why we do a lot of the things that we end up doing too.

Hackers: Making a Name For Themselves

The other angle to that is notoriety. Sometimes hackers will hack something because they’re trying to make a name for themselves, and so they’ll perform research against a really challenging target, write up, a white paper or publish something on it. And that makes the press. And all of sudden, those hackers, they’re well known. I can think of some pretty good hacks that happen with DNS and other types of things that they really helped companies promote themselves. So there’s that kind of angle.

And then, you tie it back into the monetary angle when you get to the zero-day market and zero-day exploitation. Hackers will perform research against like your iPhone, for example. They find a single vulnerability in an iPhone. Today that sells from anywhere from four to six million dollars per vulnerability. So, the motivation there is a lot of money. For a single, maybe three months of work, you make $6 million. It’s not a bad payday.

Paul: So it sounds, it sounds sorta like panning for gold.

Adriel: Yeah, in some cases it really can be because you never know what you’re going to encounter. And if you get the big nuggets, you’d be very rich very quickly.

Paul: And it could be that the gold that you get is notoriety. It could be just the fun of doing it, or it could be that you get a big chunk of gold. Interesting. So, I agree. It is interesting to see, and it would be interesting to have the same conversations with executive, CEO levels of saying, “Why wouldn’t you disclose this?”

And I can imagine it’s like “Well, we don’t want to admit that we knew the bridge was going to fall down,” if they were being really honest. And it’s like “What I don’t know, I can’t be held accountable for.” There’s a lot of that, I think.

Adriel: Yeah, there is.

What’s Interesting at DEF CON & Black Hat

Paul: So, we were talking about Black Hat and DEF CON. And what else did you see there? We heard a lot. I heard a lot in the press because I was listening for it. But our listeners are pretty diverse. What’s new? What’s interesting?

Adriel: Not much.

Paul: Is it like all old news already? Or is it just…?

Adriel: Yeah. I remember we were actually staying at the Caesar’s Palace so we could watch the talks from our rooms for DEF CON. And we were watching the talks. And some of them sounded very exciting. We thought there were new methods of doing things. And, I’d say just about every single time, when we got excited, we were very disappointed because the method that people were talking about were methods that we had already known about for years. That had already been used for years.

Unfortunately, DEF CON and Black Hat, I think they’ve outgrown themselves in much of the same way that the RSA Conference has and things like that.

Paul: I was wondering about that.

Adriel: Yeah. They’ve become very politicized, and they’ve got these vendor booths where vendors are spending a lot of money to advertise their products. That’s not really all that appealing anymore, to hackers that are strictly interested in learning about hacking.

They are still the biggest hacking conferences, and hackers will still go there. I mean, we were hanging out with Kevin Mitnick, and a bunch of other people were out there. But those people go because it gives you the option to meet other people that are going. So, we went there. We ended up meeting with a lot of our friends. And these guys are really hardcore researchers and the hardcore security people. And we also met some of our clients and things like that. So it’s a good team building exercise. From the perspective of learning something new, though, unless you’re talking to somebody or you know people that are going to be doing new research, you’re probably not going to pick it up at Black Hat and DEF CON.

Alternative Conventions to DEF CON and Black Hat

Paul: So is there something else out there? Blacker Hat or DEFfer CON? Something that’s a little better?

Adriel: There should be. DerbyCon is a little bit better.

Paul: DerbyCon?

Adriel: Yeah, DerbyCon. It’s a little bit better. A lot of the people that we associate with will go to DerbyCon. They’re growing in size too, but their content seems to be more aggressive. I guess you could say newer than what you’re seeing at those. And then, of course, there’s BSides, which, unfortunately, I’ve never been to, and I always intend to, but I never make it. BSides, from what I’ve heard, has a pretty good reputation for being fairly serious. A lot of the higher end people — and when I say “higher end,” maybe more capable researchers, more experienced researchers that I know have talked about going to both DerbyCon and BSides.

Paul: Interesting.

Adriel: Yeah. And they seem to really like those. Then you have your obscure conventions in Europe and things like that. I know some of my researchers go to those. Some are really good. Some are not.

Hacker Conventions Today Versus In The Past

It’s a lot different than it was in the ’90s and early 2000s. I mean, in the ’90s and the early 2000s, hackers were driven by curiosity and driven by research, and they met up with each other because they had something to share and something to discuss and, and so on, so forth. These days, it’s become so mainstream that you literally have groupies. You have people that show up in bizarre clothes with purple hair and all kinds of things. And they’re trying to show up and trying to fit in just because they think it’s cool. But they have nothing to offer. And that kind of distills things. And that kind of makes things less interesting.

And when I went to DEF CON, just this past DEF CON, I remember walking through these crowds of people, and I’m looking at these people, and I’m thinking, wow, the majority of these people are probably people working in IT or in security for corporate America. Very few of these people are actually hackers. And it’s unfortunately true. Very few of them were really the kinds of people who would be the researcher, the curiosity-driven kind of person.

It’s not to say that the conferences are useless because people do get a wealth of benefit from them, especially with regard to the training and the courses. And especially for businesses, IT people — IT personnel and security personnel — will learn a lot about the new technologies, the way hackers think and so on and so forth. And they’ll get to meet people that really are the real deal. So it’s much more useful, I think, if you’re going to business purposes now as opposed to if you’re a hacker trying to share knowledge and learn new things and so on, unless, of course, you’re networking.

Recommended Places To Find Information On Hacking

Paul: So do you have any recommended websites or places that you frequent that give valuable cutting-edge hacker information?

Adriel: There used to be. I mean, now the majority of the information I get is going to be from Reddit and Twitter. There are interesting posts that happen once in a while and conversations that happen once in a while if you follow the right people. You can follow places like The Hacker News and all that stuff. But they tend to not really provide anything that would be underground, as they would say.

IRC still exists, but it doesn’t really live in the same capacity that it did before. Back in the day, you could hang out on IRC, and you could get all kinds of really interesting information about who was being breached and so on and so forth. But now it’s not really working that way. Now what we actually see a lot of is we see different hacking groups. They have their own silk servers or servers or their own Slack setups — whatever it might be. And they kind of chat in a closed group like that.

You know, back in the day, you could login to IRC and, if you do a list search for the word “hacking,” you’d have thousands of hacking posts. And you had people who were doing all kinds of interesting things, and you could engage people in private conversations and private messages and really learn interesting stuff. It’s not quite the same anymore. It’s all been, I guess, distilled or intended it at some level or another.

The way that we stay sharp is literally, we all have Twitter accounts, and we pay attention to what people talk about. People know us through reputation, and so if people who are doing really neat work approach us and they say, “Hey, let’s talk about this. We need some help in this area,” then we learn about something. So, we end up staying in the loop because we’re approached just because of our name, brand, and our names as individuals. People want us to be involved in that stuff.

But unless you’ve established that kind of credibility and unless you already have this networking capability, I couldn’t really point you in any direction for anything that would be particularly eye-opening, aside from pay attention to the new vulnerabilities that are released. Pay attention to the names of the researchers associated with those vulnerabilities. Follow them on Twitter.

Advice For The Budding Hacker

Paul: So, if somebody woke up and said, “Hey, I want to be a hacker.” A ten-year old kid says, “I want to grow up to be a hacker,” it’s not like it used to be. You sort of can’t get that initial set of information. So what would your advice be to the budding hacker?

Adriel: Yeah. So anybody that tells me that they want to be a hacker, they’re probably never going to be a hacker. If you want to be a hacker, it’s because you almost already are. You’re born with this innate sense of curiosity. You’re born with this drive, this hunger to learn and tear things apart and solve problems and fix things, and you just love it. And because you love it, it doesn’t matter what you do in life. You’re always hacking something. You could be building the trash robot like Philippe because that just seems like a fun idea. Or maybe, like Kevin Finisterre, you’re building drones and then finding out ways to knock them out of the sky because you’re curious. Or you’ve got some of my researchers that do research on iPhones and all that. And they do it because they think, “Wow, there’s going to be a way to bypass this, even though Apple says we can’t. Let’s do it.” So it’s a curiosity thing.

So anybody who comes to me and says, “Hey, how do I become a hacker?” My answer is, you don’t. You either do this stuff natively—

Paul: You either are or you’re not.

The Definition of Hacking

Adriel: Right. You have that drive and you fix things in obscure ways. And, really a definition of hacking is creating an effective and a simple solution to an overly complex problem. And so if you are a solution creator and if you are able to take a problem of some sort — and the word “problem” is defined very loosely — and you were able to solve that challenge using a creative and effective and fairly easy-to-use solution, then you’re a hacker.

And I would argue that there are a lot of hackers that don’t know they’re hackers. Look at these guys that live off the land in Alaska. They have no technology to speak of. But, some of the things they put together to get water and to hunt and to trap, they’re ingenious! They’re hacking. They have a problem. They’re creating an incredible solution to a problem, and a lot of times, that solution gets used by other people in the same community. So that’s really what the essence of hacking is. So yeah. You’re born with it. You’ve got that talent and a gift or you don’t.

Paul: So I guess that in the venerable words of Yoda, “There is no try. Just do.”

Adriel: Right. That’s right.

More Episodes:

This is Part 2 of our interview with Adriel Desautels. Be sure to listen to Part 3 coming soon! We’ll be talking with Adriel about computer security!
If you missed part 1, about what’s new in the world of cybersecurity, you can listen to it here!

Show Notes: