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Undetected podcast e.01 recap: The evolution of web security and hacking

March 13, 2020

Web security is like an onion, or maybe the deep sea, where there are depths to be uncovered. This is precisely what Undetected – a Web Security Podcast by Detectify is set to do. Our new podcast series is hosted by Security Researcher, Laura Kankaala. Each session, she invites a guest speaker to discuss some common security topics from another perspective, and other topics that may not have ever crossed your mind. Watch the full video episode on Detectify Resources.

Undetected - a web security podcast by Detectify artwork

In the pilot episode, Laura is joined by Detectify co-founder Johan Edholm. He co-founded the company back in 2013, and is still involved with the organization today by managing the technical infrastructure in the clouds. We don’t want to give away too much, but there are some things said that are just too good to not be highlighted and we’ve summarized of some of the conversation:

This episode discusses the evolution of web security, and starts off the discussion on its current state by first going back to where the Internet began for them. Both Laura and Johan are from the same generation, yet their first experiences with the Internet differ.

Guest speaker Johan Edholm (left) and Host Laura Kankaala (right)

Do you remember when your first interaction with the Internet was?

Johan: I remember in the early days we didn’t have the fast Internet connection we have now. Actually, we weren’t even allowed to use computers, really, at home. My dad’s a farmer, and he believed you should work with your hands, and computers are bad… It was very different, everything was slow and taboo, I guess.

Laura: I remember when we got our first computer… it was more like, everyone got to use it. We didn’t have it online but my sister and I used to play a lot of video games.

Johan: We were not really allowed to do that, because dad had his tax documents on the computer and he would say, “Oh no, you’re going to get a virus, and everything is going to be terrible.” We weren’t allowed to touch it. When he was out working at the farm, I actually snuck to his computer anyway, and used it. I remember having to print out into text files to read offline.

Laura: My first experience was with making websites using Geocities, a hosting platform for websites. I also had my first hacking encounter here: my friend’s website was hacked and the person just changed the wallpaper on the website. I thought, “oh, is this hacking? Wow. Who would ever do this?”

When did you first experience hacking or web security?

Johan: IRC was a big part of my early time on the Internet, and security. I got into security fairly quickly, when it came to IT. I wasn’t much of a casual Internet surfer… but I’ve always been interested in this magic kind of thing. Before that, it was more literal, the sleight of hand and illusions. I think hacking has the same feeling. If someone does something that’s out of this world, I want to understand how the fuck that works. It annoys me when I don’t. That’s when I started to look into it, and that was fairly quick into this whole Internet journey, I guess.

I read a lot of those magazines, or similar texts where people were talking about hacks, and I guess those were probably the earliest experiences of things being hacked, without me actually seeing it for myself, just reading about it.

What about phreaking?

Johan: Back then, hacks were mainly teenagers pranking, and phone phreaking was a big thing because way back you didn’t have the Internet, but you had phones. Maybe you wanted to call someone, and it was really expensive so people wanted to bypass that. If you read Kevin Mitnick’s book, Art of Deception, he uses it a lot when he’s doing other shenanigans like social engineering.

Laura: Yeah, Kevin Mitnick is probably one of the OG hackers out there.

Johan: He’s definitely one of the most famous, at least. He was chased by the FBI, and was on their top wanted list for a bunch of years. He has written a lot of books regarding social engineering, and security in general. And I’ve read Art of Deception myself. It was a long time ago, that was in my early, early days of security, I’d say. But that one is fairly good when it comes to social engineering. 

How did the industry look when you started working with security?

Johan: In 2008, myself and the other founders turned 18, so we could actually register our first company. But I think it started 2007, just not too serious. We were just nerds, trying to build something because it’s fun.

Laura: What was the initial thing that you were working on?

Johan: It was the same scanner as we’re having now [in Detectify]. We wanted to automate security. Back then, the idea was to maybe be consultants since that was what everyone was doing, so it seemed like an easy thing. But then we’re lazy, so we figured we could just automate. Might as well, right?

Then, this whole cloud thing was growing, and I guess we were early jumping on that train.

Laura: Nowadays, we have: bug bounties, consultants, pentesters, a lot of people working in this field and it’s constantly growing. How was it back then in 2008?

Johan: How I remember it was that security people were mostly consultants. Of course, you had these security products, but generally, things moved slowly and were enterprise-y. Security was very much a product for the enterprise and for people with money. It’s not like a 10-people company would hire a pen tester. That’s usually very expensive.

Also, the vulnerabilities you saw were simpler. It’s getting more and more complex now with bigger systems. You need to find flaws in how they interact with each other. Back then, it was often quite straight forward. I think that’s a symptom of this: few people that could afford security. 

Bug bounties weren’t a thing then. I know Netscape had one around ’95, but nobody knew about it. Or, at least I didn’t. That’s not web. It was the browser, not the Internet itself. The whole feeling around it was very different.

Laura: What were the top three vulnerabilities at the time?

Johan: My feeling is that it was mostly SQL injections, those were very common. They had a very large impact. They, of course, are still around a bit today, but it’s much, much more rare. Back in the days, those were everywhere.

Then, remote code executions, they were, compared to now, much more common. It’s very basic. Now, you have SSRF, rather, which is the new RCE, almost.

The third? I would say file inclusions, like local or remote, even. They were fairly big as well, if you count the impact.

One thing that’s stayed is XSS. These vulnerabilities might have changed shape, but are still around, and probably even bigger now.


RCEs today:

Laura: What you said about the RCEs and and comparing them to SSRFs is interesting in that you think they are the new RCEs.

Johan: That’s more or less what we see nowadays. When you get that impact, it’s usually not the standard RCE. Before we could really have RCE in a query string, like in the URL.

Now things are much more complex, so you use the complexity of an application against itself. It makes things really hard to detect, I think, as well. Or, harder at least, to detect those kinds of things often.

What about Hacktivism?

Laura: One thing that I feel has changed, also, over the years, is the role of hacktivism.

Johan: Yeah, I think so too. I would attribute that, partly, to bug bounties. Now, people have a legal alternative to make a lot of money, even, on hacking. Back in the days, people wanted to have fun. Pranksters or teenagers were defacing websites, or changing the background and look of a website, to spread a message, or just because they were bored.

Laura: Yeah, it feels like, back in the days hacking was more political. Hacktivism basically stands for having some kind of political agenda, or some kind of bigger agenda behind hacking. For example, collectives such as Anonymous.

Johan: Yeah, that’s my impression as well and maybe they’re just more careful or hidden. Maybe they do a lot of things behind the curtains that we don’t see, and they could, for example, dump things to Wikileaks.

Back then, people really wanted to make a name for themselves, as well, often tagging releases with the group name, like Anonymous. There was also Lulzsec, that was fairly big in this. I’m not sure if they had much of a political message, to be honest, but at least they liked to tag it.

Going from hacktivism to bug bounties:

Laura: I think bug bounties have made a difference for individuals when it comes to security, because now they have a platform for reporting these things as long as they stay in scope, and work accordingly to the agreed rules and policies in there.

Johan: People often hack for the challenge. Now, when they have a legal alternative to it, they can brag about it on their high score lists rather than having to deface a website, and write their name on it. They have a more ethical alternative, which is very good.

Hacktivism is not completely dead:

Laura: Hacktivism is not completely dead, though. For example, just recently, a hacker going by the name of Phineas Fisher announced a bug bounty program for hackers, basically.

Johan: That was also delivered as one of those pure text files, that are very popular. I read it, and it brought a lot of nostalgia, to be honest. That was a very strong political statement, and something one often saw, I think before our time. I’m born ’90 and I think that style was more common in the ’80s. But the message that’s in that is a lot like, “Fuck Capitalism.”

Laura: For example, this is a quote from that manifesto. They said that, “Hacking to obtain and leak documents with public interest is one of the best ways for hackers to benefit this society.” I think this is an interesting message. Naturally, I think it’s not that outdated, but when it comes to Responsible Disclosure, or Bug Bounties, these kinds of ideas don’t typically come out in bug bounties. Rather they never, because in bug bounty programs they ask you not to leak information, or to responsibly disclose the vulnerabilities that you find.

Johan: We might call it responsible disclosure, but I guess, the hacker in this case would not call that responsible… This hacker claims to be a she, so I’m going to refer to that. She says rather, how to best benefit society by leaking documents, etc. I guess it’s very subjective, what’s responsible in that case.

Laura: Absolutely. They are also offering up to $100,000 for hackers who are able to leak some kind of documents. I don’t know where this money comes from, but they are paid in Bitcoin or other cryptocurrency. I consider this hacktivism when one is asking for these kinds of leaks.

Becoming IT security professionals:

Laura: We are both working as professional security people today. When I was studying, for example, it never occurred to me that I could be a pentester. Only when I entered the IT field, and I worked as a SysAdmin for a bit, was I able to change to a pen tester role. Only then I understood that, okay, this is actually a career, and you can make a career out of this.

I think you had this realization much earlier than I did, because back in 2008, you were already in this line of work.

Johan: My dad’s a farmer, he worked with his hands, and his dad was also a farmer, on the same farm even. On my mom’s side, they were plumbers. So, for me, I never saw it as a possibility to work within the IT field. That was something you did as a hobby, like playing chess or something.

I remember when that clicked for me, it was when I saw there was a school that I actually ended up going to, an IT school here in Stockholm. I was like, holy shit, you can actually work with this? Is that a profession? I had never accepted that. All the way until 2007, or 2008, it wasn’t that big, you didn’t hear that much about it then. I’m not sure if I really realized that security specifically could be a profession for me, either.

I honestly wasn’t even sure if I wanted to work with IT. It was more like, I think it’s fun, and I find it fairly easy. But, do I want to have this as a profession or as a hobby?

Shifting everything to be online:

Laura: A lot of our lives are actually happening online. We have social media, we have our banks, our health, everything is online. It has also become more profitable to hack into these things, also for personal gain. If you are a malicious actor, and you are able to hack into a company, or steal data from them, that can be directly profitable for you, if you sell that data on illegal marketplaces.

Johan: Yeah, exactly. I’d say, further back people mostly had websites to show where they had their store, maybe. Now, you have the store online, and you have all the user records there: who buys from you, and maybe even their history, etc. All that can be valuable for some people. If nothing else, it could be useful for doing other attacks, like spear-phishing attacks (scamming people by stalking them) which make these kinds of scams much more successful.

You have a higher incentive to actually hack things. You don’t have to go through your house to break in to look at them, you can do it overseas. It’s a very easy way to be a criminal as well, I guess.

Do you feel that the security landscape is getting better?


Johan: Yeah, I would definitely say it is, actually. We’re getting better at both defense and offense. It’s harder now than it was 10 years ago to get into a fairly good security level. Because we have evolved, you have to understand more things, and you have to work your way to patch a lot of the common problems. There are a lot of frameworks that, by default, aren’t vulnerable to SQL injections.

When you use frameworks, one patch can fix a lot of things, and I think we have been fairly good at that, by raising the security awareness. Of course, there are still a lot of good hackers, and you can still make mistakes, but I would say it’s better now.

Laura: More on that, the frameworks already have these built in mechanisms to mitigate this, they filter the input or the output that comes to or from the web application, so that using those web applications is more safe for end users today.

Johan: We have learned by our mistakes, and switching it to be safe by default. If you have some edge case where you don’t want that kind of security mechanism for some reason, it’s an opt-out, rather than opt-in. I think that’s really the change we have seen, and that we will hopefully continue to see.

Laura: Today there are a lot more tools that can provide automated security. And there are also consultants, and a lot of different kinds of pentesters, with different knowledge and focus areas. It’s easier to also buy security, these days.

Johan: If you feel you have the resources to actually fix things, you can also start a Responsible Disclosure program. You don’t even have to pay people, but people might look at your things anyway. Or, if they accidentally find something, they know how to contact you.

Responsible Disclosures can be fairly useful, because people can show it off on their resumé to help their career or online profiles, so they get invited to [private] bug bounty programs. There are a lot of those as not every [organization] wants to be public with their bug bounty program. 

It’s a win, win. You get help with your security, and they get credit for it, of course.

Laura: Yeah, absolutely. I think there must be some people who just want to do this out of good will, as well.

Johan: There are people that are doing security for charity, for example Hackers for Charity. Where they actually just purely do it out of good will. I would expect some people maybe want to exercise their skills just to get a technical challenge.

We’ve talked a lot about the past and the current state of security, and the new trends that have been emerging. But, where do you see us going from here?

Johan: I think all these frameworks, or CMSs, or even programming languages will become even better at making people make good decisions, when it comes to security. So, security by default, or maybe even have it as Theo de Raadt, the creator of OpenBSD, says something like, “Optional security is irrelevant,” where you don’t have a choice. But, I think we’ll become better at that.

Of course, automation is a thing, definitely. Quite obvious, in this case, when it comes to Detectify since that is what we do. But I really believe in that. As I mentioned, it’s harder and harder to get into the field of security, and there are fewer and fewer [individuals] that are doing this original [security] research. So we need to distribute that knowledge.

The futuristic way of security with automation and hacker collaboration:

Johan: Not everyone can learn to hack that well, and those insights shouldn’t be only for those few that can, or the few that can afford to hire these people. If you look at Google’s bug bounty program, or Facebook, or some others, they have an enormous budget. Obviously, that won’t go for everyone.

It’s not just the organizations themselves that would suffer from this, it’s all the users of the smaller websites, and organizations. What we need to do is find ways to distribute that knowledge, to spread that knowledge so we can get a more secure Internet experience.

That’s partly what we do. We try to take this knowledge from the few [Detectify Crowdsouce], and automate it so it can reach much more people. But knowledge would also go into those open source tools, or CMSs, or similar. I think that’s a futuristic way to look at security. At least, that’s what I believe, and hope for as well, so we don’t get this too-centralized where there’s a few services that you feel like you can’t actually trust because those are the only ones that can afford this kind of thing. It’s not just super big enterprises and nation states, it’s [security] actually more for everyone.

Ultimately, we need to protect the end user:

Laura: Absolutely. Even though companies need to be the ones enforcing security, a lack of security will always affect the end users in one way or another. Either their data is compromised, or their devices are compromised. The target for malicious actors is either a group of people, opportunistically everyone, or a really specific target, like one person.

Johan: That’s a lot of the point. If your company gets hacked, of course you as a company will suffer, it will damage your brand, and might have a lot of financial costs and things, but it also affects everyone that’s using your service. Or, if they have their personal data on that service, maybe other things that are even more sensitive ,… like Bitcoin wallets, that could have a huge cost for people.

Something more subtle would be like your email being leaked so now you get a lot of spam. That’s annoying, but it could lead to a lot of different things, depending on how you use it, and what kind of company it is. The point is, it’s not just the organizations that suffer, it’s all the users of it. We need to help everyone be more safe, or secure.

All full video episodes are found over in the Detectify Resources page.

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