Remembering the ‘Stakkato’ Hacks

Philip Gabriel Pettersson, best known by the pseudonym of “Stakkato” can be said to have reached legendary status within the computer security community by his numerous successful breaches of high-level targets between 2003 and 2005. Then a 16 year-old hacker from Uppsala, Sweden, he successfully infiltrated systems of large universities, the United States military, NASA and various companies, forming a worldwide network within which he operated for around 2 years before being caught in 2005 and prosecuted by Swedish authorities. This post revisits the story of Stakkato by reviewing his motivation, techniques and exploits and potentially unearth some lessons learned from these events.

Bored Teenagers

Uppsala is the fourth largest city of Sweden and is situated around 70km north of the capital. In 2003, one of its curious and smart teenager went on to challenge himself by exploring – illegally – the digital environment surrounding the city. Some of us might remember the old definition of a “hacker”, as defined by The Mentor’s manifesto [1]. Back in 2003, owning a computer was still not totally commonplace, although it was a lot more than it in 1995. Only teenagers with a certain sense of interest and curiosity about technology would consider spending most of their time on their machines. In my corner of the world, in the 90s, computer science classes were nothing more than learning to type, using word processors and creating spreadsheets. I am sure I was not the only one in the same situation and some readers may remember the frustration of not being able to pursue their hobby in depth while in school. So we spent most the classes programming VBA games or spamming other students using WinPopup to have them call out the teacher, who would struggle to explain the innocuous messages on the screen. Only at night could we connect to the net, login into our favorite BBS, IRC channels or forums to finally learn more. Virtualization was not a thing back in the early 2000s, internet connections were still slow and owning more than 1 computer was a luxury most couldn’t afford. A solution was dumpster diving around computer shops – which were aplenty compared to nowadays – or browsing eBay for scraps. Another one was to poke around systems connected to the internet. Universities were of course perfect targets – opened, poorly secured (in order to be opened) and rich with systems, software and data.

Why am I rambling about the past? Because in many ways, Stakkato may have been the same teenager than many of us were back then, but his cockiness eventually got the better of him and caused his demise. Some even proposed that by 2005, he may have attempted to venture into criminal activities by selling stolen intellectual property. In any case, let’s explore briefly his story, because I believe many who now heads IT security companies, or experts and researchers in the field all shared the same starting point, but fortunately took a different path at some point.

The Stakkato Hacks

The first suspicions of wrongdoing were noticed in 2004. Berkeley researcher Wren Montgomery started receiving email from Stakkato [2], claiming that not only did he infiltrated her university, but that he also accessed the network of White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, stole F-18 blueprints from Patuxent River Naval Air Station and infiltrated NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) – which to be honest, have been hacked by many in the past decade [3][4][5], almost making it an initial test for debuting hackers. These claims were later confirmed by spokesmen from both organizations. They however downplayed the importance of these breaches, claiming that there were low-level breaches and that only weather information was exfiltrated. Later during the year, several laboratories harboring supercomputers connected via the high-speed network TeraGrid reported breaches. However it was only in 2005, with the intrusion in networking company Cisco Systems, that would trigger alerts from authorities and proved to be a bridge too far. Having established a foothold within Cisco, Stakkato was able to locate and download around 800MB of source code of the Internetwork Operating System (IOS) version 12.3 [6]. IOS runs on every Cisco routers and other networking devices which are often key network component of not only large commercial and governmental organizations, but also of the worldwide telecommunication infrastructure. Samples of the code was released on IRC as proof and reported by a Russian security site. The theft of the code caused a stir, many believing that individuals or groups would comb the code and craft zero-day exploits that could be leveraged on critical systems.

This activity would prove the last Stakkato and his team would be able to brag about as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Swedish authorities started to investigate the leaks. In 2007, he was convicted for breaching networks Swedish universities and paid 25,000$USD in damages. He was further interviewed by U.S. officials [7] and in May 2009, he was formally inducted in California for intrusions in Cisco Systems, NASA’s Ames Research Center and NASA’s Advanced Supercomputing Division [8]. In 2010 his prosecution was transferred to the Swedish authorities.

The Tactics

The core strategy of Stakkato revolved around a trojanized SSH client he uploaded to systems he compromised. The malicious client would be used to intercept users’ credentials and send them to a third location where Stakkato and his group would retrieve them to access additional systems. Once accessed, Linux kernel exploits were used for privilege escalation on the local system and then repeated their main tactic, creating privileged accounts and eventually building a wide network of proxies to launch their attacks. The attack on the National Supercomputer Centre [9] provides insight on the tactics and size of the compromises. The methodology used was not innovative by any mean, but was applied effectively and certainly leveraged human errors to its full extend. The process can be summarized as follow:

  1. Infiltrate a system via a kernel vulnerability or stolen credentials;
  2. Disable command history, e.g prevent the system from logging your commands;
  3. Attempt privilege escalation;
  4. Setup trojanized SSH clients, backdoors and rootkits;
  5. Extract known hosts from current machine;
  6. Attempt to infiltrate extracted hosts as per step 1.

The analysts of the NSC documented logins from universities the United States, Israel and Sweden and referenced the SuckIt rootkit [10] as being installed on one of the target machine. Unfortunately for the administrators, the rootkit was discovered only after a new root password was assigned to all machines, allowing the attackers to re-infiltrate the newly cleared systems. However this time the Swedish teenager was a lot less subtle and vandalized the systems by attempting a web defacement and modifying logon messages. This time the IT specialists took down the network, inspected and reconfigured every machine before putting the system back online. Despite the defensive operation, recurring login attempts and smaller-scale compromised originating from more than 50 compromised organizations were noted between 2003 and 2005.

Lessons Learned

This story follows the same pattern observed throughout the ages, such as sprawling empires from ancient times in which the rulers’ overconfidence led them to bankruptcy, or growing organizations that stretched into markets that proved more difficult than expected. Stakkato’s network of compromised systems grew too large, he became overconfident and tempted the sleeping bears. In other words, patience may have led him to a very different path. Or maybe his arrest was for the best afterall: there is little news about him past 2010, but coincidently there is a security researcher working in Samsun bearing the same name and credited multiple vulnerabilities in the Linux kernel [11][12]. While I have no idea if this is the same individual, I would be glad to hear that he now uses his skills fruitfully.

Arguably another lesson is how simple tricks can still work if applied efficiently. All things considered, security hasn’t changed dramatically within the past 10-15 years: it has evolved, but in the end, we still rely on usernames and passwords, users’ awareness and administrators properly maintaining their networks and hosts. Humans using these systems haven’t changed much either; we will take the simplest approach to achieve our goals. Hence we select the easiest password passing the complexity filters in place and reuse it [13] so we don’t have to remember 100 variations of the same password. Large database compromises in the past few years appears to prove this behavior. We could have many passwords and store them in password managers, but then the password managers can still be trojanized or exploited [14], allowing similar tactics used by Stakkato. Eventually most people would probably not bother to execute an additional program to retrieve their password in order to login in the service they need; it simply adds an additional step.

Conclusion

Studying the past of computer security is sometimes quickly dismissed, often seen as irrelevant given the change in technologies, but one can easily find inspiration in the stories of hackers, malware writers and the analysts that battled to gain and maintain control of systems. Much like studying the battles of Alexander the Great or Patton, there is much to be learned from studying the techniques used and wargaming their applications in modern organizations. Would the current administrators blindly enter their passwords if a windows suddenly popped up requesting their credential for some update? Users still get fooled by fake login web pages [15] and end up with their bank accounts plundered or their Twitter account spewing nonsense to all their followers. It still works.

Obligatory XKCD

References

[1]    “Phrack Magazine” [Online]. Available: http://phrack.org/issues/7/3.html. [Accessed: 05-Nov-2016].

[2]    J. M. L. Bergman, “Internet Attack Called Broad and Long Lasting by Investigators,” The New York Times, 10-May-2005. [Online]. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/10/technology/internet-attack-called-broad-and-long-lasting-by-investigators.html. [Accessed: 02-Nov-2016].

[3]    K. Zetter, “Report: Hackers Seized Control of Computers in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab,” WIRED, 01-Mar-2012. [Online]. Available: https://www.wired.com/2012/03/jet-propulsion-lab-hacked/. [Accessed: 04-Nov-2016].

[4]    “Hacker Sentenced in New York City for Hacking into Two NASA Jet Propulsion Lab Computers Located in Pasadena, California (September 5, 2001).” [Online]. Available: https://www.justice.gov/archive/criminal/cybercrime/press-releases/2005/gascaConviction.htm. [Accessed: 04-Nov-2016].

[5]    “Hackers penetrated NASA computers 13 times last year,” USATODAY.COM, 02-Mar-2012. [Online]. Available: http://content.usatoday.com/communities/ondeadline/post/2012/03/hackers-penetrated-nasa-computers-13-times-last-year/1. [Accessed: 04-Nov-2016].

[6]    “Sweden to prosecute alleged Cisco, NASA hacker.” [Online]. Available: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/02/08/swedish_hacker_prosecution/. [Accessed: 04-Nov-2016].

[7]    D. Kravets, “Swede Indicted for NASA, Cisco Hacks,” WIRED, 05-May-2009. [Online]. Available: https://www.wired.com/2009/05/swede-indicted-for-nasa-cisco-hacks/. [Accessed: 03-Nov-2016].

[8]    United States of America v. Philip Gabriel Pettersson aka “Stakkato.” 2009.

[9]    L. Nixon, “The Stakkato Intrusions: What happened and what have we learned?,” presented at the CCGrid06, Singapore, Singapore, 17-May-2006.

[10]    D. Sd, “Linux on-the-fly kernel patching wihtout LKM,” Phrack, no. 58, Dec. 2001.

[11]    P. Pettersson, “oss-sec: CVE-2015-1328: incorrect permission checks in overlayfs, ubuntu local root.” [Online]. Available: http://seclists.org/oss-sec/2015/q2/717. [Accessed: 05-Nov-2016].

[12]    “Linux Kernel ’crypto/asymmetric_keys/public_key.c ‘ Local Denial of Service Vulnerability.” [Online]. Available: http://www.securityfocus.com/bid/81694. [Accessed: 05-Nov-2016].

[13]    T. Spring and M. Mimoso, “No Simple Fix for Password Reuse,” Threatpost | The first stop for security news, 08-Jun-2016. [Online]. Available: https://threatpost.com/no-simple-fix-for-password-reuse/118536/. [Accessed: 04-Nov-2016].

[14]    “How I made LastPass give me all your passwords.” [Online]. Available: https://labs.detectify.com/2016/07/27/how-i-made-lastpass-give-me-all-your-passwords/. [Accessed: 05-Nov-2016].

[15]    Bursztein, Elie, Borbala Benko, Daniel Margolis, Tadek Pietraszek, Andy Archer, Allan Aquino, Andreas Pitsillidis, and Stefan Savage, “Handcrafted fraud and extortion: Manual account hijacking in the wild,” in Proceedings of the 2014 Conference on Internet Measurement Conference, Vancouver, Canada, 2014, pp. 347–358.

Author: Jonathan Racicot

INTJ, goa trance, RE, python, malware, wine, books, french bulldogs, genetics, biohacking, CtF, night owl, transhumanist, AI, machines, cyber ops.

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