Becoming a "Hacker"

  • By Brad Conte, August 24, 2007
  • Post Categories: Security


That word "hacker" carries with it a lot of baggage. The word intrigues teenagers, scares politicians, and causes computer geeks to endlessly debate its exact definition.

Computers have created an deep, complex, intertwined world that few people are truly familiar with. A world in which most of its users can't even begin to comprehend the complexity or functionality of it. Even people who would be labeled as relatively computer literate, in all likelihood, don't really know much about how their computer works. Average Joe hasn't really a clue what his computer actually does or how it actually works beyond the point-and-click GUI he sees. And that's fine, because thousands of man-hours have gone into the design of everything computers do and it's unreasonable to expect Average Joe to understand a large portion of it.

But hackers make a point of knowing what happens inside a computer. What's more, they try to manipulate what happens. The combination of their knowledge and skill sets scares a lot of people (and excites others). Hackers have a knowledge base that many others do not. And they have a skill set that many others do not.

Odds are you're reading this because the concept of "hacking" interests you and you want to learn more about it. If you are an aspiring "hacker" (we'll see if you truly are in a bit), this if for you. For others, this will give an introspective into the mind of the hacker. I assume that the "aspiring hacker" is somewhat familiar with computers but hasn't really touched on hacking and computer security in any depth. My goal here is to provide a first introduction to what you'll need to do to pursue "hacking". The most daunting part of any task is usually just finding a place to start, and giving you that start is my goal.

However, my goal is not to teach you how to hack; it is just to tell you were to start. First I'm going to explain what the concept of hacking entails, so that you know what you're getting into. Next I'm going to lay forth the learning mentality and efforts you're going to need to expend, namely, what you're going to need to do to become a hacker. Third, I'm going to show you what your goal should be, namely, what it is you should eventually arrive at. Last, I'm going to give you a starting point so that you can go off and actually begin your studies, because that's what you probably want anyway.

I'm going to spend a lot more time elaborating on this topic than need be. A lot of good advice for the aspiring hacker could be condensed in just a couple sentences. But all of that has been said and done before, it's my goal to give the exhaustive explanation that covers every relevant conceptual topic. And since every hacker, more or less, follows a similar path of development, this can also give the non-hacker an insight into the mind of a hacker.

Remember, this is only an article about where and how to start learning, it's not my goal to actually give you your first Hacking 101 lesson.

What You're Getting Into

Hacking requires a lot of knowledge and understanding. If you just want to find one computer program you can download so that you can click a couple buttons and impress your friends by breaking some stupid thing on their computer then you aren't aspiring to be a hacker, you're aspiring to be a script kiddie. And script kiddies are to hackers what construction workers are to structural engineers. Script kiddies are out to, usually, amuse themselves. They act without purpose and rarely have any ethic standards.

First you'll need to understand what it is that hackers do. In the beginning, rules to govern the everyday aspects of computing were created. These rules are for networking, web design, programming, graphics design, etc. They govern everything that computers do and dictate how they do it. Most developers live by these rules.

Hackers, however, have what might be likened to a second layer of rules, a layer of rules built on the first layer. At the risk of using a cheesy analogy, the normal rules of computer are can be described by the line from The Matrix where Morphius tells Neo (in the sparring chamber): "Like any rules, they can be bent, others can be broken." That's fairly true of computing. The normal rules of computing can be manipulated, others can be completely bypassed. The realm of hacking lies on the second layer of rules, rules that are based on the first layer and can manipulate the functionality of the first layer.

Note the lack of the phrase "breaking into computers" in my definition of "hacking". Hacking is about learning, changing, and manipulating. Whether you use those skills to break into someone else's computer is a separate, unrelated issue. The mainstream media uses the buzzword "hacker" too narrowly, the roots of the term are far more broad than what modern mainstream usage implies.

For example, take the ARP networking protocol. It doesn't matter if you know what ARP is or how it works, suffice it to say that it's a networking protocol. ARP is a "first level" set of rules that govern how computers communicate on a network. Every network administrator must be familiar with how it works. However, a hacker knows how ARP works and knows how to use those rules to perform a different task than the goal of the original rules. Using the ARP protocol is standard computer networking. Manipulating ARP to do something you want it to is hacking. ARP is a normal rule, but it is a rule you can build from and it is a rule you can manipulate.

Thus in computer security/hacking it should be obvious that it pays to know the normal operating rules. Everything hackers do is based on the normal rules and unless you understand those rules you won't be a decent hacker. You're going to have to study how things work, why they work, learn how they work successfully under normal conditions, learn how they fail under abnormal conditions, and then figure out how to use them abnormally and make them achieve different goals.

So to begin your hacking endeavors you're going to have to do a lot of reading and a lot of question asking. If you already assumed this then you're in the right frame of mind. If you thought you just needed to find those one or two magic programs that would let you crash Windows boxes by the second day, rethink your plans.

How to Learn

In brief, you're going to need to read. A lot. Everyone's learning style is different and there are a lot of perfectly valid learning methods, but all of them will include a lot of reading.

Let me offer this bit of advice: Do not start by reading RFCs or any other sort of extremely technical specification. (RFCs are technical papers describing many common computing standards.) Some people will give you that advice and, frankly, I don't think it helps very much when you're very new to hacking. Instead, start by reading articles/essays/tutorials that are more than a listing of facts and specifications. Read what one person has to say on a topic, then go read technical documentation if you want to know very specific details about it. RFC's and other technical documentation can be complex, and sometimes downright unhelpful to a beginner. They make create resources to consult later, however.

To start your reading, get a browser that has tabs and makes both searching the Internet and searching a rendered web page easy (such as Firefox). Then find an online article about some security topic that interests you and seems roughly at your level of understanding.

There are two things I would like to emphasize from just that last sentence. First, I would like to stress that you find something roughly on your level. You will kill your ambition if you try to understand and dissect concepts too far over your head. Some stuff is very complicated, don't discourage yourself by trying to take it on before you're ready. You'll get frustrated trying to bench press a 500lb weight on your third day at the gym, it may be out of your league at the moment and just isn't worth your time trying to lift. This isn't to say you should forget about any complex topic you come across, you should just make a note to come back to that topic later when you know more and can assimilate information on that complex topic better. Go spend some serious time researching and learning what you need to in order to understand that topic and come back to it when you're ready. If it takes a day before you're ready, great. If it takes a month, that's fine too. The important thing is that you're learning. You don't get any sort of points for reading the articles you originally decided to, you get points for what you learn.

My second point may seem a bit obvious but I do encourage that you start your research online, as opposed to going out and buying a hacker book or magazine. The newer you are to hacking the less you'll know, and the less you know the more likely you are to find heaps of material about what you're looking for online for free anyway, so it may not be worth buying hard copy material. Plus the less you know the more you'll need to look up as you read. It's easier to look stuff up on the fly if you're on the Internet. Every new golfer likes to go out and buy their first new set of clubs, but that mentality doesn't work as well here. You will likely not need to spend a dime for anything (other than a computer and/or basic accessories) for a long time. Most stuff is available, in some form, for free.

Anyway, find an article on something that looks like material you want to learn. Read it and make note of all the words or terms you don't recognize. As you find them, highlight them, right-click them with your mouse, and search Google for them (one of the nice features of Firefox). All of them. If you have to open 20 new tabs from one article then that's fine, remember, you only get points for what you learn, not for whether you finish the initial article you started to read. Sometimes you'll come across a tutorial, paper, or audio lecture that does nothing but provide you with a long list of topics to go research. You may not be able to make much sense of it for months, but that's OK.

Read on all of those topics you just searched Google for. You don't have to read just one article per topic, if the article you read seemed short and didn't satisfy your curiosity then read another article to make sure you're not missing anything important. If those articles themselves have terms you don't know, look those up too. Make it a habit to instinctively always look up terms or concepts you don't know. The number of open tabs you have can balloon quickly but that's OK, you're out to learn.

A word of sympathy to those who find themselves with dozens of open tabs and dozens of topics that need to be researched: It can get very big very fast and you will sometimes have to call it quits on a topic. Don't be a wimp, though, call it quits only when you've truly hit a wall or are getting into a subject that truly bores you. Even if you don't learn the details about a subject, just learn the vague idea behind it. For example, even if you don't fully understand how ARP poisoning works and how to do it yourself, understand what it allows you to do that way you know what it means the next time you hear the term. You can learn how to perform an ARP poison attack some other time, and when you do learn it will be easier if you already understand what it is. Be flexible with what you learn in depth. If something frustrates or bores you, move on to something else -- there's plenty of interesting topics to study. (If everything bores you, you might not be cut out for it after all.)

Which topics should you be pursuing more than others? This is up to you. There are dozens of topics you can research and you'll have to determine for yourself which ones you spend the bulk of your time pursuing. Almost everyone will recommend that you have at least minimal well-rounded knowledge in most fields but that you find some topic that specifically interests you and you pursue it.

As you read more and more articles, you should come across fewer and fewer terms you don't understand. You will always run across unfamiliar terms -- no one knows everything -- but the quantity of those terms should diminish with time. Even if you don't necessarily remember every acronym you read (there are a lot of them) a quick Google search for one you've forgotten and a quick glance down the results page should spark the "Duh, now I remember that," light bulb.

Remember, never hesitate to use Google (or your search engine of choice), no matter what your question is about. If you're new to hacking and seriously trying to learn it would not be unreasonable for you to be executing 15 Google queries an hour during any given period of research. (This wouldn't be unreasonable for a veteran to do either if they're delving into new territory.) Google isn't a sign of weakness. And it's free. Use it. Often.

There will be some questions you have that Google doesn't answer, or doesn't answer to your satisfaction. When this happens, ask someone who might know. The best way to do that is to post your question to a hacker / computer security forum.

At some point you're going to need to start doing some actual hands-on work. All knowledge and no experience makes Jack a condescending pseudo-guru. If you want to be a hacker you're going to have to actually do something sooner or later. Feel free to experiment on your own computers on your own network. Port scan your desktop various ways from your laptop, try an ARP attack against your laptop from your desktop, etc.

And remember, for the sake of all that is good in this world, don't attack computers you don't own. It's tempting, but don't do anything against other computers, you'd be surprised how easily people can get upset. And I've seen enough hackers more competent than you will likely be who got into legal trouble to last me a life time. It seems tempting to try, but it's not worth it.

The obvious question is, "When do I actually start doing hands-on work?" This is up to you. Some people prefer to research to their heart's content before touching any tools, some prefer to experiment with tools as they learn everything. Do whatever helps you learn the most, but always research a concept at least a little bit before you try it out -- I'm not a big fan of "try it then learn it". Otherwise you won't know what you're doing, you might get confused, and you'll waste your time. And, most importantly, if you're really unlucky you'll break something by accident. If you don't know what your tools are doing and how they work when you use them, you're more of a script kiddie.

When you do start doing hands-on work is when you might want to start reading technical manuals. I assumed that you started very new to hacking, but by the time you're attempting to try things you should be able to read and understand RFCs and similar documentation on the subjects that you're experimenting with. Because by then you're more concerned with the more nitty-gritty details of how stuff works, and then the mumbo jumbo in RFCs and other technical documentation should make sense.

I would also advise that you focus more on technical understanding than on technical memorization. Its important to know how you can use ARP for a man-in-the-middle attack. Its much less important to be able to construct an ARP header frame from memory. If you ever need to do that, you can look it up. If you understand how something works, you can get the precise details when you need them.

Where You're Headed

In your endeavors to learn about hacking, eventually you should hit a point where your tools stop dictating what you do and you start dictating what your tools should do. You should be continuously learning and feeling more in control of what you do, and eventually you should hit a point where you know that "I need a program that explicitly allows me to perform this specific function," and you go to Google and type in a precise seven word query looking for such a program. It may not exist so you have to make hack together something using other tools. Or, better yet, you may find yourself writing the tool yourself.

In other words, eventually the worker is going to have to start buying tools that will build what he wants and stop building what his tools will allow him to. He needs to design a building that he likes, then he needs to go find tools that will allow him to do that.

Some people don't understand this concept and live in an infinite loop of never doing anything that their four favorite tools can't do. Don't let this be you. Govern what your tools do, don't let your tools govern what you do. This isn't to say you can't find some nice, multi-functional tools out there, but don't just download a couple programs with pretty interfaces and stick with just those, you'll hold yourself back.

Usually hackers will eventually learn at least one or two programming languages, so that they can write at least small programs themselves. I would advise you to learn at least some programming. Even if you don't do much with it, learn at least one or two languages semi-fluently. Most security-oriented hacking requires knowledge on the level of C, and learning a scripting language is helpful for automating tasks.

A Starting Point

Enough advice. You need to start doing something. Where do you start? My first bit of advice involved finding those first articles of interest to read and branch out from, but how do you find those articles?

Start with the following concepts and vocabulary words. What I provide is a list to get you started researching computer security/hacking. Remember, don't just read one article on each of these topics and call it quits, use these topics to start your Google research from. Read on these topics and everything related to them, then everything related to those topics, and related to those topics, and so on. This list is just to help you figure out what your first Google queries should be. The items on this list were not chosen to give you a comprehensive grasp of hacking but to rather give you a starting point in the most important fields. If you want to hack, you're going to need to branch out into all the different fields from these starting points.

  • Man in the middle
  • SQL injections
  • Packet sniffing
  • ARP poisoning
  • Buffer overflows
  • SSH
  • Public and private key cryptography (RSA, AES, DES, Blowfish)
  • Cryptographic Hashes (MD5, SHA1, SHA2)
  • Proxies
  • DOS attacks
  • Reverse engineering
  • Worm / virus / trojan
  • Router / hub / switch
  • Networking OSI (TCP, IP, UDP, ICMP, ARP protocols)
  • Port scanning (stateful filters, half-open scans, open/closed/filtered ports) has "start here" thread with a collection of links to actual articles on topics such as these for newbies. If you're looking for material to read on a topic, or material to read in general, you can start there.

When you want to start actually doing stuff, you're going to need tools. The following are interesting/handy tools of the trade. Remember, don't think that you have to stop learning when you start using tools. You can learn a lot from the tools you use. Visit a tool's homepage and read on what it does. More importantly, if the tool offers a complex function/feature, read articles on how it does what it does. Most tools come with their own tutorials/manual on how to use them that explain what the tool does and provides some descriptive information about why what it does works. Read it.

  • wireshark
  • nmap
  • nessus
  • ettercap
  • nemesis
  • hping
  • dsniff
  • Cain & Abel

For a larger list of useful tools, see the list of tools included in Backtrack 2.0 (a Linux-based security-auditing oriented OS) and the tools included in Arudius (the parent OS of Backtrack).

Unfortunately, once you start using tools reality will kick in and you may have to decide which operating system you're going to use. Before now I've said nothing specific to any specific operating system or software, but unfortunately not all tools work for all operating systems. Most of them can be run on both Linux and Windows, and a lot of Linux programs can be run on Windows with Cygwin (which requires Linux knowledge to use effectively), but the deeper you get into actually doing stuff the more OS-specific some things are going to get. I'm not going to officially endorse one operating system over another because an operating system itself just another tool, but I encourage you to do hands-on research and to select your favorite.

A list of recommended operating systems to try would include one or two basic systems from each major family. Linux: Ubuntu/Debian, Fedora, Arch, FreeBSD, and the popular Windows and Mac operating systems. Many more Linux and BSD distros exist, but if you're new to hacking then odds are that you're not looking for the more complex/powerful ones, that was just a beginners list for those who don't know what to try. (If you know which distro you want to use, you don't need a recommended starting point. Use what you already like.) Feel free to hop around operating systems for a time. When you find one you like, and you know why you like it, stick with it. Practically, your operating system will limit what you can do, I advise that if you decide to stick with Windows, you at least give Linux a serious try. There's a lot to be learned from it, and like all Unix-like systems it will inherently be more hacker-friendly. But the choice is yours. Use what works. Best yet, keep more than one OS around and use multiple OSs that work.

Good luck in your studies. Have fun with them. Be responsible with your knowledge. And when you can, contribute back to the global hacking community that's provided you with all the information, articles, and tools you've been able to utilize.