Inside a Hacker’s Mind

Mar 22, 2016, 10:00:00 AM |

Abby Thompson

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Hacker_Mind.jpgThe old adage says, “it takes one to know one,” and we believe that is absolutely true when it comes to fighting cyber threats. Originally, hacker was a positive term for a person who enjoyed exploring the nuances of computers and stretching their capabilities. HORNE Cyber’s team of elite hackers use their expertise of the inner workings of computers, networks and software for the good of our clients, to uncover vulnerabilities and make IT environments more secure. 

We spent time this week interviewing our Director of Cyber Operations Wesley McGrew to give you an inside view of a hacker. 

Tell us about yourself. What is your academic background?

I earned my Ph.D in Computer Science in 2012 at Mississippi State University, with my graduate research focused on finding and categorizing vulnerabilities in the control systems software that manages many elements of critical infrastructure.

During that time, and shortly after as I accepted a position as a research professor at MSU, I developed coursework on reverse engineering that was required for the university to receive the NSA Center of Academic Excellence designation for Cyber Operations (CAE-CO). I also led research projects focused on reverse engineering malicious software.

Today, I am still a part-time adjunct professor for the university, teaching information security and software reverse engineering courses.

What was your first computer?

My first computer was a Commodore 64, an 8-bit computer from the early 1980s that my parents purchased for me at a garage sale when I was young. I learned how to program computers on that system, and its memory and speed limitations forced me to understand every single detail of how the machine worked to get the best performance out of it.

How did you learn hacking techniques?

The fundamentals of hacking are the same fundamentals of understanding how computers work. There are no shortcuts to becoming an information security professional, and doubly so for offensive security professionals such as penetration testers. While one can attend short training classes that teach very specific things (and I have attended several of these), my most valuable education came from years of computer science courses.

A good foundational knowledge in computer science is valuable in that, instead of teaching how systems today work, it teaches how such systems are designed and their theoretical limitations. I can apply the same education to the computer networks of today and tomorrow.

Many of my practical day-to-day techniques are developed here in the HORNE Cyber offices. We experiment with new techniques and develop tools that we can use to find vulnerabilities in our clients networks.  I stay up to date by reading books and articles, in and out of the computing and security fields, for inspiration.

What is the coolest thing you have ever hacked?

Every engagement presents new challenges, so it’s hard to play favorites. Personally, I find that hacking into cameras, conferencing systems, door locks and other systems that physically control and monitor the “real life” environment of a target to be the coolest. It’s the closest you can get to Hollywood movie-style hacking and it also has a tremendous impact on organizations’ operational security.

What motivates hackers and how can you stop them?

When I was a younger, most “malicious” hackers were simply motivated by curiosity. That is no longer the case. Modern hackers are largely motivated by money, and many operate as small criminal enterprises. Others are involved in larger-scale organized crime. Some are motivated by intelligence gathering and operate at the behest of competing companies or foreign governments. It’s now a much more serious and real danger than most people believe.

To stop them, I think a key element is to have someone take an adversarial look at your organization, on your behalf. A penetration test can find the vulnerabilities that would serve as an attractive means for a real criminal to compromise your organization

What are the most common vulnerabilities you are seeing today?

I think that the most common vulnerability is poor segmentation within the internal networks of companies. Once a single server or workstation is compromised (which can be assumed to occur regularly), it should not be easy for an attacker to move to other systems on your network, especially those containing your most sensitive data. More often than not, though, we see networks that are highly exploitable from attackers after that initial compromise.

What is your best advice for corporate security professionals?

Think in terms of “defense in depth." Modern networks require more than one layer of defense to adequately protect your data and computing resources. No matter how talented your IT staff are, it is hard for them to “check their own work.”  Seeking out a third-party team of cyber operations specialists to test your network can help them more efficiently find and repair vulnerabilities.

Wesley’s experience and expertise has allowed our team to successfully partner with numerous organizations to achieve the common goal of cybersecurity resilience. What questions might you have Wesley?  We encourage you to join the conversation and welcome your questions below. 


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Abby is a marketing associate for HORNE Cyber. With a background in engineering and business, she focuses on the development and ongoing management of the team’s marketing and business development strategy.

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