How to Prevent Hacker Attacks: 4 Ways to Gather Public Information

By Kevin Beaver

Hackers often use information that is public to target organizations. The amount of public information you can gather about an organization’s business and information systems from the internet is staggering. To see for yourself how hackers utilize public information to launch an attack, use the techniques outlined below to gather information about your own organization.

Using social media to prevent hacker attacks

Social media sites are the new means for businesses to interact online. Perusing the following sites can provide untold details on any business and its people:

As we’ve all witnessed, employees are often very forthcoming about what they do for work on social media sites like Facebook, details about their business, and even what they think about their bosses — especially after throwing back a few when their social filters have gone off track! You can also find interesting insights based on what people say about their former employers at Glassdoor.

Performing a web search to see how hackers find info on an organization

Performing a web search or simply browsing your organization’s website can turn up the following information:

  • Employee names and contact information
  • Important company dates
  • Incorporation filings
  • Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings (for public companies)
  • Press releases about physical moves, organizational changes, and new products
  • Mergers and acquisitions
  • Patents and trademarks
  • Presentations, articles, webcasts, or webinars (which often reveal sensitive information — often ironically labeled confidential)

Bing and Google ferret out information — in everything from word processing documents to graphics files — on any publicly accessible computer. Also, they’re free. Google is a favorite. Entire books have been written about using Google, so expect any criminal hacker to be quite experienced in using this tool, including against you.

With Google, you can search the internet in several ways to see how a hacker might gain intel on your organization:

  • Typing keywords: This kind of search often reveals hundreds and sometimes millions of pages of information — such as files, phone numbers, and addresses — that you never guessed were available.
  • Performing advanced web searches: Google’s advanced search options can find sites that link back to your company’s website. This type of search often reveals a lot of information about partners, vendors, clients, and other affiliations.
  • Using switches to dig deeper into a website: If you want to find a certain word or file on your website, simply enter a line like one of the following into Google:

site:www.your_domain.com keyword
site:www.your_domain.com filename

You can even do a generic file-type search across the Internet to see what turns up:

filetype:swf company_name

Use the preceding search to find Adobe Flash .swf files, which can be downloaded and decompiled to reveal sensitive information that can be used against your business.

Use the following search to hunt for PDF documents containing sensitive information that can be used against your business:

filetype:pdf company_name confidential

Web crawling as tool against hacker attacks

Web-crawling utilities, such as HTTrack Website Copier, can mirror your website by downloading every publicly accessible file from it, similar to the way a web vulnerability scanner crawls the website it’s testing. Then you can inspect that copy of the website offline, digging into the following:

  • The website layout and configuration
  • Directories and files that may not otherwise be obvious or readily accessible
  • The HTML and script source code of web pages
  • Comment fields

Comment fields often contain useful information such as the names and email addresses of the developers and internal IT personnel, server names, software versions, internal IP addressing schemes, and general comments about how the code works. In case you’re interested, you can prevent some types of web crawling by creating Disallow entries in your web server’s robots.txt file. You can even enable web tarpitting in certain firewalls and intrusion prevention systems. Crawlers (and attackers) that are smart enough, however, can find ways around these controls.

Contact information for developers and IT personnel is great for social engineering attacks.

Websites that offer public information about organizations

The following websites may provide specific information about an organization and its employees:

  • Government and business websites:
    • Hoovers.com and finance.yahoo.com give detailed information about public companies.
    • Sec.gov/edgar.shtml shows SEC filings of public companies.
    • USpto.gov offers patent and trademark registrations.
    • The website for your state’s secretary of state or a similar organization can offer incorporation and corporate-officer information.