On episode 59 of The Edge of Innovation, we’re talking with Adriel Desautels, founder and CEO of Netragard, about hacking and cybersecurity!

Show Notes

The Netragard Website

Get in Touch With Netragard

Find Netragard on Facebook

Find Adriel Desautels on Twitter

Find Adriel Desautels on LinkedIn

Find Netragard on Twitter

Follow Adriel Desautels’ Blog on Netragard

Netragard in the News

“Is Your Data Safe From Hackers?”

“This Year, Why Not Take Your Data Seriously”- Netragard’s Guide to Finding a Vendor

“Cars: The Next Hacking Frontier?”

“How to Find a Genuine Penetration Testing Firm”

“What Is Penetration Testing? Here’s the Right Definition”

“Is Your Data Safe From Hackers?”

“How To Hack A Company With A Trojan Mouse”

“Don’t Become a Target”

Link to SaviorLabs’ Free Assessment


What Does Netragard Do?
Hacking: Making Things Do Things They’re Not Supposed To Do
How Adriel Became a Hacker
Starting a Business Using Real Hacking Methods
Is Hacking Complicated?
The Art of Hacking
Pricing Based on IP Addresses is Not Ideal
Real Time Dynamic Testing
What is Penetration Testing?
What Should You Do About Cyber Security?
What’s the Big Deal with Online Profiling – Social Engineering
Internet Abstinence Won’t Protect You

The Art of Hacking: Cybersecurity with Adriel Desautels

Paul: Hello, everyone. I’m Paul Parisi here with the Edge of Innovation, and our guest today is Adriel Desautels from Netragard. Adriel, are you there?

Adriel: I am.

What Does Netragard Do?

Paul: So, Adriel, you are with a company called Netragard. What in the world does Netragard guard? Or what does it do?

Adriel: So just like our slogan says, we protect you from people like us.

Paul: I love that slogan. So, “people like us.” What do you do? Are you hackers? Or are you light-head hackers or what?

Adriel: So we are hackers in the very real sense of the word. We have roughly 35 guys on the team right now, that are all vulnerability researchers and zero to exploit developers. So we really specialize in tearing apart technology, understanding how the technology works, and then finding ways to make the technology do things that it’s not supposed to do. And we apply this skillset to anything from automobiles and cellphones, all the way into large corporate networks or government networks and so on and so forth. The end product is we breach something, we hack something, we break something, and then we provide you with a solution to prevent other people like us from being able to do the same thing.

Paul: So basically, you guys sit around and try and break things. Or, I mean, because you said, you used very select words there. “Make things do things they’re not supposed to do.”

Hacking: Making Things Do Things They’re Not Supposed To Do

Adriel: Right. Absolutely. So, a prime example, right, with cellphones, for example. When you receive a text message from somebody, you expect the test message to display the message. If you receive a text message from us, our text message, you might never actually see it come in because it will be designed in such a way that rather than displaying a text message, it gives us complete control over your phone. So maybe when we send you a text message, the payload, or the contents of the message, will allow us to listen to your microphone, turn on your camera, track you via GPS, read the emails, look at what you’re browsing, etc., etc., etc.

And the way that we do that is by leveraging flaws that exist within that specific piece of technology. And the same would be for anything. You know, we did research on cars a while ago, we were in the news for the research there. And we found that it was possible to do things with the cars, like take control over critical systems such as the accelerators, the braking systems, seatbelt tensioners, other kinds of security things in cars. And so you can literally hack a car and turn a car into a weapon.

So we look for the different avenues of those kinds of things can be done and then we build solutions so that the people who are responsible for making these technologies can prevent those kinds of things from happening, hopefully.

Paul: Okay. Alright. Well, that sounds scary and interesting all at the same time.

How Adriel Became a Hacker

Paul: Let’s take a step back. So now, what’s your background? Did you go to school for this? Did you just figure out one day, “Hey, I want to be a security person”?

Adriel: Yeah, so, when I was about eight years old, my father picked up a Tandy 1000 and maybe I was even six. I was young. And I wanted to know how this computer worked, and I played Load Runner. I played with the word processor that he had, the big old disks you used to have to stick in there. And I became more and more curious. So I began picking up Basic, I think it was and just trying to figure out how things worked in that respect. And then, you know, I saw well, if I put in this text with this, the computer would beep in this way, or the computer would do this kind of thing.

That evolved and then I was gifted with a modulator demodulator and I thought to myself, so if I dial this telephone number, I get a connection. What happens if I try a bunch of different telephone numbers? Most of the time, it would be people that would pick up and be mad that they were being called by a modem. But sometimes I would be calling other modems, and I’d find that they connect to systems that I wasn’t supposed to.

And then from there I discovered the real satisfaction. Curiosity. You know, hackers are driven by curiosity. And there’s a saying that I hear all time, curiosity killed the cat, satisfaction brought it back. So, it kind of evolved from there.

When I went to college, I was studying a combination of computer science and philosophy. I ended up dropping out of college in my second year because I was already working in the industry. I was making more money than most people with a degree, and I was learning stuff in school that I had already learned and that was really antiquated. And so I thought, well, I don’t really need a degree to get me, nothing.

And so I dropped out of college and started my first business. Sold that business, worked in the industry for a bit, which is how I you met initially, I think. And then I started up my second business and here we are. And through the interim, the point between the two businesses, I realized that I do not work well for other people. I work much better for myself, with my team. And so here we are. And it’s been a great adventure, but it’s been a pretty successful one too.

Starting a Business Using Real Hacking Methods

Paul: Excellent. So what is that business that you started? It’s Natragard. But, I mean, what was your intent? And how long ago was that?

Adriel: Yeah, so back in 2006, really 2005 to 2006, right after we were running SNOsoft, or Secure Network Operations was the full name, we were approached by a bank. And the bank said to us, “Hey, we’re looking for penetration testing that will deliver a real hack. We really want to get hacked.”

And we said, “Well, we don’t really do this kind of stuff. My team is really into reverse engineering and zero-day exploitation and things like that. Right now we’re doing vulnerability research and exploit development, but we’ll try to find a company.”

And so we scoured the internet. We looked and looked and looked, and we could not find a penetration-testing firm that would actually do what they said they were going to do. They all said that they would do manual testing. They all said that they would use a research-based methodology. They all said they were going to do these incredible things. But when it came down to really talking about the technology, they were all going to effectively deliver a vulnerability scan, vet the results, and produce a report, which is not what our customer wanted or our friend or associate wanted.

And so they said, “Well, why don’t you guys deliver this test?’

And we said, “Alright. We’ll give it a shot.” And so we took our vulnerability research and exploit development methodologies and we created a methodology. It was called Real Time Dynamic Testing. In about 2006, we used that methodology to test this bank, and we managed to breach the bank and take the domain in four minutes flat. And the reason why we were successful in doing that was because they had a critical system that was exposed to the internet but it was configured in a way that the traditional scanning technologies wouldn’t detect it. I don’t know if it was delivered. But the scanners didn’t recognize the system.

We began to look at the network, and we said, “Hey, what is this glaring hole? Let’s play with this,” and boom. You know, we were right in.

And so the bank said, “Wow, this is incredible. Not only did you take our domain in four minutes, but we didn’t see you do it. And, you know, how did you do it?”

And we said, “Well, we just used real hacking methods.” Right? We didn’t depend on scanners, and that was that. So they began talking about us. Other banks began calling us, pharmaceutical companies and so on and so forth. And we just kept on testing and kept on evolving and methodologies continually evolved.

And on the side, for the longest time, we were also doing the zero day vulnerability research, zero day exploit development, and we were catering to the zero day market. So the business was running on two fronts.

Today it’s strictly offensive. Today we are strictly hacking people and breaching people using the same kinds of methodologies and the same kinds of threat as you’d experience from nation states or from real world hackers.

Is Hacking Complicated?

Paul: So now you mentioned there that you were able to break into this. And this sounds complicated. Is it complicated? Or is it not complicated?

Adriel: No, it really isn’t. The most complicated part of breaching a network is doing the research upfront to identify the points of weakness. Once you identify a point of weakness, it’s generally pretty simple to exploit it. For example, if it’s going to be a local file inclusion vulnerability in a web application, right? You have to understand how an application is constructed. You have to be able to apply a path so that you can include a file from the local file system and just really were to paste or write a simple string. And that one simple string enables you to call a file.

So a really simple example would be an ISP that we were working on back before cloud computing was a really big thing. These guys were kind of like your pre-cloud computing hosted environment.

They had an infrastructure set up with a management interface, and the management interface had a glaring local file inclusion vulnerability in it where you could see the path, and you could see the file that was being called right in the URI. So what we ended up doing was we ended up generating a bunch of PHP based error logs by dumping PHP code directly into the server, and that would get a recorded in the error log, and then we directed the path in the URL, the URI, to the error log for Apache, because we knew they were running Apache. When it loaded the error log, it interpreted the PHP, and we got a shell in the system.

Paul: Oh my gosh. Wow.

Adriel: Yeah, so it’s pretty simple stuff.

Paul: Well, once you say it, it’s simple.

Adriel: Yeah.

Paul: That’s very important, I think. It’s like, I would not have thought of that, but now that you say it, it’s obvious.

The Art of Hacking

Adriel: Yeah. It’s funny because even the most complex hacks become trivial once they’re discovered. And so the real talent and the real art is in the discovery, and it’s being able to think in such an obscure and different way that you almost… It’s not really out-thinking other people, but you — for a lack of a better term — you out-art the other people.

Paul: Well, it’s almost out-thinking reality because you’re not just taking it for what’s in front of you. You have to look behind it and around it and under it.

Adriel: Yeah, exactly. And sometimes you have to build an entire ecosystem or environment for this thing to exist in to break it. Because certain pieces of software are meant to exist in certain situations. They’re meant to do certain things. So put them in a different situation that’s designed specifically to make it break, make it uncomfortable, you know. Doing that’s really what hacking is all about.

Paul: So it sounds like the kind of work you’re doing is finding the — I don’t want to say “esoteric” but… I didn’t know. Is that fair? Esoteric? Because I’m wondering now, you must offer something or do something that, checks for the run-of-the-mill things.

Pricing Based on IP Addresses is Not Ideal

Adriel: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. So, when we offer our services, there are three different levels, and the higher level includes the lowest two levels. So there’s silver, gold, and platinum — the whole packages that we offer. The silver level package is the industry standard package. It’s what you’re going to get from 90% of our competitors or 90%, 99% of the industry. And it’s really how many IP addresses do you have? I’m going to price based off of the number of IP address. Right? So you say you have 10 IPs at 500 bucks per IP, $5,000. We don’t price that way. This is the competition.

And then we’re going to take the IP addresses that you give us. We’re going to give them to a vulnerability scanner like Nexpose or Nessus. And then we’re going to run the scan. The scan is going to find what it’s going to find. We’re going to pass the results of that off to a team of engineers. The engineers will exploit whatever is exploitable, and then they’ll produce a report. Right? So that’s sort of the entry level penetration testing service.

It’s not ideal for several for reasons. The first is, when you price based off of the number of IP addresses, you’re not actually pricing based off of workload. So, suppose you have the 10 IPs, and they’re all running complex web application, maybe 40 man-hours per IP, $5000, that’s $12.50 an hour roughly. Nobody can work for $12.50 an hour, so you have to compensate with automation.

The second reason why it’s not ideal is automated vulnerability scanners only identify the low-hanging fruit, which kind of goes in the question that you were asking. Right? So they only identify the, the basic stuff that exists — maybe 30%, 45%. Someplace in that range, anyhow, is configured of the vulnerabilities that exist with a network. So if your methodology depends on automation, you’re going to be leaving a major gap. You’re going to be leaving a lot of exposure, which is part of the reason why businesses are suffering breaches left and right. Right?

Real Time Dynamic Testing

So then you escalate up into the gold level of service, and the gold level of service will include that low-hanging fruit type thing, the basic checks. But then we bring in Real Time Dynamic Testing, which is the methodology that we use for doing research based penetration tests. It incorporates major components of our vulnerability research and exploit development practices. So Real Time Dynamic Testing and it gets you close to a 90, 95% point of coverage as far as technology is concerned. We don’t just use — and sometimes we don’t even use— vulnerability scanners, but we really depend on our own experience, expertise, hands-on digging. Right? And that coverage you get the low-hanging fruit, the basic stuff. You get the really advanced stuff in there.

And then you go for the platinum. Platinum is realistic threat. We will cover the gamut — social, physical, electronic — and there’s no limit to what we’ll do. We have zero day malware that we use. It’s called RADON. We have different variance of RADON. The social engineering practices that we use have been written about in The Economist, Bloomberg, Forbes. We built a mouse that was fully weaponized that breached networks for us. I mean, all kinds of things. Yeah. So that was a very long-winded answer to a very simple question.

What is Penetration Testing?

Paul: No, I appreciate that. So let’s roll back a little bit. And first of all, for our listeners — because we have a fairly wide range of listeners. So you mentioned the word “penetration testing.” And I know that’s generally referred to as pen testing, and it’s not testing whether your pen works. Is that breaking into a network? What is penetration testing, very simply?

Adriel: Yeah, it’s a test that’s designed to identify the presence of points where something can make its way into or through something else. And then when applied to network security or applied to networking, it’s the same kind of thing, but it’s a test that’s designed to identify the presence of vulnerabilities, in an infrastructure that can be breached by an adversary.

Paul: Okay. So you figure out how to get in.

Adriel: Yes.

Paul: Whether you do it or not, you, you know that now there is a door that is ajar or a window that’s not locked.

Adriel: Yes. So we, we figure out how to get in, and we do get in. We demonstrate by exploitation. So we demonstrate by proof.

Paul: Okay. So you go in and put something on their coffee table.

Adriel: Yep or, if it’s a physical point of entry, you know, one of our treasuries, we literally walked into a data center and walked out with a computer.

Paul: Really?

Adriel: One of the state treasuries. Yeah. In other cases, we’ve turned on web cams and microphones and recorded entire conversations in businesses. And in one case, we actually took a video of a guy picking in nose, playing solitaire, and drinking coffee.

Paul: Wow. Well, I know that can’t be me because I don’t drink coffee.

What Should You Do About Cyber Security?

Paul: So, okay. Good. Alright. So now, we hear about cyber security, network security, security all over the place, all the time. And, general citizens have no idea what to believe. Is it good? Is it bad? Is it getting worse? Is it getting better? Is there risk? Give me an answer, it’s some point. We’ll put in some stakes in the ground here. But what would you tell the ordinary, average person? Should they be using a computer? Should they not? Should they not worry about it? Who cares?

Adriel: Yeah, there is no such things as security when it comes down to corporate security or commercial security. There is just a market. And it’s a self-perpetuating market. And that market really does provide, in many cases, a false sense of safety. When it comes to help people should be using their computers, they should think very carefully about the kinds of data that they want to store on their own computers. And they should also think very carefully about what they put out into the cloud, you know, social media. Anything like that. Because that moment that information is out there, it’s no longer their information. It might be protected by contracts. It might be protected by privacy policies. But as we’ve seen with Equifax, and as we’ve seen with Target and Sony, Hannaford, Home Depot, Ashley Mad—, you know, I could go on and on. The information is no longer their information.

Paul: Well they don’t have control over it.

Adriel: Right. And one of the things that has really surprised me about people is people think, “Well, Facebook is private. That’s my Facebook page.”

Yeah, well, you know, it really isn’t. If you’re a private person, you shouldn’t put it out there. There is no control.

What’s the Big Deal with Online Profiling – Social Engineering

Paul: Okay. So let me just unpack that a little bit. That seems to be, well, when you are doing something — whether you realize it or not — you’re explicitly sharing information. You go and you put on Facebook that I like the color orange. Okay, so the world knows that. So what’s the big deal? So people know I love the color orange.

Adriel: Yeah. So the big deal is profiling. One of the things that we do when we hack businesses is we, for the platinum level stuff, we socially engineer people. To socially engineer people, we have to be able to understand what they like, what kids of pets they have, who they’re married to, who their children are, what the last meal was they ate, anything like that. Any of that information that might seem benign. That information can help us to build a false story around a false persona that meshes very well with them. And then that enables us to befriend them on Facebook or befriend them socially in the business.

Once we befriend them, we can begin to build a trust relationship. And once that trust relationship reaches the point where I can send them content by email, a document, or I can get them to click on a link, I can breach the network. So any information that they put out there is going to be useful for me to help leverage them or breach them. Or maybe even just create a falsified story, you know, and, and extort them.

I saw something really interesting recently. We have a friend here that’s going through a divorce and she received a letter in the mail. And the letter was sent to her house but it was addressed to her husband, her ex-husband, or soon-to-be ex-husband. And it said, “Hey, you know, I have really dirty information on you. And I’m not going to share it here because I don’t want your wife to know what this is but I think this is worth some hush money,” effectively. And “If you give me $2000 in bitcoin, I won’t tell anybody about this kind of thing.” Right? So the reason why they figured out this divorce was going on was because of information that was disclosed in public. It’s actually a fairly common scam. So any information that you put out there is stuff that can be leveraged by people looking to extort you or breach systems. Or, if we get hired, we’ll use it to break into whatever networks you have.

Paul: Okay. Alright. So the point here was that my use of technology as an ordinary citizen, you’re telling me I shouldn’t share things on Facebook.

Adriel: Right.

Paul: Without understanding the risks and if I’m okay with those risks. Is that fair?

Adriel: Yes.

Paul: What do you tell your close friends? Don’t use Facebook— don’t even use the internet? That seems like the safest thing.

Adriel: Yeah, it would be. Don’t trust anything on the internet is what I would say.

Paul: That’s fair. But now Equifax, I could have never used the internet, and Equifax, all of sudden, let all my information out.

Adriel: That’s right.

Paul: So I have been foregoing the enjoyment of the internet — because it’s a pretty cool place. I can do lots of stuff. I can learn lots of stuff. I can have great relationships and get to know people and see what my friends from high school are doing. And I’ve foregone all that. And then Equifax does something stupid and so I basically said, “Oh, I’m going to abstain from the internet.” How do you speak to that? What do you think of that?

Internet Abstinence Won’t Protect You

Adriel: So your abstinence doesn’t necessarily protect you.

Paul: Well, but there was no way to protect me there. There was no way to protect me.

Adriel: Right. There isn’t.

Paul: So why not just use the internet? I understand your argument.

Adriel: Yeah. That’s what a lot of people do. It comes full circle.

Paul: I understand that you’re saying that the more information I get, the more exploitable I am. The more I give, the more exploitable I am. But then it’s sort of like Chicken Little. It’s sort of like, “Well, I’m never going to use the internet, so I’m safe.” And then Equifax does something, and it’s like, “Well that was a waste of time.”

Adriel: Yeah. That’s exactly right. And that’s where this conversation always inevitably ends up here. Is, well I won’t use it. Well, even if you don’t think you’re going to use it, you’re still using it. Your bank is online, period. You’re living in this country, and this country is in its financial system, uses these ridiculous things called credit scores. Your purchases, everything you do, are online. You own a credit card, that’s online. You own a cellphone, you’re online. And you don’t have to have a social media presence, you’re there. The only thing that you do with your social media presence is you feed the engine unnecessarily.

Paul: Okay. Good. That’s great.

Adriel: Yeah. So I mean, that’s really the best way to explain it.

Paul: There’s a lot of stuff, we could do this a couple more times I’m sure. We’ve been talking with Adriel Desautels of Netragard. He’s a security expert. And we’ve been exploring security and penetration testing and security testing and all of the different things that coalesce to mean security, what is security and what isn’t security. There will be a tremendous amount of links that will be in our shownotes, that I think will be worth looking at. Many of the articles that Adriel mentioned and many of the sites and of course a link to Netragard as well, and ways to contact Adriel.

So Adriel thank you very much for your time. We really appreciate it! It’s really been fascinating and I think a lot of people will learn a lot today and I really look forward to doing it again.

Adriel: My pleasure, any time.

Paul: Thank you Adriel.