Controversial Tool Identifies Thousands of Hackable Websites

The network has has long been a playground for hackers, offering hundreds of millions of public servers to comb for major vulnerabilities to exploit. Now one hacking tool is ready to take this practice to its logical, extreme conclusion: scanning all the websites in the world to find and then publicly expose their vulnerabilities, all at the same time – all in the name of making the Internet more secure. …

At the Defcon hacker conference next month, Alejandro Caceres and Jason Hopper are planning to release – or rather update and re-release after years of hiatus – a tool called PunkSpider. Essentially a search engine that constantly scans the entire web, PunkSpider automatically identifies vulnerabilities in websites that can be compromised, and then allows anyone to search through those results to find sites vulnerable to everything from corruption to data breaches.

The creators of PunkSpider claim that upon launch they will catalog hundreds of thousands of unprotected vulnerabilities, making all of them publicly available. Caceres and Hopper acknowledge that in doing so, their tool could potentially expose these sites to actual attacks. But they hope that the visibility will force network administrators to recognize that their websites contain simple, obvious, and in some cases dangerous flaws, and hopefully fix them.

Low hanging fruit

The kind of web vulnerabilities that PunkSpider detects remain incredibly common despite years of warnings. For example, in January last year, security researchers found that one such web vulnerability allows anyone to take over Fortnite Accountsand earlier this year, another web error allowed hacktivists to hack into the right-wing social networking site Gab and leaked 70 gigabytes of its internal data. Both have since been fixed. But Caceres argues that PunkSpider can entice web administrators to finally fix such ubiquitous bugs before hackers abuse them.

“I thought,“ Would it be great if I could scan the entire network for vulnerabilities? all are these vulnerabilities free? “Says Caceres, who works with Hopper as a researcher at the cybersecurity startup QOMPLX.” I knew this would have some implications. And after I started thinking about it, I really thought they could be good. “

PunkSpider will automatically scan and “freeze” sites for seven types of vulnerable bugs, repeatedly trying variations of common hacking techniques to see if the site is vulnerable. This list includes SQL injection vulnerabilities that allow hackers to inject commands into user input fields on a website, sometimes leaking the contents of their databases; Cross-site scripting vulnerabilities, which allow hackers to create malicious links that, when a user clicks on them, load a modified version of the website that can be used for phishing or serving malware; and a traversal vulnerability in which a hacker can use a site URL to read or write sensitive files on the server that hosts it. All of these vulnerabilities are generally considered low hanging fruit in the hacker world, but still persist in huge parts of the network.

The site, created by Caceres and Hopper, provides a searchable database for URL keywords, the type of vulnerability, or the severity of those errors. In addition to their search engine, they also created a Chrome plugin that checks every website a user visits for vulnerabilities. Both the search tool and the browser plugin give each website a score of one to five dumpster fires, depending on how many vulnerabilities it contains and how serious they are. “PunkSpider finds vulnerabilities, does a little bit of back-end work to determine the likelihood of being exploited, and then publishes them immediately,” says Caceres. “This last part is the part that I get a little shit for sometimes.”

Even the generally hacker-friendly Electronic Frontier Foundation, for example, wrote in a statement to WIRED that PunkSpider could have dangerous consequences. “The tool is well-intentioned – these vulnerabilities lead to a lot of real-world problems, including ransomware, and publishing them could push administrators to fix them. But we don’t recommend it,” EFF analyst Karen Gallo wrote to WIRED by email. “Attackers can exploit vulnerabilities faster than administrators can fix them, leading to more violations.”

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