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Is The Metasploit Hacking Tool Too Good?

Is The Metasploit Hacking Tool Too Good?
Is The Metasploit Hacking Tool Too Good? 

By Larry Greenemeier
Oct 23, 2006

Has H.D. Moore gone too far?

Moore's like many security researchers who gin up publicity for the 
software flaws they find, as he did with his bug-a-day stunt 
highlighting browser weaknesses in July. But he goes further, as one of 
the main forces behind the Metasploit Project, which posts a free, open 
source platform that makes it easier to develop and test code that can 
take advantage of software vulnerabilities. Included are more than 150 
examples of such code ready to exploit flaws.

Next month, Moore will raise the already-high stakes when Metasploit 
releases a new piece of code--called eVade-o-Matic--that makes it harder 
for intrusion-detection systems and antivirus software to detect exploit 
code aimed at Web browsers. It's one thing to show people how to exploit 
software flaws; it's another to help attackers go unnoticed.

The Metasploit Web site serves as a mental gymnasium for security 
pros--and cons, since it makes no effort to discern one from the 
other--looking for ways to break into IT systems. The latest effort, 
eVade-o-Matic, is designed to disguise malicious JavaScript that's used 
to attack browsers; it takes normal JavaScript that programmers write 
into a Web page and makes it look different each time the page is 
launched. That can foil software defenses that rely on lists of known 

Metasploit's self-proclaimed quest is to help IT pros verify the 
security of the software they buy or write. "Without exploit code, 
penetration testers can't do their jobs, [intrusion-detection system] 
developers can't create reliable signatures, and network administrators 
have to blindly trust that a patch installation actually worked," says 
Moore, a developer and researcher for the site he helped launch in 2003. 
Moore's work amounts to that of an arms dealer or gun maker: His wares 
can be used to protect or endanger people. He's not interested in 
controlling how his goods are used.

Moore and his Metasploit colleagues are used to blurring the line 
between improving security and creating insecurity. Moore last month 
created an exploit of the now-patched Vector Markup Language, or VML, 
vulnerability in Internet Explorer. That exploit was undetected by 26 
virus-scanning engines, including those from Kaspersky, McAfee, 
Microsoft, and Symantec. Earlier this year, Moore created a zero-day 
exploit--one unleashed before there's a known remedy--to take advantage 
of a vulnerability in Microsoft's Windows Metafile. That prompted 
Microsoft to take the rare step of releasing a patch five days ahead of 
its software-patch schedule. Moore added to his prestige and forced 
Microsoft to fix its problem sooner, but he also left Internet Explorer 
more vulnerable than if he'd worked discreetly with Microsoft.

'As White Hat As You Get'

Moore's a celebrity in the security community. His presentation at the 
Black Hat Conference in Las Vegas this summer was packed as he discussed 
the latest version of Metasploit vulnerability-testing software. There 
are two ways to look at Moore and his ilk: They give malicious hackers 
better ability to attack customers of Microsoft and other popular 
products; or they show tough love to software companies so they'll 
produce more-secure products.

In security circles, Moore's viewed as straight-laced--"probably as 
white [hat] as you can get," says Mati Aharoni, lead penetration tester 
with Israeli company See Security Technologies. A clean-cut 25-year-old 
native of Honolulu, Moore hardly looks the rogue of Meta, 
with its image of a sneering programmer staring at a screen through a 
black mask.

He's even well regarded by some--not all--in Microsoft's Security 
Technology Unit, which had Moore speak at its "Blue Hat" conferences, 
designed to give Microsoft programmers a wake-up call to the kind of 
hacking their work will endure. However, one manager of a product 
successfully broken with his tools, who's no longer with Microsoft, 
called Moore the "spawn of the devil" and "Hitler's driver."

There's definitely some smiling through gritted teeth when Metasploit 
comes knocking. An open source community, Metasploit is governed by 
Moore and researcher Matt Miller, aka "Skape," with exploit code 
contributed by programmers from around the world. "The Metasploit staff 
doesn't enforce anyone's idea of 'responsible disclosure,' and each of 
us have our own policies for when to release an exploit based on the 
patch time line," Moore says.

This summer, Moore placed the browser community in his crosshairs, 
dubbing July as his "month of browser bugs" and promising to publish a 
new exploit for a major browser every day. Moore estimates he discovered 
80 to 120 flaws in browsers during the month. Mozilla responded quickly 
and tested certain areas of its code, using tools Metasploit developed. 
"They even sent me a T-shirt," Moore says. Opera also responded weekly.

No T-shirt from Apple, though. It didn't respond to Safari bugs 
Metasploit published, though the company in September patched one 
problem Moore flagged.

Not The Only Rogue In Town

Plenty of penetration-testing tools similar to Metasploit are for sale, 
complete with lots of exploit code, from companies like Argeniss, Core 
Security, Gleg, Immunity, and Saint. There are hardware-based testing 
boxes from companies such as Moore's employer, BreakingPoint Systems. 
However, as an open source project, Metasploit is more controversial 
because it's more widely accessible. The same can be said for, another site that provides free exploit code downloads. 
"Similar professional exploitation tools, such as Core Impact and 
Canvas, already existed for wealthy users on all sides of the ethical 
spectrum," writes the hacker Fyodor, in ranking vulnerability tools on 
his Web site, "Metasploit simply brought this capability 
to the masses."

Since Metasploit is open source, it's hard to tell how many people use 
it. Moore gets a rough estimate--90,000 this year--by tracking the 
unique IP addresses of people who've downloaded the latest version. 
Moore hopes by year's end to deliver Metasploit version 3, written using 
Ruby rather than the Perl programming language. It's a more robust 
version that promises an easier-to-use interface, something in demand 
given that 90% of Metasploit's users run it on Windows.

Making the product easier to use makes it accessible to more people, 
good or bad. Moore's not tied in knots about that. "Admins cry, 'You can 
break into my systems now,'" he says. "Well, you should patch your 

-- With Gregg Keizer

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