Preventing a Brute Force Attack: How to Keep the Brutes Away from Your Loot

To understand and then combat a brute force attack, also known as a dictionary attack, we must start by understanding why it might be an appealing tool for a hacker. To a hacker, anything that must be kept under lock and key is probably worth stealing. If your Web site (or a portion of it) […]

To understand and then combat a brute force attack, also known as a dictionary attack, we must start by understanding why it might be an appealing tool for a hacker. To a hacker, anything that must be kept under lock and key is probably worth stealing. If your Web site (or a portion of it) requires a user to login and be authenticated, then the odds are good that a hacker has tried to break into it. In terms of processing power, it is expensive for a Web site to require authentication, so it is usually only required when the site stores valuable private information. Corporate intranet sites can contain confidential data such as project plans and customer lists. E-commerce sites often store users' email addresses and credit card numbers. Bypassing or evading authentication in order to steal this data is clearly high on a hacker's priority list, and today's hackers have a large library of authentication evasion techniques at their disposal.

Session hijacking attacks such as Cross-site Scripting can steal a user's authentication token and transmit it to a malicious third party, who can then use it to impersonate the legitimate user. SQL injection attacks can also be very effective at bypassing authentication. By sending a specially-formatted username and password combination containing SQL code to the login form, an attacker can often trick the server into granting him unauthorized access. These types of attacks get a lot of attention since they are creative, elegant, and effective. However, there is another type of attack that can be just as effective, if not as elegant or creative. A brute force attack (or dictionary attack) can still be a dangerous threat to your Web site unless proper precautions are taken.

The brute force attack is about as uncomplicated and low-tech as Web application hacking gets. The attacker simply guesses username and password combinations until he finds one that works. It may seem like a brute force or dictionary attack is unlikely to ever succeed. After all, what are the odds of someone randomly guessing a valid username and password combination? Surprisingly, the odds for a brute force attack can be quite good if the site is not properly configured. There are several factors that work to the hacker's advantage, the most important of which is human laziness.

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