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Review: “Penetration with Perl” by Douglas Berdeaux

Penetration Testing with Perl

Douglas Berdeaux has written an excellent book, excellent from quite a number of points of view, some of which I will address. Packt Publishing have done a great service making this and other available at their web site. It is one of many technical books there that have extensive source code and are good 'instructors'.

Penetration Testing with Perl is available as both a PDF file and as an e-book in Mobi and epub formats.

It is one of over 2000 instructional books and videos available at the Packt web site.

I read a lot on my tablet but most of the ebooks I read are "linear text" (think: 'novels', 'news'). A book like this is heavily annotated by differentiating fonts and type and layout. How well your ebook reader renders that might vary. None of the ones I used were as satisfactory as the PDF. For all its failings, if you want a page that looks "just so" whatever it is read on, then PDF still wins out. For many, this won't matter since the source code can be downloaded in a separate ZIP file.

Of course you may be like me and prefer to learn by entering the code by hand so as to develop the learned physical habit which you can then carry forward. You may also prefer to have a hard copy version of the book rather than use a 'split screen' mode.

This is not a book about learning to code in Perl, or earning about the basics of TCP/IP. Berdeaux himself says in the introduction:

This book is written for people who are already familiar with
basic Perl programming and who have the desire to advance this
knowledge by applying it to information security and penetration
testing. With each chapter, I encourage you to branch off into
tangents, expanding upon the lessons and modifying the code to
pursue your own creative ideas.

I found this to be an excellent 'source book' for ideas and worked though many variations of the example code. This book is a beginning, not a end point.

That was Then, This is Now

Pen testing has come a long way since those outspoken pioneers of InfoSec, Marcus Ranum and Bruce Schneier, naysayed it back in 2007 and 2008. See here, and here, and here, and especially here.

Basing a criticism on a 'penetrate and patch' view of pen-testing is, of course rather biased. So is basing it on the idea that these are tools for malicious hackers. That has long since not been the case. Today, penetration testing is a technique approved by the financial community as part of the PCI:DSS certification.

In one sense its not 'penetrate and patch' so much as a classical Red-team. Blue team codes; red team debugs by breaking the code. A quite acceptable approach to software development. Manufacturers crash car to prove their safety. Most materials are 'stress-tested' to ensure they won't break during normal and even exceptional use. Pen-testing to prove correctness and compliance and resilience is perfectly valid.

Who This Book is For

Douglas Berdeaux has chosen to take the reader into the dirty byte-level depths of cracking WPA2, packet sniffing and disassembly, ARP spoofing (the right way), and performing other advanced tasks, such as blind and time-based SQL injection. Parts of the book are Perl code that mimicked the functionality of other information security programs, so one can see how it all fits together. Although Perl was originally about scanning text and building reports, this is something quite different, dramatically different, and shows what Perl is really capable of.

It wasn't until several years prior to writing this book that
I truly began to understand the harmonious nature of Perl,
Linux, and information security. Perl is designed for string
manipulation, which excels in an operating system that treats
everything as a file. Rather than writing Perl scripts to parse
the output from other programs, I was now writing independent
code that mimicked the functionality of other information
security programs. At this stage, I had a newfound appreciation
for the power of Perl, which opened the door for endless
opportunities, including this book.

I myself adopted Perl in 1989 with version 3 and built a complete ISP management, tracking and reporting/billing system. I found that it had all the expressive power of C but handled many matters such as string manipulation and patter matching much more gracefully. And then there was the CPAN repository! Perhaps I should fault Berdeaux for not emphasising CPAN more, but to be fair, CPAN deserves a book of its own and is a living, growing subject.

This is certainly a 'how-to' book and Berdeaux makes it quite explicit that the examples and exercises are for the real world. He suggests a test-bench with a 802.11 Wi-Fi router that is capable of WPA2 encryption, two workstations (which can be virtual if networked properly) that will act as an attacker and a victim, a smartphone device, an 802.11 Wi-Fi adapter that is supported by the Linux OS driver for packet injection, network shared storage, and a connection to the Internet.

All that being said, the book is an excellent example of how to design, write and document open source code. So much open source code is just presented and difficult to understand or support. The author has not documented his design decisions, not documented what the various code sections are trying to do and how that way of doing it rather than another was chosen. In the literary world we often have early manuscript that show revisions, author's notes and such like. All too often with code we only see the end result. Berdeaux unfolds all this and the result is very readable. This is the kind of book that could be used on a course on either Perl or Pen-testing because it is practical and will engage the student's interest.

What's Inside

Chapter 1 takes you though the basics of Perl and ends up discussing CPAN And showing you how to download LWP::UserAgent, which plays a key role in the code examples that follow. Readers already familiar with Perl can page though this quickly.

Chapter 2 deals with shell programming under Linux using BASH. Again the basics are covered and those with shell experience can move on quickly.

The only parts of importance to those with experience is some setup of the environment for what follows.

Chapters 3 and 4 deal with the wired environment before going on to the wireless environment in chapter 5.

Chapter 3 is basically about replicating the functionality of NMAP using Perl. While this seems trivial it introduces many concepts and tools that will be used later. Using them in this context makes them more visible and understandable than simply blindly using them later with no explanation, and also shows how Perl can be used for network functions.

Along the way we meet many other network tools available under Linux:  ettercap and wireshark/tshark, smbtree, hping3, arp. Of course it helps if you know the basics of how the TCP handshake works and of course the Ethernet, IP, and TCP layers.

Chapter 4 addresses packet capture and filtering with Perl. Those who have a thorough knowledge of the TCP protocol suite and tools such as wireshark can move quickly though this as much of the first part of this chapter is how to take packets apart using Perl. We then move on to the application layer and so into how to set up a "Man in the Middle" (MitM) attack. Berdeaux emphasises the importance of information gathering and uses the example MAC/IP address determined earlier to illustrate a hijacking with ARP spoofing.

In Chapter 5 we move on to Wifi networking with 802.11 and how to disassemble 802.11 frames. A more detailed knowledge how 802.11 is managed is the basic knowledge requirement here, though Berdeaux does cover what is needed for his examples. Once again a variety of Linux networking tools, this time the wifi tools, are used alongside or within the Perl code.

Having laid these foundations Chapter 6 moves on to applying these skills in the first state of a penetration test, the gathering of information, in this case Open Source information (OSINT) such as email addresses and DNS information.  This covers not only obviously googling but also searching social media sites such as Google+, LinkedIn, Facebook and others. This section shows the power of Perl's regular expression mechanism to filter out the desired information from what might be a 'fire-hose' of results. As humans we look at only the first few results of a google query, probably not noticing that there are many thousands of hits. A Perl based scanner can dive deeper.

Chapter 7 goes into detail about the powerful hack SQL Injection, making the point that SQL injection is one of the longest-running vulnerabilities in IT, only bettered by Buffer Over-run. It is a demonstration that some web technologies, including languages, are inherently fragile and simple mistake can have dramatic consequences.

Chapter 8 looks at other web based vulnerabilities and how to exploit them, such as cross site scripting (XSS), file inclusion and others. Berdeaux makes these all very clear and simple and shows how Perl really is an easy to use tool, a hackers "Swiss Army Knife".

Chapter 9 deals with password cracking. While Perl isn't as fast as lower level languages for brute force cracking, Berdeaux makes the very valid point that there are better ways, making use of precomputed tables and of leaked information, the Internet equivalent of the yellow stickie under the mousepad. Once again google comes into play. In one sense this book is as much about using google as it is about Perl!

It is in the section on WPA - wifi - cracking that Berdeaux makes Perl shine. He begins with a clear explanation of the protocol and then carefully explains the code and how it works. He makes it look very simple and straight forward, an excellent piece of writing about something that can be very confusing.

"Metadata", addressed in Chapter 10 has been in the news recently due to revelations about national security agencies collecting communication information.  "Metadata" refers to the contextual information rather than the actual content, the who, where, what. The metadata of a photograph can reveal where and when it was taken, how it was edited. How this information can be exploited is going to depend on the context. One might imagine law enforcement using metadata to trace child pornographers.

Files other than photographs also contain metadata. Examples include many of the types of documents stored on web sites and that can be found by searching with google and specifying the filetype. One of the most common of these is PDF, and Berdeaux uses this as an example too.

In a general sense, metadata is an interesting form of information 'leakage' simply because it is not visible. An "out of sight means out of mind" phenomena, added to that fact that many people are simple ignorant of its existence.

Chapter 11 deals with Social Engineering, and as Berdeaux says, that's about psychology:

Human psychology and the human nature of will, sympathy, empathy,
and the most commonly exploited nature of curiosity are all weaknesses
that a successful social engineer can use to elicit private information.
Some institutions and most large-scale client targets for penetration
testing are slowly becoming aware of this type of attack and are employing
practices to mitigate these attacks. However, just as we can sharpen our
weapons to clear through defense, we can also sharpen our social engineering
skills by investing our efforts in the initial OSINT, profiling and gathering
information, which we have already done throughout the course of this book.

This kind of penetration method relies on bait messages. It is effective because it so often works when all else fails. Ultimately it relies on human frailty and trust. Berdeaux makes it clear that a great deal of our trust is in the integrity of the programs we use. He uses the example of a rogue version of SSH written in Perl to make this point

Chapter 12 deals with the most important part of any penetration test operation:  the reporting of the results. A quality report ensures a satisfied client. As Berdeaux says:

The process of planning the reports begins the minute we begin testing and
ends the minute we stop.

He goes on to add

Logging successful steps is not only crucial for the logistics of the target
client, but can also lead to further exploitation after close analysis.

Perl is admirable suited to generating and tabulating reports, it was part of its original design concept. Along the way, Perl has seen the development of many code modules and has been the core of the engine behind many web sites.

That has led to facilities for things such as graphing, which are used in the examples here.

The final report might be presented as a PDF or as a web page (HTML). Perl can handle both and both are illustrated. These techniques, obviously, have a wider application.

Finally in Chapter 13 we learn how to write GUIs in Perl with the "Tk" extensions. Along the way we have to learn the Object Oriented syntax of Perl.

If I had been structuring this book I would have introduced the OO-Perl much earlier and make use of the GUI capabilities much earlier. At the very least, the techniques of OO-Perl and call-backs that this chapter introduces are more generally applicable.

GUIs can be wonderful things, or they can be limiting things. It is up to the GUI designer. The point of this chapter is that you can be the GUI designer and have an interface that meets your needs.

Title Penetration Testing with Perl
Author Douglas Berdeaux
Publisher Packt Publishing (
Address Livery Place, 35 Livery Street, Birmingham B3 2PB, UK
ISBN-13 978-1-78328-345-3
Date 2014
Price $26.99 ebook, $44.99 print+ebook
Pages 332

pen_test_logo  This review has now been published at Pentest Magazine

Posted by Anton Aylward

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