The index of this series of articles can be found here.
The footprinting phase allows an attacker to gather information regarding internal and external security architectures. The collection of information also helps to:
- Identify possible vulnerabilities within a system
- Reduce the focus of the attack
- Discover obvious and non-obvious resources available
- Identify possible vulnerabilities
- Draw a network map
This is the first phase of an ethical hacking test. The person performing the test is going to gather as much information as possible regarding the target or its infrastructure.
Possible sources of information or techniques can be:
- Publicly available information like social networks, newspapers or enterprise online resources like webpages
- Employees’ social and or professional networks
- Social engineering
- Search engines
- WHOIS and DNS registers
- Competitive intelligence
- Google hacking techniques
The overall objective of this phase is to keep the interaction with the target at minimum levels and gathering information without any detection or alerting.
A step by step methodology can be:
- Authorisation and scope definition of the assessment
- Footprinting using search engines
- Google hacking
- Footprinting using social network sites
- Website footprinting
- Email footprinting
- Competitive intelligence
- WHOIS footprinting
- Network footprinting
- Social engineering
- Document all findings
Footprinting Using Search Engines
Search engines are an amazing tool to find information about a target and, also, they allow to gather this information without having real contact with the target. Pages like Google or Bing allow to search for any information and find and collect it from every available place on the Internet. Information like office addresses, founders, employee names, employee information, partners, competitors, websites and much more. Also, sometimes a good resource is the cache information these search engines store.
Once we have found the official websites, we can explore them to obtain multiple good information accessing the public parts of the webpages. But, we can explore the restricted parts of the webpages, this can be done by trial error or using available tools for this purpose like Netcraft – Search Web by Domain. Another interesting tool they offer is the Netcraft – Site report.
If we execute the Search Web by Domain tool, we can see the next result:
Another very interesting tool is worth it to mention is Shodan. As they describe themselves, Shodan is the world’s first search engine for Internet-connected devices. It can give infrastructure information, even available ports, a lot of very useful information.
Collecting Location Information
Obvious tools to find information about a company and its surrounding without the need to go to their location or locations are map tools like Google Maps or Bing Maps. But, in general, any other map or location service it will do it.
The reason to do this is not just in case a physical test needs to be done, all the gathered information about the surrounding can be used for social engineering attacks.
People Search Online Services
As it has been mentioned before, the more information it is gathered the better. Part of this important information is the one around employees of a company. Nowadays, multiple online services are offering the possibility of identifying phone numbers, address and people.
Some of them are paid services but with a few searches, free ones can be found.
Gather Information from Financial Services
Some search engines can provide financial information about a target. And not just its financial information, they can provide a list of competitors and or some information about its competitors.
Job sites can be a true gold mine, they are going to offer us not only information about employees, positions, curriculums and relations but, if close attention is paid to the job descriptions and or job offers, a huge amount of information can also be gathered i.e. departments, technologies or software.
A different approach can be followed creating, for example, a fake job position to target a specific person and collect their personal information.
Monitoring Targets Using Alerts
Same services names in the above paragraphs can be used to set alerts or subscribe to feeds about a target to receive the latest update and information about it.
Information Gathering Using Groups, Forums and Blogs
All these elements can leak sensitive information and it can allow attackers with a fake profile to reach and interact with the companies and or the people working there, it does not matter if there are official or non-official channels, information can be leaked in either.
Google Advanced Search (Google Hacking)
Everyone knows the Google search engine, everyone uses it and know its basic functionality but, what not everyone knows, it is that the search engine offers some specific operators that can help to refine and focus the search operations, making the results more relevant. Some of the operators are:
- site: – Search for the results in a given domain.
- related: – Search for similar websites.
- cache: – Display the webpages stored in the cache.
- link: – Link all the websites having a link to a specific website.
- allintext: – Search for websites containing a specific keyword.
- intext: – Search for documents containing a specific keyword.
- allintitle: – Search for websites containing a specific keyword in the title.
- intitle: – Search for documents containing a specific keyword in the title.
- allinurl: – Search for websites containing a specific keyword in the URL.
- inurl: – Search for documents containing a specific keyword in the URL.
If we do not like to type all these operators, we can use the Google Advanced Search Webpage.
Google Hacking Database (GHDB)
Google Hacking or Google Dorking is a combination of hacking techniques that allow finding security holes within an organisation’s network and systems using the Google search engine and or other applications powered by Google. Whit endless combinations of operators and endless use cases a database categorising possible queries has been created and, it is well known as GHDB.
Social Networking Sites
In the old days, attackers needed to be creative to obtain people information, nowadays, people just throw their information online and an attacker just needs to go there to collect it. The places where the information and the attackers meet are social networks. There are tons of useful information waiting to be collected that can easily be used to focus attacks or social engineering attacks.
Some of the information that can be found in social networks can correlate to the information an attacker is looking for:
|Social network user action||Information|
|People maintain their profile||Photo of the target|
|Date of birthday|
|People update their status||Most recent personal information|
|Most recent location|
|Family and friends information|
|Activities and interests|
|Upcoming events information|
Web Application Security Scanners
Here, it is included the monitorisation and investigation of the target organisation websites. Attackers will try to obtain information like software running and their versions, operative systems, folder structures, databases information and, in general, any information that will be able to leverage in the next steps of the attack.
Before, we have named the Netcraft tool but, there are other tools it can be used for these purposes. Here, just a couple of examples:
- Burp Suite: It is an open-source web application security scanner.
- Zaproxy: It is a graphical tool for testing web application security. It intends to provide a comprehensive solution for web application security checks.
As an example of how to use Burp Suite, we can check this video. As per the video description:
Detecting the OS
Some of the tools that have been already named as Netcraft and Shodan can be used to resolve this information with a simple query using their search engines.
Worth saying that, if the only thing we want to find is a specific connected device such as routers, servers, IoT or other devices, this can be done using the Shodan search engine and its variety of filters.
For example, a simple search of
D-Link offers a long list of this kind of devices.
Web Spiders or Web Crawlers
Web spiders or web crawlers are automatic tools that surf and collect information from the Internet. They usually target a website and extract specific information like names, email addresses or any other information of this type.
Nowadays, the business of Risk Management and Thread Intelligence is growing and companies in this space design the crawler to cover forums, leak information pages and communities, code repositories and much more. If it is out there, it can be crawled. But, any search engines crawl the Internet trying to index it.
A good definition of what they are can be found here.
There are a lot of options and even with a few lines of code, a basic one can be built. Different attackers can have different favourite ones or even the combination of multiple to fit their needs. A good exercise having some programming background is to take a look at the source code of a simple one.
Mirroring a Website
One option is to completely download a website for offline analysis, allowing attackers to analysis in an online environment the source code of a website and its structure.
As in the previous case, there are a lot of options available with their pros and cons. Sometimes, one does the jobs, sometimes a combination of them is needed. Depends on personal preferences and use cases. Some examples are:
Attackers can check how corporative webpages have changed trying to find some extra information. The page Wayback Machine offers the possibility of, given a webpage domain, browse across its modifications and different versions. It is truly a curious exercise.
Monitoring Web Updates
When an attacker is planning to target a company is sometimes interesting to keep an eye on the changes they do to their websites. To do this manually is a tedious and not rewarding task, for this reason, there are some content monitoring tools. They help you track and monitor changes on any website under consideration so you can take immediate actions as you like.
Some examples are:
Again, there are multiple services and tools and attackers find the one that fits better to their purposes.
All business nowadays do extensive use of electronic communications, especially email communications, internally and externally. They contain tons of information, about the company i.e. financial information or technical information.
Also, to all the information the body of the emails can give to an attacker, tracking the email communications can be very useful. The information listed below can be obtained using tracking tools:
- Destination address.
- Sender’s IP address.
- Sender’s mail server.
- Time and date information.
- Authentication system information of the sender’s mail server.
Tools like PoliteMail can help attackers to track Outlook messages. As we can see, not all the named tools are designed for hacking purposes but, the truth is that legitimate tools can be used for illegitimate purposes.
Another interesting information that an attacker can find on email is the headers. Email headers can be explored manually but, some tools help attackers to trace hop by hop email communications and recover IP addresses.
At this point attackers are going to gather information and reports about the target competitors, they include legal news, press releases, financial information, analysis reports, and upcoming projects and plans. Attackers can identify:
- When did the company begin?
- Evolution of the company.
- Authority of the company.
- Background of an organisation.
- Strategies and planning.
- Financial statistics.
- Other information.
Monitoring Website Traffic
Ranking of the target’s website, geographical view of the users, number of total and segmented users, daily statistics, and much more are just a few examples of information that can be obtained. Some services can help us with this:
An example of what Alexa offers is:
Tracking Online Reputation
Organisation’s reputation can be tracked too using online reputation management tools (ORM). These tools are used to track reputation and rankings. It allows the attacker to study consumer opinions about target brands.
One example of these tools can be WhosTalking.
WHOIS is a query and response protocol that is widely used for querying databases that store the registered users or assignees of an Internet resource, such as a domain name, an IP address block or an autonomous system. WHOIS lookups can help attackers to find out who is behind the target domain. WHOIS is maintained by the organisation Regional Internet Registries (RIR). All the registrations are divided into five regions:
|African Network Information Centre||AFRINIC||Africa|
|American Registry for Internet Numbers||ARIN||Antarctica, Canada, parts of the Caribbean, and the United States|
|Asia-Pacific Network Information Centre||APNIC||East Asia, Oceania, South Asia, and Southeast Asia|
|Latin American and Caribbean Network Information Centre||LACNIC||Most of the Caribbean and all of Latin America|
|Réseaux IP Européens Network Coordination Centre||RIPE |
|Europe, Central Asia, Russia, and West Asia|
Lookups offer complete domain registration information like:
- Registrant information
- Registrant organisation
- Registrant country
- Domain name server information
- IP address
- IP location
- ASN (Autonomous System Number)
- Domain status
- WHOIS history
- IP history
- Registrar history
- Hosting history
- Email and postal address of the registrar and admin
- Contact details
There are plenty of WHOIS tools. As examples, an online one and the most common one, installed in almost any system, is going to be shown:
- Whois Domaintools (online).
Domain Name System (DNS) is a hierarchical and decentralized naming system for computers, services, or other resources connected to the Internet or a private network. It associates various information with domain names assigned to each of the participating entities. Most prominently, it translates more readily memorized domain names to the numerical IP addresses needed for locating and identifying computer services and devices with the underlying network protocols.
Several records can be created associated with a DNS entry:
- A Record: An A record (Address Record) points a domain or subdomain to an IP address. i.e.
google.co.uk -> 188.8.131.52.
- CNAME: A CNAME (Canonical Name) points one domain or subdomain to another domain name, allowing you to update one A Record each time you make a change, regardless of how many Host Records need to resolve to that IP address. i.e.
imap.example.org -> mail.example.org.
- MX Entry: An MX Entry (Mail Exchanger) directs email to a particular mail server. Like a CNAME, MX Entries must point to a domain and never point directly to an IP address.
- TXT Record: A text record was originally intended for human-readable text. These records are dynamic and can be used for several purposes.
- SRV Record: An SRV (Service) record points one domain to another domain name using a specific destination port. SRV records allow specific services, such as VOIP or IM, to be directed to a separate location.
- AAAA Record: The AAAA record is similar to the A record, but it allows you to point the domain to an Ipv6 address.
- NS: Host name server.
- SDA: Indicate authority for the domain.
- PTR: IP-Host mapping.
- RP: Responsible person.
- HINFO: Host information.
Similar to what happened with the WHOIS tools, there are plenty of DNS lookup tools. As done before, an online one and a command one are going to be shown.
- Dig (DNS lookup) – G Suite toolbox (online)
Attackers try to collect as much information as possible about the target system to find ways to penetrate the system and network footprinting is one of the most important parts of this process. Types of information we can find with network footprinting tools are:
- Network address ranges
- Exposed hosts
- OS and application version information
- Path state of the host and the applications
- Structure of the application and back-end servers
Some tools attackers can use to achieve their goals are:
- WHOIS (already discussed)
As a probe of concept, the next image represents the execution of the traceroute command present in almost all systems. The image shows the path information between source and destination in the hop by hop manner, listing the hops and the latency between hops.
Footprinting through Social Engineering
Social engineering has been named a few times along this document but, it has not been properly defined. The Social engineering term refers to a technique of psychological manipulation to gather information from different social interactions online or offline. And, it has proven to be an invaluable source of information. In the end, it what is said, the human is, sometimes, the weakest link in the security chain.
There is almost an infinite number of social engineering techniques and, after a few conversations with social engineers, it is easy to realise that every single one of them has its style adapted to their interpersonal skills. Despite this, there are a few basic techniques it can be listed:
- Eavesdropping: Eavesdropping is the act of secretly or stealthily listening to the private conversation or communications of others without their consent. Listening conversation includes listening, reading or accessing any source of information without being notified. The practice is widely regarded as unethical, and in many jurisdictions is illegal.
- Shoulder surfing: Taking this literally, it is gathering information by standing behind the targets when they are interacting with sensitive information. It is used to obtain information such as personal identification numbers (PINs), passwords and other confidential data, for example, the keystrokes on a device or sensitive information in the screen.
- Dumpster diving: It is salvaging from large commercial, residential, industrial and construction containers for unused items discarded by their owners, but deemed useful to the picker.
- Impersonation: Impersonation differs from other forms of social engineering because it occurs in person, rather than over the phone or through email. The social engineer “impersonates” or plays the role of someone the targets are likely to trust or obey convincingly enough to fool them into allowing access to offices, to information, or systems. This type of social engineering plays on people natural tendencies to believe that people are who they say they are, and to follow instructions when asked by an authority figure. It involves the conscious manipulation of a victim to obtain information without the individual realizing that a security breach is occurring.
- Phishing: It is a fraudulent attempt to obtain sensitive information by disguising oneself as a trustworthy entity in an electronic communication. Typically carried out by email spoofing or instant messaging. It often directs users to enter personal information at a fake website which matches the look and feel of the legitimate site.
Some information attackers can obtain using social engineering are:
- Credit card information
- Usernames and passwords
- Security devices and technology information
- Operating systems information
- Software information
- Network information
- IP addresses and name server’s information
One very interesting tool is Maltego. Maltego is an open-source intelligence and graphical link analysis tool for gathering and connecting information for investigative tasks. Using Maltego attackers can automate the process of gathering information from different data sources.
Recon-ng is a full-featured Web Reconnaissance framework written in Python. Complete with independent modules, database interaction, built-in convenience functions, interactive help, and command completion, Recon-ng provides a powerful environment in which open source web-based reconnaissance can be conducted quickly and thoroughly.
FOCA (Fingerprinting Organizations with Collected Archives) is a tool used mainly to find metadata and hidden information in the documents it scans. These documents may be on webpages and can be downloaded and analysed with FOCA.
Metasploit Framework is another impressive tool with multiple uses but, it can be used to scan and gather information about a target. The Pro version can be used to automatise some of the steps in the next phases of an attack but, the free version is more than enough for this phase. You can find a comparison of both versions here,
Countermeasures of Footprinting
Among all the policies that can be set in place to try to prevent footprinting probably the most important thing is to provide education, training and awareness to employees of an organisation. Without this, no matter how many polices or countermeasures companies set, network restrictions, good server configurations, double checks on reports, press releases, everything will in some point fail if organisation users are not properly trained.