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The battleground between security vendors and crackers is shifting as attacks are becoming more likely to come in at the application rather than infrastructure level, according to a security firm which keeps close tabs on the digital underground.

According to Kenneth De Spiegeleire, consulting manager at Internet security Systems (ISS) who heads a teams of ethical hackers, crackers get more kudos if they sniff out Web server or ecommerce applications than when they exploit operating system flaws.

"'Black Hat' hackers have almost lost interest in Windows NT exploits because they're becoming so common. If someone finds a flaw with a serious ecommerce application they'll get much more attention," he said.

This means that protecting bespoke ecommerce applications and guarding against the dozens of exploits that use peer to peer networks, such as Napster, are becoming more important security concerns, he added.

Despite all the publicity about Web page defacement, De Spiegeleire said his firm's clients were far more concerned about a security compromise that they don't detect rather than such "door rattling" by script kiddies.

ISS, whose main business is in security assessment and intrusion detection products, believes that 60-70 per cent of those in the digital underground are unable to do anything more than follow simple scripts or instructions, and are thus labelled script kiddies. One in five could be described as "security professional wannabes" with more knowledge.

Only one in ten members of the digital underground is capable of finding and writing an exploit that takes advantage of a security vulnerability. Around one per cent of the entire community are classed as "super crackers", state or company paid criminals who works in the shadows, and whose work seldom comes to the attention of the wider world.

To illustrate his point that "innovation" is slow to comes from crackers, De Spiegeleire, said AT&T researchers highlighted inherent security weaknesses in the design of TCP in 1989 but these flaws in authentication were only first exploited six years later, by Kevin Mitnick, in 1995.

"A lot of hackers overstate themselves, there's few who know a system inside out and therefore where the weak spots are," said De Spiegeleire. ®

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