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How to case high-profile targets without really trying

Tool makes it a snap to match domains to MySpace accounts

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We've been hearing for years that MySpace and other social networking sites can represent a gaping chink in an otherwise hardened corporate network. Now a London-based security consultant has created a tool that proves it.

Enter the PKI Book, created by Petko D. Petkov. Just type in the domain name of an organization you, er, want to get to know better. It will return the email addresses of employees along with their MySpace profile.

We entered HSBC.com into the PKI Book in the hopes we might find some employees who would agree to be added to our list of friends. Lo and behold, we found two employees of the banking giant. One of them even claims to be a computer programmer by occupation. The other, listed as 28 year-old from the Philippines, goes by the MySpace handle "bong."

"It is a big deal because users don't realize the ways attackers can take advantage of their online presence," says Petkov, who does security audits and ethical hacking for a living. "Once the attackers identify a potential target (socially active user) they will deploy a minefield around the perimeter. Once the target falls into the trap, attackers will be able to use them as a proxy an sneak in."

Availability of this nifty tool, which is also useful for outing FBI spooks and employees of Apple, comes just a few days after Sophos reported that more than 50 per cent of respondents in a recent survey said their employers blocked them from accessing Facebook on work computers.

Short for public key infrastructure, PKI is a mechanism for binding public encryption keys to the identities of those who own them, enabling users to securely and privately exchange messages.

PKI Book queries the Massachusetts Institute of Technology PKI databases at pgp.mit.edu and then uses a program known as Yahoo! Pipes to run all matches against MySpace users. Petko says he is considering modifying the tool so it correlates addresses against a database known as Wink, which searches virtually all social networks.

It took less than 30 seconds to discover that bong, the HSBC employee from the Philippines, had used his hsbc.com email address to register his account. We're thinking the 28-year-old is probably smart enough to resist falling prey to one of the many MySpace scams or hacks out there. But with a name like bong, we can't be sure.

The other HSBC employee was slightly more careful because he didn't use his work email address to register his MySpace account. The thing is, he associated his public key with both his hsbc.com address and a private address, and he then used that latter address to register his MySpace account.

We also came across an Apple employee who had a very active social profile.

Of course, just because someone is listed in PKI directory or MIT or any other organization doesn't mean the listing is legit. A quick search for keys belonging to people with Whitehouse.gov email addresses makes it abundantly clear any crank can add an entry.

But all a determined attacker needs is a big enough cache of identities linked to the organization being cased and a little time. Eventually, it will provide a way in, if not through social-networking opportunities, then by posting a nasty javascript on the users' comments page that exploits one of the many javascript-based vulnerabilities these sites are so famously susceptible to.

Not that any of this persuades Scott, the HSBC computer programmer, that any of this is even a teeny bit of a problem.

"It's not a big deal to me," he told us when we contacted him by phone. "Actually, it works in my favor sometimes, more for people finding me, like yourself." ®

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