BackTrack: The Hacker's Swiss Army Knife

Multi-tool penknife, close-up
Steven Puetzer/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

Editor's Note: This is a legacy article on BackTrack. It has since been replaced by Kali Linux

There are hundreds if not thousands of hacker tools out in the wild. Some hacker tools have a single function, others are multipurpose. BackTrack is the mother of all security/hacker toolkits. BackTrack is a Linux distribution that is security focused and contains over 300 security tools integrated with a highly polished user interface.

BackTrack is packaged in a Linux Live distribution which means that it can be run completely off of a CD/DVD or USB thumb drive without having to be installed on a host computer's local hard drive. This makes it useful in forensic situations where loading a tool onto a hard drive could compromise data currently on it. It also helps hacker's cover their tracks by letting them use hacker tools on a system without leaving telltale signs on the host's hard drive.

BackTrack's tools are organized into 12 categories:

  • Information Gathering
  • Vulnerability Assessment
  • Exploitation Tools
  • Privilege Escalation
  • Maintaining Access
  • Reverse Engineering
  • RFID Tools
  • Stress testing
  • Forensics
  • Reporting Tools
  • Services
  • Miscellaneous

The tools that comprise BackTrack are all open-source and free. All of the tools are also available separately if needed. BackTrack integrates the tools and organizes them in a way that makes sense to security auditors (and hackers), grouping them together into one of the 12 categories above.

One of the best parts of the BackTrack audit toolkit is its development and support community. The BackTrack Wiki is chocked full of tutorials covering just about every aspect of using BackTrack.

There is extensive online training available as well as a certification track for those who believe they have mastered BackTrack. Offensive Security provides a certification called the Offensive Security Certified Professional, where would-be-hackers / security pros must prove themselves and hack a certain number of test systems in Offensive Security's test lab.

Some of the more high-profile tools in BackTrack's arsenal include:

Nmap (Network Mapper) - Nmap is a sophisticated scanning tool used to discover ports, services and hosts on a network. It can be used to determine what type of operating system is running on a target machine as well as what version of a service is running on a specific port which may assist hackers in determining what vulnerabilities a target may be susceptible to.

Wireshark - Wireshark is an open-source packet analyzer (sniffer) which can be used to troubleshoot network problems or eavesdrop on both wired and wireless network traffic. Wireshark can assist hackers in performing man-in-the-middle attacks and is a key component for many other attacks.

Metasploit - The Metasploit Framework is a tool for the development of vulnerability exploits and assists both hackers and security analysts with testing these exploits against remote targets to determine if they are susceptible. You can develop your own exploit or choose from a large library of pre-developed exploits that target specific vulnerabilities such as unpatched operating systems.

Ophcrack - Ophcrack is a powerful password cracking tool that can be used in conjunction with Rainbow Tables and password dictionaries to crack passwords. It can also be used in brute-force mode where it attempts to iteratively guess every possible combination of a password.

There are hundreds of more tools that are part of Backtrack. Many of them can be powerful and harmful if used incorrectly. Even if you are a security professional with the best of intentions you can really do a lot of damage if you're not careful.

If you want to learn how to use Backtrack in a safe environment, I recommend that you setup an isolated test network using an old wireless router/switch and some old PCs that you likely have laying around your garage. In addition to the online course offered by Offensive Security, there are several books available for learning to use BackTrack on your own.

Just remember that with powerful security tools comes great responsibility. While it is tempting to show off your newfound hacking skills to your friends, it's best to use these tools for their intended purpose which is to help improve a system's or network's security posture.