Spy vs Spy: Thoughts on the SolarWinds Hack

Alleged Russian backed hack “virtually a declaration of war by Russia on the United States,” claims US Senator Dick Durbin – I always kind of shake my head a little bit when I read political quotes like this. In this post I will explain why.  

I have been asked a lot about the “SolarWinds” hack, so I thought I would throw my two cents in. Whenever a “Nation State” hack is exposed, it is always met with feigned shock and outrage from government leaders. Our government agencies actively hack foreign infrastructure and agencies, and they respond in kind. It is the way it is – kind of like the old Spy vs Spy cartoon. The truth is, it has been going on forever, way before the “cyber” age – it is called “Espionage”.

Years ago, as a young IT professional working near Rochester, NY, I heard about a fascinating CIA Cold War espionage mission against the Russian embassy in DC that involved Xerox copy machines. The story about the Xerox 914 CIA “Spy Machine” was told in the January 1996 issue of Popular Science.

Basically, the Russian Embassy used a Xerox machine to photocopy sensitive information. The CIA trained a Xerox repairman to install a special spy camera unit during a maintenance call. Every time the machine made a copy, the camera took a picture of the document. The repairman would recover the camera or film on the next service call and replace it with another.

1967 patent 3,855,983, displaying miniature camera from the same creator of the Xerox Spy Cam

In reality, the art of espionage goes all the way back to ancient times, it is not anything new. The only thing that has changed is the medium. Instead of trying to train an agent, have them infiltrate a foreign agency, and gain a position of trust – something that could take years, or decades – it is now much easier to hack into an entity, target corporate or government leaders in an attempt to grab all the secrets at once.

In the same way that espionage units would scope out physical infrastructure and critical supply chain entities in an attempt to perform acts of sabotage – the same is now done in the “ether”.

One major benefit of “cyber espionage” other than the ability to gather large amounts of useful information with a single attack, is the ability of anonymity. While bouncing attacks through multiple countries, and mimicking other known attacks, it is much easier to hide the attacker’s true identity.

When I first got into cybersecurity ages ago, I performed a lot of basic malware analysis. A friend that did IT support for a department in a major company, that was getting repeatedly attacked. They asked me for help in finding the location of their attacker.

When I disassembled and analyzed the attacker’s code, it was hardwired to exfiltrate data to a random gaming server hosted in Texas! Did Texas declare war on this US company? Of course not! Attackers were using the hosted server as a command-and-control unit.

A lot of this was still new at the time and there was really no written in stone way to deal with attacks like these. I assume the friend’s company took the findings and approached the company who was being used as the “middle-man” portal for the attack.

Not being a government agency, they had no legal right to “hack back”. I never did know what happened after that, or how long it took for the company being misused to respond, but I assume they did.

Things have advanced a lot since that time, and some security companies/ agencies can do a lot to research the attacker style and the attacking nation, but it takes time and effort.

Am I condoning what the Russian hackers (allegedly) did? Of course not! But, sadly, they hack us, we hack them, it is the way of modern cyber espionage. The only reason why this is a big deal, politically, is that they were caught with their hand in the cookie jar.

Pi 400 & Kali Linux – The Perfect $100 Hacking System

The Pi 400 makes creating a hacking system with Raspberry Pi extremely simple – it is literally burn, boot and done!

The Pi 400 is an “all in one” keyboard version of the Raspberry Pi 4. For all intents and purposes, it is a Raspberry Pi 4, though it has been flattened out a bit and the circuitry has been modified to reflect the changes. The Pi 400 is perfect as a hacking system, as you can easily install and use a fully function version of Kali Linux on it.

In this article, we will look at installing Kali, and running some quick WIFI attacks. All that is needed hardware-wise for this article is the Pi 400 (complete kit) and a Kali compatible USB WIFI adapter. I used an TL-WN722N (v1!) and an Alfa AWUS036NHA, both worked “Out of the Box”.

I know, you can’t get the TL-WN722N v1 adapter new anymore, but there are tons of them out there, and it is one of the best short range WiFi adapters available.

The Pi 400 Complete kit is nice – it comes with the Pi 400, power supply, a memory card, mouse, HDMI cable and a “Raspberry Pi Beginners Guide” book. All you need is a monitor!

The Pi 400 complete kit also comes with a 16GB memory card pre-loaded with RaspiOS. Literally all you need to do is unbox, attach the peripherals, insert the memory card into the Pi, apply power and in a few seconds, we have a Raspbian desktop.

**NOTE: Never insert or remove the memory card when power is applied!

If you have never used a Raspberry Pi before, take your time and play with it. RaspiOS is a very good operating system, and a great way to learn how to use the PI – If you bought the complete Pi-400 kit, the included beginners guide will walk you through using RaspiOS, and more advanced topics like using the GPIO board and sensors.

Though that is not the purpose of this article, we want to turn the Pi-400 into a hacking platform, so let’s get to it!

Installing Kali Linux

Installing Kali Linux on the Pi 400 is very simple. If you are finished using RaspiOS, you can use the memory card from the Pi 400 Kit or just use a new or blank one. All you need to do is download the official Kali Linux Pi 4 64-bit ARM image from Offensive Security, write it to the memory card using a program like BalenaEtcher, then insert the card into the Pi, apply power and boot.

  1. From the Offensive Security Website, under “Raspberry Pi Foundation”, Download Kali Linux 4 (64 bit) image – https://www.offensive-security.com/kali-linux-arm-images/
  • Insert the memory card into the Pi 400, apply power and boot.

You now have a Kali Linux Desktop system!

Okay, So What Doesn’t Work

It’s not a Pi 4, it’s a Pi 400, something must be different, you say. Honestly, the only real difference I have run into so far is that the internal WiFi doesn’t seem to be recognized by Kali. Though it does work in RaspiOS. I am assuming it is some sort of driver issue, I haven’t had a chance yet to troubleshoot. Though I am not heart broken, I rarely use it, and always use a USB WiFi adapter for much better range and reliability.

WiFi Attacks with the Pi 400

Run “ifconfig” and make sure your wireless card is detected, it should show up as wlan0 and/or wlan1, once the onboard wifi driver is fixed.

First, let’s get the lay of the land with Airodump-ng. For the Wi-Fi hacking purists out there, who love iwconfig, Airodump will automatically put the card in the correct monitoring mode for you. All you need to do is run the command.

  • sudo airodump-ng wlan0

Our target, “Death Star” is currently running on Channel 11.

We can go for a “quick kill” using Besside-NG

  • sudo besside-ng -W -c [Channel] -b [Target_BSSID]

If the attack works, we get the WPA handshake file. It only took about 15 seconds; I’ve seen it work as fast as 5 seconds.

The Besside log file and the captured WPA handshake file (wpa.cap) are stored in the user’s home directory.

The handshake file can include a lot of unnecessary packets, you can clean these up with the beside-ng-crawler tool. Though it is really not necessary if just targeting a single target.

  • besside-ng-crawler [search_directory] [output_file]

The handshake file then needs to be cracked.


Bettercap 2 is an awesome Wireless attack tool with a lot more options. It is not installed by default, but is included in the Kali repository.

  • sudo apt install bettercap

Now all we need to do is run bettercap and turn on WiFi recon

  • sudo bettercap -iface wlan0
  • wifi.recon on

Looks a bit confusing, but we can clean it up with the Bettercap “Ticker” Display

  • set wifi.show.sort clients desc
  • set ticker.commands ‘clear; wifi.show’
  • ticker on

We now have nice color-coded display that works great even through SSH.

Now, let’s grab some handshake files:

  • wifi.recon.channel X (enter channel #)
  • wifi.assoc [BSSID]
  • or wifi.assoc all (warning – attacks all detected WiFi networks!)

Notice, “Death Star’s” Encryption type has turned to red. Bettercap successfully grabbed and saved the handshake. When finished, type “exit” to exit bettercap.

Captured handshake files and the bettercap log are stored in the Kali root user directory:

Unless the WPA key is extremely simple, you really don’t want to try to crack them on a Pi4. I highly recommend copying it off to a desktop system.


In this article we saw how to quickly and easily install Kali Linux on the new Pi 400 all in one keyboard system. The Pi 400 is a great choice as a hacking system due to it’s portability and compactness. It also can run a full desktop install of Kali Linux, or any other Pi 4 compatible OS, so your options are many.

We only covered using the Pi 400 in some quick WiFi tests, but as you have the full power of Kali Linux at your fingertips you could perform any level of pentesting with it that you could do with a normal desktop. Okay, it doesn’t have the same power as a high end desktop, so cracking passwords or some enterprise level tests may be out of the questions, but for $100 you can’t go wrong having the Pi 400 in your security testing toolkit.

If you want to learn a lot about security testing with the Raspberry Pi, check out my book, “Security Testing with Raspberry Pi“, available on Amazon.com.