Teaching Offensive Lab Skills: How to Make It Worth the Risk?

Teaching Offensive Lab Skills: How to Make It Worth the Risk?

Zouheir Trabelsi (UAE University, UAE), Margaret McCoey (La Salle University, USA) and Yang Wang (La Salle University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-0238-9.ch011
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This chapter identifies and discusses the learning outcomes to be achieved because of hands-on lab exercises using ethical hacking. It discusses the ethical implications associated with including such labs in the information security curriculum. The discussion is informed by analyses of log data on student malicious activities, and the results of student surveys. The examination of student behavior after acquiring hands-on offensive skills shows that there is potentially a high risk of using these skills in an inappropriate and illegal manner. While acknowledging the risk and the ethical problems associated with teaching ethical hacking, it strongly recommends that information security curricula should opt for a teaching approach that offers students both offensive hands-on lab exercises coupled with ethical practices related to the techniques. The authors propose steps to offer a comprehensive information security program while at the same time minimizing the risk of inappropriate student behavior and reducing institutional liability in that respect and increasing the ethical views and practices related to ethical hacking.
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The importance of experimental learning has long been recognized in the learning theory literature (Denning, 2003). Despite the fact many graduate and undergraduate courses in information security still offer a limited number of hands-on laboratory exercises as part of the curriculum the need to use a theory and practice-oriented approach in information security education is seen as paramount (Chiou & Li Lin, 2007). A program that covers only the theoretical aspects of information security may not prepare students well for overcoming the difficulties associated with the efficient protection of complex computer systems and information assets. Furthermore, a learning environment that does not give the students an opportunity to experiment and practice with security technologies does not equip them with the skills and knowledge required for doing research and development in the computer security field. The introduction of information security courses aimed at offering a practice-oriented component have been well received by students (Hartley, 2015). However, review of literature acknowledges the issues of the ethical dilemma associated with these components (Hartley, 2015; Pike, 2013; Wang, McCoey, & Zou, 2018). Some programs enhance their offerings by adding a practice-oriented component that includes laboratory exercises (labs) based on defensive information security techniques (Hill, Carver, Jr., Humphries, & Pooch, 2001; Special Report on Forensic Examination of Digital Evidence, 2004; Vigna, 2003). However, many academics and industry practitioners feel that to defend a system one needs a good knowledge of the attacks a system may face (Arce & McGraw, 2004). Students who understand how attacks are designed and launched will be better prepared for opportunities as security administrators than those without such skills (Logan & Clarkson, 2005). As a result, interest in incorporating labs on offensive techniques originally developed by hackers has grown significantly (Brutus, Shubina & Locasto, 2010; Damon, Dale, Land & Weiss, 2012; Ledin, 2011; Trabelsi & Al Ketbi, 2013; Trabelsi, 2011; Yuan & Zhong, 2008) and teaching [ethical] hacking techniques has become a vital component of programs that aim to produce competent information security professionals (Dornseif, Gärtner, Holz, & Mink, 2005; Mink & Freiling, 2006).

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