Know your community – Ionut Popescu
When we sponsored DefCamp Romania back in November 2016, I saw Ionut Popescu lecture “Windows shellcodes: To be continued” and thought to myself “He’s must be a key figure in the Romanian security community – I must interview him” so I did!
Ionut is working as a Senior Penetration Tester for SecureWorks Romania. Speaker at DefCon and DefCamp, writer of NetRipper, ShellcodeCompiler and a family man.
Q: What was your motivation to getting into the security field?
A: First of all, the security field is challenging. It’s like a good movie whose main character has to do some tricky moves to find the truth – In the security field it’s he same.
Second, it’s fun. Get access to different systems or to exploit applications. Your friends will think you did something really complicated when you actually exploited a simple vulnerability.
My motivations were never (and will never be) fame or money, it’s the challenge and learning.
Q: When did you get into the security field?
A: I got my first computer when I was 16. I used it to play games until I found a small Romanian security forum. I saw that there was a lot of challenging stuff you could do and I became interested in the security field.
During this process I learned Visual Basic 6 / HTML / CSS / JS / PHP / MySQL and practiced my web application vulnerability research skills. After some time I became interested in more complicated stuff such as C/C++ and ASM. It’s was step by step learning where the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.
Q: Since you started, you have found vulnerabilities (vBulletin for example), wrote exploitations tools like NetRipper and ShellcodeCompiler. Why did you decide to specialize in offensive security?
A: Offensive security is the fun part of security. From my point of view, it is more complicated, more fun and more challenging than defensive security.
Let’s take the vBulletin example. I managed a vBulletin installation and I wanted to make sure the forum was secure. I always updated with the latest vBulletin patches, our server was up to date and it even had a few hardening configurations – this is defensive security.
But when I decided to take a look on my own at vBulletin, I found an SQL Injection. Guess what made me happier – installing patches and keeping a system up to date or the discovery of an SQL Injection? Since I was young, I was more attracted by the offensive part of security.
Q: Why did you develop NetRipper and ShellcodeCompiler?
A: A long time ago I discovered that by using API hooking (intercepting Windows function calls) you can do a lot of stuff. While working on an internal penetration test on a limited system, I had the idea that I could capture the traffic made by administration tools in order to pivot to other systems. The idea was not new, but the available tools did not offer what I wanted – a post-exploitation tool to help penetration testers on their engagements. So, I started working on NetRipper, which was released at Defcon 23.
Recently, being interested in low-level stuff such as ASM and Windows Internals, I wanted to write my own shellcodes. I did it easily on Linux, but it was a little bit more complicated on Windows. I noticed that you will repeat a lot of the content from one shellcode to another, so I decided to automate this. This idea was also not new. I saw a basic shellcode compiler, but its users had to write ASM code. I wanted a fast and easy way to write one. This is how Shellcode Compiler was born.
Q: What is the most innovative project you did as offensive security researcher?
A: I think the most innovative project I did as a security researcher is Shellcode Compiler. Even if the idea is not new and the tool is really limited, it turns a difficult job into a really easy one, and anyone can write a shellcode.
However, I still need to implement a few features that will make it more useful. I don’t have a lot of free time to work on this project, but I always try to make some time for it.
Q: Where did you learn to be an offensive security researcher?
A: I started to learn from security forums. I still remember hacky0u forums. Now I get most of my technical stuff from Twitter. My tweets are actually a “to read” list. I like to see that a lot of technical people share their knowledge. I read anything that’s new from blogs, whitepapers and security conferences.
I find Twitter is the central place where I can find all this information by following the right people.
Q: How big is the security community in Romania?
A: The security community in Romania is medium-sized. There are really good security guys in Romania, but many of them don’t have the necessary time to share their knowledge.
There are security researchers from Romania that spoke at well-known security conferences, write tools and whitepapers, but not as much as I would like to. In my opinion, it doesn’t matter from where is the researcher – we live in international world, especially the security researchers community.
Q: I saw that you are one of the Admins in the Romanian security forums called RST Forums. Why did you open the forum? What was the goal? How helps you to manage it?
A: RST Forums is the largest Romanian security community. It is a well-known forum in Romania and most of the content is Romanian. I did not open this forum; a few other guys did it in 2006. However, they decided to leave the community, and so I am just continuing it.
The goal is to help young and newbie Romanian learn security. I have friends that visited the forums for game cheats or programming help, eventually they got in to the security field and now they are working as penetration testers for large companies – the forum helped a lot of us in our careers, and that’s why it is still open. I hope many other young Romanians will use it as a way to start their careers in the field of information security.
Q: How do you support the security research community today?
A: I don’t do as much for the security research community as I would like. The two tools I released, NetRipper and ShellcodeCompiler, were to support the research community. I have written different technical articles and whitepapers and spoken at security conferences. Oh, and I also tweet useful technical stuff. It is not much, but it is something, and I hope someone will find my work useful.
Q: Do you have a tool you are working on today? Do you know when you are going to release it?
A: Right now, I would like to work on my current projects. I don’t have a new idea for a tool and it is not a good idea to work on one until the other tools are not as fully-featured and stable as I would like them to be.
It was a pleasure, Ionut, to talk to you and get so much information on the local Romanian community