Europol, Microsoft Kneecap Click-Fraud Botnet
Authorities in Europe joined Microsoft Corp. this week in disrupting “ZeroAccess,” a vast botnet that has enslaved more than two million PCs with malicious software in an elaborate and lucrative scheme to defraud online advertisers.
The action comes partly from Europol’s European Cybercrime Center (EC3), as well as law enforcement cybercrime units from Germany, Latvia, Switzerland and the Netherlands, countries that hosted many of the Internet servers used to control the ZeroAccess botnet.
In tandem with the law enforcement moves in Europe, Microsoft filed a civil lawsuit to unmask eight separate cybercriminals thought to be operating the giant botnet, and to block incoming and outgoing communications between infected PCs in the United States and those 18 control servers, according to a statement released by EC3.
The malware the powers the botnet, also known as “ZAccess” and “Sirefef,” is a complex threat that has evolved significantly since its inception in 2009. It began as a malware delivery platform that was used to spread other threats, such as fake antivirus software (a.k.a. “scareware”).
In recent years, however, the miscreants behind ZeroAccess rearchitected the botnet so that infected systems were forced to perpetrate a moneymaking scheme known as “click fraud” — the practice of fraudulently generating clicks on ads without any intention of fruitfully interacting with the advertiser’s site.
It remains unclear how much this coordinated action will impact the operations of ZeroAccess over the long term. Early versions of ZeroAccess relied on a series of control servers to receive updates, but recent versions of the botnet malware were designed to make the network as a whole more resilient and resistant to targeted takedowns such as the one executed this week.
Specifically, ZeroAccess employs a peer-to-peer (P2P) architecture in which new instructions and payloads are distributed from one infected host to another. P2P-based botnets are designed to eliminate a single point of failure, so that if one node used to control the botnet is knocked offline, the remainder of the botnet can still function.
The actions this week appear to have targeted the servers that deliver a specific component of ZeroAccess that gives infected systems new instructions on how to defraud various online advertisers — including Microsoft. While this effort will not disable the ZeroAccess botnet (the infected systems will likely remain infected), it should allow Microsoft to determine which online affiliates and publishers are associated with the miscreants behind ZeroAccess, since those publishers will have stopped sending traffic directly after the takedown occurred.