Posts Tagged: booter


4
Feb 20

Booter Boss Busted By Bacon Pizza Buy

A Pennsylvania man who operated one of the Internet’s longest-running online attack-for-hire or “booter” services was sentenced to five years probation today. While the young man’s punishment was heavily tempered by his current poor health, the defendant’s dietary choices may have contributed to both his capture and the lenient sentencing: Investigators say the onetime booter boss’s identity became clear after he ordered a bacon and chicken pizza delivered to his home using the same email address he originally used to register his criminal attack service.

David Bukoski, 24, of Hanover Township, Pa., pleaded guilty to running Quantum Stresser, an attack-for-hire business — also known as a “booter” or “stresser” service — that helped paying customers launch tens of thousands of digital sieges capable of knocking Web sites and entire network providers offline.

The landing page for the Quantum Stresser attack-for-hire service.

Investigators say Bukoski’s booter service was among the longest running services targeted by the FBI, operating since at least 2012. The government says Quantum Stresser had more than 80,000 customer subscriptions, and that during 2018 the service was used to conduct approximately 50,000 actual or attempted attacks targeting people and networks worldwide.

The Quantum Stresser Web site — quantumstress[.]net — was among 15 booter services that were seized by U.S. and international authorities in December 2018 as part of a coordinated takedown targeting attack-for-hire services.

Federal prosecutors in Alaska said search warrants served on the email accounts Bukoski used in conjunction with Quantum Stresser revealed that he was banned from several companies he used to advertise and accept payments for the booter service.

The government’s sentencing memorandum says Bukoski’s replies demanding to know the reasons for the suspensions were instrumental in discovering his real name.  FBI agents were able to zero in on Bukoski’s real-life location after a review of his email account showed a receipt from May 2018 in which he’d gone online and ordered a handmade pan pizza to be delivered to his home address.

When an online pizza delivery order brings FBI agents to raid your home.

While getting busted on account of ordering a pizza online might sound like a bone-headed or rookie mistake for a cybercriminal, it is hardly unprecedented. In 2012 KrebsOnSecurity wrote about the plight of Yuriy “Jtk” Konovalenko, a then 30-year-old Ukrainian man who was rounded up as part of an international crackdown on an organized crime gang that used the ZeuS malware to steal tens of millions of dollars from companies and consumers. In that case, Konovalenko ultimately unmasked himself because he used his Internet connection to order the delivery of a “Veggie Roma” pizza to his apartment in the United Kingdom. Continue reading →


28
Feb 19

Booter Boss Interviewed in 2014 Pleads Guilty

A 20-year-old Illinois man has pleaded guilty to running multiple DDoS-for-hire services that launched millions of attacks over several years. The plea deal comes almost exactly five years after KrebsOnSecurity interviewed both the admitted felon and his father and urged the latter to take a more active interest in his son’s online activities.

Sergiy P. Usatyuk of Orland Park, Ill. pleaded guilty this week to one count of conspiracy to cause damage to Internet-connected computers and for his role in owning, administering and supporting illegal “booter” or “stresser” services designed to knock Web sites offline, including exostress[.]in, quezstresser[.]com, betabooter[.]com, databooter[.]com, instabooter[.]com, polystress[.]com and zstress[.]net.

Some of Rasbora’s posts on hackforums[.]net prior to our phone call in 2014. Most of these have since been deleted.

A U.S. Justice Department press release on the guilty plea says Usatyuk — operating under the hacker aliases “Andrew Quez” and “Brian Martinez” — admitted developing, controlling and operating the aforementioned booter services from around August 2015 through November 2017. But Usatyuk’s involvement in the DDoS-for-hire space very much predates that period.

In February 2014, KrebsOnSecurity reached out to Usatyuk’s father Peter Usatyuk, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I did so because a brief amount of sleuthing on Hackforums[.]net revealed that his then 15-year-old son Sergiy — who at the time went by the nicknames “Rasbora” and “Mr. Booter Master”  — was heavily involved in helping to launch crippling DDoS attacks.

I phoned Usatyuk the elder because Sergiy’s alter egos had been posting evidence on Hackforums and elsewhere that he’d just hit KrebsOnSecurity.com with a 200 Gbps DDoS attack, which was then considered a fairly impressive DDoS assault.

“I am writing you after our phone conversation just to confirm that you may call evening time/weekend to talk to my son Sergio regarding to your reasons,” Peter Usatyuk wrote in an email to this author on Feb. 13, 2014. “I also have [a] major concern what my 15 yo son [is] doing. If you think that is any kind of illegal work, please, let me know.” Continue reading →


1
Feb 19

250 Webstresser Users to Face Legal Action

More than 250 customers of a popular and powerful online attack-for-hire service that was dismantled by authorities in 2018 are expected to face legal action for the damage they caused, according to Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency.

In April 2018, investigators in the U.S., U.K. and the Netherlands took down attack-for-hire service WebStresser[.]org and arrested its alleged administrators. Prior to the takedown, the service had more than 151,000 registered users and was responsible for launching some four million attacks over three years. Now, those same authorities are targeting people who paid the service to conduct attacks.

Webstresser.org (formerly Webstresser.co), as it appeared in 2017.

In the United Kingdom, police have seized more than 60 personal electronic devices from a number of Webstresser users, and some 250 customers of the service will soon face legal action, Europol said in a statement released this week.

“Size does not matter – all levels of users are under the radar of law enforcement, be it a gamer booting out the competition out of a game, or a high-level hacker carrying out DDoS attacks against commercial targets for financial gain,” Europol officials warned.

The focus on Webstresser’s customers is the latest phase of “Operation Power Off,” which targeted one of the most active services for launching point-and-click distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks. WebStresser was one of many so-called “booter” or “stresser” services — virtual hired muscle that even completely unskilled users can rent to knock nearly any website or Internet user offline.

Operation Power Off is part of a broader law enforcement effort to disrupt the burgeoning booter service industry and to weaken demand for such services. In December, authorities in the United States filed criminal charges against three men accused of running booter services, and orchestrated a coordinated takedown of 15 different booter sites.

This seizure notice appeared on the homepage of more than a dozen popular “booter” or “stresser” DDoS-for-hire Web sites in December 2018.

Continue reading →


25
Apr 18

DDoS-for-Hire Service Webstresser Dismantled

Authorities in the U.S., U.K. and the Netherlands on Tuesday took down popular online attack-for-hire service WebStresser.org and arrested its alleged administrators. Investigators say that prior to the takedown, the service had more than 136,000 registered users and was responsible for launching somewhere between four and six million attacks over the past three years.

The action, dubbed “Operation Power Off,” targeted WebStresser.org (previously Webstresser.co), one of the most active services for launching point-and-click distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks. WebStresser was one of many so-called “booter” or “stresser” services — virtual hired muscle that anyone can rent to knock nearly any website or Internet user offline.

Webstresser.org (formerly Webstresser.co), as it appeared in 2017.

“The damage of these attacks is substantial,” reads a statement from the Dutch National Police in a Reddit thread about the takedown. “Victims are out of business for a period of time, and spend money on mitigation and on (other) security measures.”

In a separate statement released this morning, Europol — the law enforcement agency of the European Union — said “further measures were taken against the top users of this marketplace in the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Croatia, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and Hong Kong.” The servers powering WebStresser were located in Germany, the Netherlands and the United States, according to Europol.

The U.K.’s National Crime Agency said WebStresser could be rented for as little as $14.99, and that the service allowed people with little or no technical knowledge to launch crippling DDoS attacks around the world.

Neither the Dutch nor U.K. authorities would say who was arrested in connection with this takedown. But according to information obtained by KrebsOnSecurity, the administrator of WebStresser allegedly was a 19-year-old from Prokuplje, Serbia named Jovan Mirkovic.

Mirkovic, who went by the hacker nickname “m1rk,” also used the alias “Mirkovik Babs” on Facebook where for years he openly discussed his role in programming and ultimately running WebStresser. The last post on Mirkovic’s Facebook page, dated April 3 (the day before the takedown), shows the young hacker sipping what appears to be liquor while bathing. Below that image are dozens of comments left in the past few hours, most of them simply, “RIP.”

Continue reading →


27
Oct 17

Fear the Reaper, or Reaper Madness?

Last week we looked at reports from China and Israel about a new “Internet of Things” malware strain called “Reaper” that researchers said infected more than a million organizations by targeting newfound security weaknesses in countless Internet routers, security cameras and digital video recorders (DVRs). Now some botnet experts are calling on people to stop the “Reaper Madness,” saying the actual number of IoT devices infected with Reaper right now is much smaller.

Arbor Networks said it believes the size of the Reaper botnet currently fluctuates between 10,000 and 20,000 bots total. Arbor notes that this can change any time.

Reaper was based in part on “Mirai,” IoT malware code designed to knock Web sites offline in high-powered data floods, and an IoT malware strain that powered most of the largest cyberattacks of the past year. So it’s worrisome to think someone may have just built an army of a million IoT drones that could be used in crippling, coordinated assaults capable of wiping most networks offline.

If criminals haven’t yet built a million-strong botnet using the current pool of vulnerable devices, they certainly have the capacity to do so.

“An additional 2 million hosts have been identified by the botnet scanners as potential Reaper nodes, but have not been subsumed into the botnet,” Arbor’s ASERT team wrote, explaining that the coders may have intentionally slowed the how quickly the malware can spread to keep it quiet and under the radar.

Arbor says Reaper is likely being built to serve as the machine powering a giant attack-for-hire service known as a “booter” or “stresser” service.

“Our current assessment of Reaper is that it is likely intended for use as a booter/stresser service primarily serving the intra-China DDoS-for-hire market,” Arbor wrote. “Reaper appears to be a product of the Chinese criminal underground; some of the general Reaper code is based on the Mirai IoT malware, but it is not an outright Mirai clone.” Continue reading →


9
Aug 17

Alleged vDOS Operators Arrested, Charged

Two young Israeli men alleged by this author to have co-founded vDOS — until recently the largest and most profitable cyber attack-for-hire service online — were arrested and formally indicted this week in Israel on conspiracy and hacking charges.

On Sept. 8, 2016, KrebsOnSecurity published a story about the hacking of vDOS, a service that attracted tens of thousands of paying customers and facilitated more than two million distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks over the four year period it was in business.

That story named two then 18-year-old Israelis — Yarden “applej4ck” Bidani and Itay “p1st” Huri — as the likely owners and operators of vDOS. Within hours of that story’s publication the two were detained by Israeli police, placed on house arrest for 10 days, and forbidden from using the Internet for a month.

vDOS as it existed on Sept. 8, 2016.

vDOS as it existed on Sept. 8, 2016.

On Tuesday, Israeli prosecutors announced they had formally arrested and charged two 19-year-olds with conspiring to commit a felony, prohibited activities, tampering with or disrupting a computer, and storing or disseminating false information. A statement from a spokesman for the Israeli state attorney’s office said prosecutors couldn’t name the accused because their alleged crimes were committed while they were minors.

But a number of details match perfectly with previous reporting on Bidani and Huri. As noted in the original Sept. 2016 expose’ on vDOS’s alleged founders, Israeli prosecutors say the two men made more than $600,000 in two of the four years the service was in operation. vDOS was shuttered for good not longer after Bidani and Huri’s initial detention in Sept. 2016.

“The defendants were constantly improving the attack code and finding different network security weaknesses that would enable them to offer increased attack services that could overcome existing defenses and create real damage to servers and services worldwide,” Israeli prosecutors alleged of the accused and their enterprise. Continue reading →


6
Jun 17

Following the Money Hobbled vDOS Attack-for-Hire Service

A new report proves the value of following the money in the fight against dodgy cybercrime services known as “booters” or “stressers” — virtual hired muscle that can be rented to knock nearly any website offline.

Last fall, two 18-year-old Israeli men were arrested for allegedly running vDOS, perhaps the most successful booter service of all time. The young men were detained within hours of being named in a story on this blog as the co-proprietors of the service (KrebsOnSecurity.com would later suffer a three-day outage as a result of an attack that was alleged to have been purchased in retribution for my reporting on vDOS).

The vDos home page.

The vDos home page.

That initial vDOS story was based on data shared by an anonymous source who had hacked vDOS and obtained its private user and attack database. The story showed how the service made approximately $600,000 over just two of the four years it was in operation. Most of those profits came in the form of credit card payments via PayPal.

But prior to vDOS’s takedown in September 2016, the service was already under siege thanks to work done by a group of academic researchers who teamed up with PayPal to identify and close accounts that vDOS and other booter services were using to process customer payments. The researchers found that their interventions cut profits in half for the popular booter service, and helped reduce the number of attacks coming out of it by at least 40 percent.

At the height of vDOS’s profitability in mid-2015, the DDoS-for-hire service was earning its proprietors more than $42,000 a month in PayPal and Bitcoin payments from thousands of subscribers. That’s according to an analysis of the leaked vDOS database performed by researchers at New York University.

As detailed in August 2015’s “Stress-Testing the Booter Services, Financially,” the researchers posed as buyers of nearly two dozen booter services — including vDOS —  in a bid to discover the PayPal accounts that booter services were using to accept payments. In response to their investigations, PayPal began seizing booter service PayPal accounts and balances, effectively launching their own preemptive denial-of-service attacks against the payment infrastructure for these services.

Those tactics worked, according to a paper the NYU researchers published today (PDF) at the Weis 2017 workshop at the University of California, San Diego.

“We find that VDoS’s revenue was increasing and peaked at over $42,000/month for the month before the start of PayPal’s payment intervention and then started declining to just over $20,000/month for the last full month of revenue,” the paper notes.

subscribersThe NYU researchers found that vDOS had extremely low costs, and virtually all of its business was profit. Customers would pay up front for a subscription to the service, which was sold in booter packages priced from $5 to $300. The prices were based partly on the overall number of seconds that an attack may last (e.g., an hour would be 3,600 worth of attack seconds).

In just two of its four year in operation vDOS was responsible for launching 915,000 DDoS attacks, the paper notes. In adding up all the attack seconds from those 915,000 DDoS attacks, the researchers found vDOS was responsible for 48 “attack years” — the total amount of DDoS time faced by the victims of vDOS. Continue reading →


31
Oct 16

Hackforums Shutters Booter Service Bazaar

Perhaps the most bustling marketplace on the Internet where people can compare and purchase so-called “booter” and “stresser” subscriptions — attack-for-hire services designed to knock Web sites offline — announced last week that it has permanently banned the sale and advertising of these services.

On Friday, Oct. 28, Jesse LaBrocca — the administrator of the popular English-language hacking forum Hackforums[dot]net — said he was shutting down the “server stress testing” (SST) section of the forum. The move comes amid heightened public scrutiny of the SST industry, which has been linked to several unusually powerful recent attacks and is responsible for the vast majority of denial-of-service (DOS) attacks on the Internet today.

The administrator of Hackforums bans the sale and advertising of server stress testing (SST) services, also known as "booter" or "stresser" online attack-for-hire services.

The administrator of Hackforums bans the sale and advertising of server stress testing (SST) services, also known as “booter” or “stresser” online attack-for-hire services.

“Unfortunately once again the few ruin it for the many,” LaBrocca wrote under his Hackforums alias “Omniscient.” “I’m personally disappointed that this is the path I have to take in order to protect the community. I loathe having to censor material that could be beneficial to members. But I need to make sure that we continue to exist and given the recent events I think it’s more important that the section be permanently shut down.”

Last month, a record-sized DDoS hit KrebsOnSecurity.com. The attack was launched with the help of Mirai, a malware strain that enslaves poorly secured Internet-of-Things (IoT) devices like CCTV cameras and digital video recorders and uses them to launch crippling attacks.

At the end of September, a Hackforums user named “Anna_Senpai” used the forum to announce the release the source code for Mirai. A week ago, someone used Mirai to launch a massive attack on Internet infrastructure firm Dyn, which for the better part of a day lead to sporadic outages for some of the Web’s top destinations, including Twitter, PayPal, Reddit and Netflix.

The Hackforums post that includes links to the Mirai source code.

The Hackforums post that includes links to the Mirai source code.

As I noted in last week’s story Are the Days of Booter Services Numbered?, many booter service owners have been operating under the delusion or rationalization that their services are intended solely for Web site owners to test the ability of their sites to withstand data deluges.

Whatever illusions booter service operators or users may have harbored about their activities should have been dispelled following a talk delivered at the Black Hat security conference in Las Vegas this year. In that speech, FBI Agent Elliott Peterson issued an unambiguous warning that the agency was prepared to investigate and help prosecute people engaged in selling and buying from booter services.

But it wasn’t until this month’s attack on Dyn that LaBrocca warned the Hackforums community he may have to shut down the SST section.

“I can’t image this attention is going to be a good thing,” Omni said in an October 26, 2016 thread titled “Bad things.” “Already a Senator is calling for a hearing on the Internet of Things [link added]. In the end there could be new laws which effect [sic] us all. So for those responsible for the attacks and creating this mess….you dun goofed. I expect a lot of backlash to come out of this.”

If LaBrocca appears steamed from this turn of events, it’s probably with good reason: He stands to lose a fair amount of regular income by banning some of the most lucrative businesses on his forum. Vendors on Hackforums pay fees as high as $25 apiece to achieve a status that allows them to post new sales threads, and banner ads on the forum can run up to $200 per week.

"Stickies" advertising various "booter" or "stresser" DDoS-for-hire services.

“Stickies” advertising various “booter” or “stresser” DDoS-for-hire services.

Vendors who wish to “sticky” their ads — that is, pay to keep the ads displayed prominently near or at the top of a given discussion subforum — pay LaBrocca up to $60 per week for the prime sticky spots. And there were dozens of booter services advertised on Hackforums.

Allison Nixon, director of security research at Flashpoint and an expert on booter services, said the move could put many booter services out of business.

Nixon said the average booter service customer uses the attack services to settle grudges with opponents in online games, and that the closure of the SST subforum may make these services less attractive to those individuals.

“There is probably a lesser likelihood that the average gamer will see these services and think that it’s an okay idea to purchase them,” Nixon said. “The ease of access to these booters services makes people think it’s okay to use them. In gaming circles, for example, people will often use them to DDoS one another and not realize they might be shutting down an innocent person’s network. Recognizing that this is criminal activity on the same level of criminal hacking and fraud may discourage people from using these services, meaning the casual actor may be less likely to buy a booter subscription and launch DDoS attacks.”

While a welcome development, the closure of the SST subforum almost seems somewhat arbitrary given the sheer amount of other illegal hacking activity that is blatantly advertised on Hackforums, Nixon said.

“It’s interesting the norms that are on this forum because they’re so different from how you or I would recognize acceptable behavior,” she said. “For example, most people would think it’s not acceptable to see booter services advertised alongside remote access Trojans, malware crypting services and botnets.”

Other questionable services and subsections advertised on Hackforums include those intended for the sale of hacked social media and e-commerce accounts. More shocking are the dozens of threads wherein Hackforums members advertise the sale of “girl slaves,” essentially access to hacked computers belonging to teenage girls who can be extorted and exploited for payment or naked pictures. It’s worth noting that the youth who was arrested for snapping nude pictures of Miss Teen USA Cassidy Wolf through her webcam was a regular user of Hackforums.

Hackforums users advertising the sale and procurement of "girl slaves."

Hackforums users advertising the sale and procurement of “girl slaves.”

Continue reading →


27
Oct 16

Are the Days of “Booter” Services Numbered?

It may soon become easier for Internet service providers to anticipate and block certain types of online assaults launched by Web-based attack-for-hire services known as “booter” or “stresser” services, new research released today suggests.

The findings come from researchers in Germany who’ve been studying patterns that emerge when miscreants attempt to mass-scan the entire Internet looking for systems useful for launching these digital sieges — known as “distributed denial-of-service” or DDoS attacks.

ddosbomb

To understand the significance of their research, it may help to briefly examine how DDoS attacks have evolved. Not long ago, if one wanted to take down large Web site, one had to build and maintain a large robot network, or “botnet,” of hacked computers — which is a fairly time intensive, risky and technical endeavor.

These days, however, even the least sophisticated Internet user can launch relatively large DDoS attacks just by paying a few bucks for a subscription to one of dozens of booter or stresser services, some of which even accept credit cards and PayPal payments.

These Web-based DDoS-for-hire services don’t run on botnets: They generally employ a handful of powerful servers that are rented from some dodgy “bulletproof” hosting provider. The booter service accepts payment and attack instructions via a front end Web site that is hidden behind Cloudflare (a free DDoS protection service).

But the back end of the booter service is where the really interesting stuff happens. Virtually all of the most powerful and effective attack types used by booter services rely on a technique called traffic amplification and reflection, in which the attacker can reflect or “spoof” his traffic from one or more third-party machines toward the intended target.

In this type of assault, the attacker sends a message to a third party, while spoofing the Internet address of the victim. When the third party replies to the message, the reply is sent to the victim — and the reply is much larger than the original message, thereby amplifying the size of the attack.

To find vulnerable systems that can be leveraged this way, booters employ large-scale Internet scanning services that constantly seek to refresh the list of systems that can be used for amplification and reflection attacks. They do this because, as research has shown (PDF), anywhere from 40-50 percent of the amplifiers vanish or are reassigned new Internet addresses after one week.

Enter researchers from Saarland University in Germany, as well as the Yokohama National University and National Institute of Information and Communications Technology — both in Japan. In a years-long project first detailed in 2015, the researchers looked for scanning that appeared to be kicked off by ne’er-do-wells running booter services.

To accomplish this, the research team built a kind of distributed “honeypot” system — which they dubbed “AmpPot” — designed to mimic services known to be vulnerable to amplification attacks, such as DNS and NTP floods.

“To make them attractive to attackers, our honeypots send back legitimate responses,” the researchers wrote in a 2015 paper (PDF). “Attackers, in turn, will abuse these honeypots as amplifiers, which allows us to observe ongoing attacks, their victims, and the DDoS techniques. To prevent damage caused by our honeypots, we limit the response rate. This way, while attackers can still find these ratelimited honeypots, the honeypots stop replying in the face of attacks.”

In that 2015 paper, the researchers said they deployed 21 globally-distributed AmpPot instances, which observed more than 1.5 million attacks between February and May 2015. Analyzing the attacks more closely, they found that more than 96% of the attacks stem from single sources, such as booter services.

“When focusing on amplification DDoS attacks, we find that almost all of them (>96%) are caused by single sources (e.g. booters), and not botnets,” the team concluded. “However, we sadly do not have the numbers to compare this [to] DoS attacks in general.”

Many large-scale Internet scans like the ones the researchers sought to measure are launched by security firms and other researchers, so the team needed a way to differentiate between scans launched by booter services and those conducted for research or other benign purposes.

“To distinguish between scans performed by researchers and scans performed with malicious intent we relied on a simple assumption: That no attack would be based on the results of a scan performed by (ethical) researchers,” said Johannes Krupp, one of the main authors of the report. “In fact, thanks to our methodology, we do not have to make this distinction upfront, but we can rather look at the results and say: ‘We found attacks linked to this scanner, therefore this scanner must have been malicious.’ If a scan was truly performed by benign parties, we will not find attacks linked to it.”

SECRET IDENTIFIERS

What’s new in the paper being released today by students at Saarland University’s Center for IT-Security, Privacy and Accountability (CISPA) is the method by which the researchers were able to link these mass-scans to the very amplification attacks that follow soon after.

The researchers worked out a way to encode a secret identifier into the set of AmpPot honeypots that any subsequent attack will use, which varies per scan source. They then tested to see if the scan infrastructure was also used to actually launch (and not just to prepare) the attacks. Continue reading →


20
Sep 16

DDoS Mitigation Firm Has History of Hijacks

Last week, KrebsOnSecurity detailed how BackConnect Inc. — a company that defends victims against large-scale distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks — admitted to hijacking hundreds of Internet addresses from a European Internet service provider in order to glean information about attackers who were targeting BackConnect. According to an exhaustive analysis of historic Internet records, BackConnect appears to have a history of such “hacking back” activity.

On Sept. 8, 2016, KrebsOnSecurity exposed the inner workings of vDOS, a DDoS-for-hire or “booter” service whose tens of thousands of paying customers used the service to launch attacks against hundreds of thousands of targets over the service’s four-year history in business.

vDOS as it existed on Sept. 8, 2016.

vDOS as it existed on Sept. 8, 2016.

Within hours of that story running, the two alleged owners — 18-year-old Israeli men identified in the original report — were arrested in Israel in connection with an FBI investigation into the shady business, which earned well north of $600,000 for the two men.

In my follow-up report on their arrests, I noted that vDOS itself had gone offline, and that automated Twitter feeds which report on large-scale changes to the global Internet routing tables observed that vDOS’s provider — a Bulgarian host named Verdina[dot]net — had been briefly relieved of control over 255 Internet addresses (including those assigned to vDOS) as the direct result of an unusual counterattack by BackConnect.

Asked about the reason for the counterattack, BackConnect CEO Bryant Townsend confirmed to this author that it had executed what’s known as a “BGP hijack.” In short, the company had fraudulently “announced” to the rest of the world’s Internet service providers (ISPs) that it was the rightful owner of the range of those 255 Internet addresses at Verdina occupied by vDOS.

In a post on NANOG Sept. 13, BackConnect’s Townsend said his company took the extreme measure after coming under a sustained DDoS attack thought to have been launched by a botnet controlled by vDOS. Townsend explained that the hijack allowed his firm to “collect intelligence on the actors behind the botnet as well as identify the attack servers used by the booter service.”

Short for Border Gateway Protocol, BGP is a mechanism by which ISPs of the world share information about which providers are responsible for routing Internet traffic to specific addresses. However, like most components built into the modern Internet, BGP was never designed with security in mind, which leaves it vulnerable to exploitation by rogue actors.

BackConnect’s BGP hijack of Verdina caused quite an uproar among many Internet technologists who discuss such matters at the mailing list of the North American Network Operators Group (NANOG).

BGP hijacks are hardly unprecedented, but when they are non-consensual they are either done accidentally or are the work of cyber criminals such as spammers looking to hijack address space for use in blasting out junk email. If BackConnect’s hijacking of Verdina was an example of a DDoS mitigation firm “hacking back,” what would discourage others from doing the same, they wondered?

“Once we let providers cross the line from legal to illegal actions, we’re no better than the crooks, and the Internet will descend into lawless chaos,” wrote Mel Beckman, owner of Beckman Software Engineering and a computer networking consultant in the Los Angeles area. “BackConnect’s illicit action undoubtedly injured innocent parties, so it’s not self defense, any more than shooting wildly into a crowd to stop an attacker would be self defense.”

A HISTORY OF HIJACKS

Townsend’s explanation seemed to produce more questions than answers among the NANOG crowd (read the entire “Defensive BGP Hijacking” thread here if you dare). I grew more curious to learn whether this was a pattern for BackConnect when I started looking deeper into the history of two young men who co-founded BackConnect (more on them in a bit).

To get a better picture of BackConnect’s history, I turned to BGP hijacking expert Doug Madory, director of Internet analysis at Dyn, a cloud-based Internet performance management company. Madory pulled historic BGP records for BackConnect, and sure enough a strange pattern began to emerge.

Madory was careful to caution up front that not all BGP hijacks are malicious. Indeed, my DDoS protection provider — a company called Prolexic Communications (now owned by Akamai Technologies) — practically invented the use of BGP hijacks as a DDoS mitigation method, he said.

In such a scenario, an organization under heavy DDoS attack might approach Prolexic and ask for assistance. With the customer’s permission, Prolexic would use BGP to announce to the rest of the world’s ISPs that it was now the rightful owner of the Internet addresses under attack. This would allow Prolexic to “scrub” the customer’s incoming Web traffic to drop data packets designed to knock the customer offline — and forward the legitimate traffic on to the customer’s site.

Given that BackConnect is also a DDoS mitigation company, I asked Madory how one could reasonably tell the difference between a BGP hijack that BackConnect had launched to protect a client versus one that might have been launched for other purposes — such as surreptitiously collecting intelligence on DDoS-based botnets and their owners?

Madory explained that in evaluating whether a BGP hijack is malicious or consensual, he looks at four qualities: The duration of the hijack; whether it was announced globally or just to the target ISP’s local peers; whether the hijacker took steps to obfuscate which ISP was doing the hijacking; and whether the hijacker and hijacked agreed upon the action.

bcbgp

For starters, malicious BGP attacks designed to gather information about an attacking host are likely to be very brief — often lasting just a few minutes. The brevity of such hijacks makes them somewhat ineffective at mitigating large-scale DDoS attacks, which often last for hours at a time. For example, the BGP hijack that BackConnect launched against Verdina lasted a fraction of an hour, and according to the company’s CEO was launched only after the DDoS attack subsided.

Second, if the party conducting the hijack is doing so for information gathering purposes, that party may attempt to limit the number ISPs that receive the new routing instructions. This might help an uninvited BGP hijacker achieve the end result of intercepting traffic to and from the target network without informing all of the world’s ISPs simultaneously.

“If a sizable portion of the Internet’s routers do not carry a route to a DDoS mitigation provider, then they won’t be sending DDoS traffic destined for the corresponding address space to the provider’s traffic scrubbing centers, thus limiting the efficacy of any mitigation,” Madory wrote in his own blog post about our joint investigation.

Thirdly, a BGP hijacker who is trying not to draw attention to himself can “forge” the BGP records so that it appears that the hijack was performed by another party. Madory said this forgery process often fools less experienced investigators, but that ultimately it is impossible to hide the true origin of forged BGP records.

Finally, in BGP hijacks that are consensual for DDoS mitigation purposes, the host under attack stops “announcing” to the world’s ISPs that it is the rightful owner of an address block under siege at about the same time the DDoS mitigation provider begins claiming it. When we see BGP hijacks in which both parties are claiming in the BGP records to be authoritative for a given swath of Internet addresses, Madory said, it’s less likely that the BGP hijack is consensual.

Madory and KrebsOnSecurity spent several days reviewing historic records of BGP hijacks attributed to BackConnect over the past year, and at least three besides the admitted hijack against Verdina strongly suggest that the company has engaged in this type of intel-gathering activity previously. The strongest indicator of a malicious and non-consensual BGP hijack, Madory said, were the ones that included forged BGP records. Continue reading →