Posts Tagged: botnets

Jul 15

Hacking Team Used Spammer Tricks to Resurrect Spy Network

Last week, hacktivists posted online 400 GB worth of internal emails, documents and other data stolen from Hacking Team, an Italian security firm that has earned the ire of privacy and civil liberties groups for selling spy software to governments worldwide. New analysis of the leaked Hacking Team emails suggests that in 2013 the company used techniques perfected by spammers to hijack Internet address space from a spammer-friendly Internet service provider in a bid to regain control over a spy network it apparently had set up for the Italian National Military Police.


Hacking Team is in the business of selling exploits that allow clients to secretly deploy spyware on targeted systems. In just the past week since the Hacking Team data was leaked, for example, Adobe has fixed two previously undocumented zero-day vulnerabilities in its Flash Player software that Hacking Team had sold to clients as spyware delivery mechanisms.

The spyware deployed by Hacking Team’s exploits are essentially remote-access Trojan horse programs designed to hoover up stored data, recorded communications, keystrokes, etc. from infected devices, giving the malware’s operator full control over victim machines.

Systems infested with Hacking Team’s malware are configured to periodically check for new instructions or updates at a server controlled by Hacking Team and/or its clients. This type of setup is very similar to the way spammers and cybercriminals design “botnets,” huge collections of hacked PCs that are harvested for valuable data and used for a variety of nefarious purposes.

No surprise, then, that Hacking Team placed its control servers in this case at an ISP that was heavily favored by spammers. Leaked Hacking Team emails show that in 2013, the company set up a malware control server for the Special Operations Group of the Italian National Military Police — also known as the “Carabinieri” — an entity focused on investigating organized crime and terrorism. One or both of these organizations chose to position that control at Santrex, a notorious Web hosting provider that at the time served as a virtual haven for spammers and malicious software downloads.

But that decision backfired. As I documented in October 2013, Santrex unexpectedly shut down all of its servers, following a series of internal network issues and extensive downtime. Santrex made that decision after several months of incessant attacks, hacks and equipment failures at its facilities caused massive and costly problems for the ISP and its customers. The company’s connectivity problems essentially made it impossible for either Hacking Team or the Carabinieri to maintain control over the machines infected with the spyware.

According to research published Sunday by OpenDNS Security Labs, around that same time the Carabinieri and Hacking Team cooked up a plan to regain control over the Internet addresses abandoned by Santrex. The plan centered around a traffic redirection technique known as “BGP hijacking,” which involves one ISP fraudulently “announcing” to the rest of the world’s ISPs that it is in fact the rightful custodian of a dormant range of Internet addresses that it doesn’t actually have the right to control.

IP address hijacking is hardly a new phenomenon. Spammers sometimes hijack Internet address ranges that go unused for periods of time (see this story from 2014 and this piece I wrote in 2008 for The Washington Post for examples of spammers hijacking Internet space). Dormant or “unannounced” address ranges are ripe for abuse partly because of the way the global routing system works: Miscreants can “announce” to the rest of the Internet that their hosting facilities are the authorized location for given Internet addresses. If nothing or nobody objects to the change, the Internet address ranges fall into the hands of the hijacker. Continue reading →

Jul 11

Where Have All the Spambots Gone?

First, the good news: The past year has witnessed the decimation of spam volume, the arrests of several key hackers, and the high-profile takedowns of some of the Web’s most notorious botnets. The bad news? The crooks behind these huge crime machines are fighting back — devising new approaches designed to resist even the most energetic takedown efforts.

The volume of junk email flooding inboxes each day is way down from a year ago, as much as a 90 percent decrease according to some estimates. Symantec reports that spam volumes hit their high mark in July 2010, when junk email purveyors were blasting in excess of 225 billion spam messages per day. The company says daily spam volumes now hover between 25 and 50 billion missives daily. Anti-spam experts from Cisco Systems are tracking a similarly precipitous decline, from 300 billion per day in June 2010 to just 40 billion in June 2011.

Spam messages per day, July 2010 - July 2011. Image courtesy Symantec.

There may be many reasons for the drop in junk email volumes, but it would be a mistake to downplay efforts by law enforcement officials and security experts.  In the past year, authorities have taken down some of the biggest botnets and apprehended several top botmasters. Most recently, the FBI worked with dozens of ISPs to kneecap the Coreflood botnet. In April, Microsoft launched an apparently successful sneak attack against Rustock, a botnet once responsible for sending 40 percent of all junk email.

Daily spam volume July 2010 - July 2011. Image courtesy

In December 2010, the FBI arrested a Russian accused of running the Mega-D botnet. In October 2010, authorities in the Netherlands arrested the alleged creator of the Bredolab botnet and dismantled huge chunks of the botnet. A month earlier,, one of the biggest spammer affiliate programs ever created, was shut down when its creator, Igor Gusev, was named the world’s number one spammer and went into hiding. In August 2010, researchers clobbered the Pushdo botnet, causing spam from that botnet to slow to a trickle.

But botmasters are not idly standing by while their industry is dismantled. Analysts from Kaspersky Lab this week published research on a new version of the TDSS malware (a.k.a. TDL), a sophisticated malicious code family that includes a powerful rootkit component that compromises PCs below the operating system level, making it extremely challenging to detect and remove. The latest version of TDSS — dubbed TDL-4 has already infected 4.5 million PCs; it uses a custom encryption scheme that makes it difficult for security experts to analyze traffic between hijacked PCs and botnet controllers. TDL-4 control networks also send out instructions to infected PCs using a peer-to-peer network that includes multiple failsafe mechanisms.

Continue reading →

Jan 10

The Democratization of Espionage

Ten to fifteen years ago, if you were going to be the target of state sponsored or corporate espionage, you yourself were going to be a government or a large corporation that had intellectual property or information that an adversary was going to have to invest a lot of time and effort to pry out of you. What we have seen over the last five to seven years is that the botnet has democratized that process, so that now an individual can commit his own intelligence reconnaissance and espionage, whether at arms length on behalf of a state, on his own, or whether he’s doing it for corporate espionage.

This is an excerpt from a column of mine that appeared today at CSOonline. Read the rest of it at this link here.