A year ago today, Apple released a software update to halt the spread of the Flashback worm, a malware strain that infected more than 650,000 Mac OS X systems using a vulnerability in Apple’s version of Java. This somewhat dismal anniversary is probably as good a time as any to publish some clues I’ve gathered over the past year that point to the real-life identity of the Flashback worm’s creator.
Before I delve into the gritty details, a little background on this insidious contagion is in order. A keenly detailed research paper (PDF) published last year by Finnish security firm F-Secure puts the impact and threat from Flashback in perspective, noting that the malware boasted a series of “firsts” for its kind. For starters, Flashback was the first OS X malware to be “VMware aware” — or to know when it was being run in a virtual environment (a trick designed to frustrate security researchers). It also was the first to disable XProtect, OS X’s built-in malware protection program. These features, combined with its ability to spread through a then-unpatched vulnerability in Java made Flashback roughly as common for Macs as the Conficker Worm was for Windows PCs.
“This means Flashback is not only the most advanced, but also the most successful OS X malware we’ve ever seen,” wrote F-Secure’s Broderick Ian Aquilino.
The F-Secure writeup answers an important question not found in other analyses: Namely, what was the apparent intended purpose of Flashback? Put simply: to redirect Google results to third-party advertisers, all for the author’s profit. It’s name was derived from the fact that it spread using a social engineering trick of presenting the OS X user with a bogus Flash Player installation prompt. F-Secure notes that this same behavior — both the Flash social engineering trick and the redirection to fake Google sites that served search results for third-party advertisers that benefited the author — was also found in the QHost malware, suggesting that Flashback may have been the next evolution of the Mac QHost malware.
A year ago, I published a series that sought to identify the real-life hackers behind the top spam botnets. Using much the same methodology, I was able to identify and locate a young man in Russia who appears (and privately claims) to be the author of Flashback. As it happens, this individual hangs out on many of the same forums as the world’s top spammers (but more on that at another time).
Given Flashback’s focus on gaming Google’s ad networks, I suspected that the worm’s author probably was a key member of forums that focus on so-called “black hat SEO,” (search engine optimization), or learned in illicit ways to game search engines and manipulate ad revenues. Sure enough, this individual happens to be a very active and founding member of BlackSEO.com, a closely guarded Russian language forum dedicated to this topic.
Below is a screen shot taken from a private message between a “VIP” user named “Mavook” and a top forum member on BlackSEO.com. The conversation took place on July 14, 2012. A rough translation of their conversation is superimposed on the redacted screen grab, but basically it shows Mavook asking the senior member for help in gaining access to Darkode.com, a fairly exclusive English-language cybercrime forum (and one that I profiled in a story earlier this week).
Mavook asks the other member to get him an invitation to Darkode, and Mavook is instructed to come up with a brief bio stating his accomplishments, and to select a nickname to use on the forum if he’s invited. Mavook replies that the Darkode nick should be not be easily tied back to his BlackSEO persona, and suggests the nickname “Macbook.” He also states that he is the “Creator of Flashback botnet for Macs,” and that he specializes in “finding exploits and creating bots.”