Building a Router Botnet

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2009-03-24 Print this article Print


The problem with routers is that they're "set and forget" devices. Often they're designed to just work out of the box with no configuration at all. Users won't change the default admin password, they won't check to see if security options are turned on, and the last thing they would ever do is check to see if there's a firmware upgrade that fixes a serious vulnerability in the router. Who even realizes that these things are little computers?

It's also easy to imagine a router botnet being built off a Windows botnet. Once you have control of a system inside the network, it's easy to start probing the device at (or, in fact, whatever the address of the local gateway device is) with the same sort of dictionary attack used by Psyb0t. With some effort you could actually build a cross-platform bot with a standard series of interfaces.

The initial research shows that the Psyb0t botnet has at least 100,000 nodes in it, and this is from devices, according to the reports, that don't have much presence in the West. This paper on the Psyb0t botnet (PDF) discusses the hardware in more detail, including information about the vulnerabilities exploited. According to the paper:

Modems with similar hardware configurations (unknown brands) from Italy, Brazil, Ecuador, Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Peru, Malaysia, Columbia, India and Egypt (and likely more countries) also seem to be affected, and are spreading the bot.

There are, and have been for many years, Linux-based embedded devices popular in the United States and Europe, and they must have their own vulnerabilities. I'm expecting malware authors to be inspired by this to build similar networks. Consider this list of Linux router or firewall distributions as a starting point.

This makes these devices a mass community of targets for attacks on default configuration errors. And it all just goes to prove there's nothing inherent in Linux that makes it more secure. It's all about how you configure an operating system to function, out of the box and with user intervention. The main thing keeping Linux on the desktop out of botnets is the sophistication of its users. Without that, embedded Linux devices are only as secure as the vendors want to make them. Given that vendors will usually make the security versus ease of use trade-off in favor of ease, I think Psyb0t may just be the tip of the iceberg.

What can you do for your own devices? Apply the latest firmware and make sure they have nontrivial admin passwords. And if there's an option for remote administration, make sure it's turned off.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.

For insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer's blog Cheap Hack.

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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