Sobig Forensics in the

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2004-11-09 Print this article Print

Past"> The naming of Ibragimov is new, but the true function of Sobig was evident long ago. Mikko Hypponen, director of anti-virus research at Helsinki-based security software vendor F-Secure, evangelized the spam relay function of Sobig heavily in its heyday.

It was also noticed by all that versions of Sobig had expiration dates, shortly after which a new version would likely appear. Hypponen and other speculated at the time that these versions were written on contract for spammers and that the expirations were the enforcement of that contract. This doesnt sound all that different to me from what the anonymous report authors observe.

Anonymity of the sender is at the heart of both Send-Safe and Sobig, and a big reason for the FTC e-mail authentication summit in Washington last week. Sobig allows a spammer to use the infected system to send the e-mail; you might trace the mail back to that system, but not to the spammer, at least not easily.

A system of authentication wouldnt end spam, but it would make it much harder to send. Anonymous mail would be in a new, suspicious class of mail that users would eventually delete without scrutiny. Spam would likely authenticate to some actual domain if it wanted to get through. But what about open proxy engines like Sobig? They wouldnt make as much sense, unless they were modified to use the PCs ISP e-mail account to hide the sender. Since all those spam messages would come from the user of that computer, he would likely find out about it quickly.

Ibragimovs denials seem fishy, but like all the other evidence here you have to be skeptical of the presentation. The author of that article is also author of a book on big-time spammers. But Ibragimov says that the timing of version releases was pure coincidence, that his headers were designed to mimic those of Outlook Express, and that far from encouraging Trojaned proxy servers they have damaged his business. Theres reason to doubt all of this, but its hard to divorce all these judgments from the fact that Ibragimov is just plain detestable based on what he admits doing. For this reason, its important that the evidence be scrutinized carefully.

The report authors say they released the report now because it is one year since the creation of a rewards program funded by Microsoft for the apprehension of such malware writers. The Sobig author was one of the charter members of the Malware Rewards Club. The authors say they had already passed this information on to law enforcement authorities two months prior to the bounty program, so the reward was not their incentive.

But it makes you wonder about the whole thing: If all the authors claims are true, then either law enforcement (they dont say who exactly they contacted) is lazy or corrupt or incompetent. What needs to happen now is for someone to try to replicate this research—probably someone at an anti-spam and/or anti-virus firm—and go on record about it. The question then would be why Ibragimov is still at large and who at law enforcement dropped the ball. If the research doesnt pan out, we have to wonder who the "researchers" are.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983. Check out eWEEK.coms Security Center at for security news, views and analysis.
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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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