The Ghostnet botnet attack that has successfully exploited computer systems within government networks around the globe is being driven in part by an easy-to-use malware authoring toolkit that allows for simple and rapid propagation, researchers contend.
Ghostnet, which was discovered by a group of college researchers in Canada and first reported last week, has purportedly snaked its way into a number of government agencies worldwide, with a particular focus on nations in Southeast Asia.
Researchers at Symantec say they've now isolated a key part of the botnet's proliferation strategy in the form of the malware toolkit.
Rather than being the work of one particular group, as one might assume, the toolkit approach likely indicates that the attack is being backed by a group of different organizations, Symantec researcher Ben Nahorney writes in a blog post.
The particular element of the threat that is being produced using the toolkit actually creates the backdoor in infected systems that allows subsequent attacks to take root, the expert maintains.
"This threat, named Backdoor.Ghostnet, can easily be created by just about anyone who can work their way around the toolset - and the toolset is built to be very easy to use. Just fill out a few fields, click a few buttons, and you have your back door executable at the ready. Once a hacker has succeeded in running the threat on a computer, the toolset is there with a simple-to-use GUI," Nahorney said.
Symantec has pieced together a video of the attack's interface, available here.
"While we may not have a smoking gun showing this botnet as the work of any government organization, it is very clear that the groups behind the tools are organized and making it very easy for individuals to participate in these attacks," the researcher said.
The University of Toronto researchers who discovered Ghostnet have suggested that the attack was likely born in China, and that it may be under the control of the Chinese government itself, based on the behaviors they've observed.
However, the Chinese government has reportedly already denied any role in creating or controlling the botnet, which has been discovered of all places on the computing systems that belong to the banished Tibetian Dalai Lama.
The Conficker botnet attack has drawn tons of attention largely because it has grown so massive that people think it could be used to carry out some sort of widespread coordinated cyber attack or DoS campaign.
But, lest anyone think that's some new phenomenon - it's pretty likely that governments around the globe are already amassing the types of capabilities they need to be ready to launch or respond to just such a strike.
Cyber-warfare as a subject matter has been quite literally a moving target with a lot of theorizing in the public domain and too few available details of what's actually been happening.
Something tells me that even if the Obama administration adopts the level of operational transparency that it has promised to bring to the White House over the next four years that we still won't be getting a lot of detailed info on these types of operations.
Because every state has its secrets, right?
Matt Hines has been following the IT industry for over a decade as a reporter and blogger, and has been specifically focused on the security space since 2003, including a previous stint writing for eWeek and contributing to the Security Watch blog. Hines is currently employed as marketing communications manager at Core Security Technologies, a Boston-based maker of security testing software. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of Core Security, and neither the company, nor its products and services will be actively discussed in the blog. Please send news, research or tips to SecurityWatchBlog@gmail.com.