Attackers Back to Burying Victims in Data Deluge

Online criminals have stopped targeting application weaknesses, an attack method that could leave behind information about the attackers' botnets. Instead, they have gone back to basic data floods.

By: Robert Lemos

Online criminals are increasingly choosing to protect their botnets rather than using more effective denial-of-service attacks that potentially could reveal information about the makeup of their network of compromised computers, according to a report released by Internet security firm Prolexic.

Instead, these cyber-crooks are going back to basics and flooding users with basic Internet data.

The total number of distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks doubled in the second quarter of 2012, compared with the same quarter a year ago, but straightforward infrastructure attacks showed the greatest increases, jumping to 81 percent of all attacks from 70 percent a year ago, according to Prolexic's Quarterly Global DDoS Attack Report, which the company released July 17.

In the latest quarter, attacks against applications-mainly using Web protocols such as HTTP, Secure Sockets Layer and the Network Time Protocol-dropped by more than 50 percent to account for 19 percent of all attacks.

Attackers are likely increasingly wary of putting their botnets at risk of takedown by law enforcement. While infrastructure attacks can be accomplished using traffic with fake Internet addresses, application or "Layer 7," attacks are only effective if using the real address of the infected machine. When defenders see those real IP addresses, they can forward them on to police and blacklist administrators to effectively neuter the botnet, said Paul Sop, technology evangelist for Prolexic.

"When you have a real IP, if someone is actually going to do something with law enforcement and start doing takedowns with that IP, the days that your botnet is going to be around are numbered," he said.

The data in the report represents attacks aimed at companies protected by Prolexic's technology and systems, and that likely impacts cyber-criminals' approach to attacking those networks, Sop acknowledges. When attackers know there is a watchful defender, they will delay using attacks that could open their botnets to takedown. By using infrastructure attacks, the attackers are attempting to extend the lifetime of their botnets, said Sop.

In the second quarter of 2012, attackers were initially dormant. The first two weeks of April saw a decline in the number of attacks year-over-year. Throughout the rest of the month and May, attackers showed only slightly greater activity. In June, however, criminals started pounding the company's clients, leveling three-to-five times as many attacks in any given week. To Prolexic, the reason for the jump was clear.

"The dramatic increase in DDoS attacks during the month of June coincided with the UEFA Euro 2012 soccer tournament, which was held June 8 to July 1," the report stated. "These attacks primarily targeted the online gaming industry."

Computers in China accounted for a third of all machines used in the data floods making it the No. 1 source of attacks. Thailand, a newcomer to the Top 10 list, took second place with nearly a quarter of all attacks, while the United States came in a distant third place, accounting for nearly 9 percent of attacks.

One reason for the general increase in DDoS attacks is the availability of easy-to-use tools, such as the Low-Orbit Ion Cannon. Another popular attack tool that has gained in popularity is Dirt Jumper-bot software that includes anti-DDoS functionality. Prolexic expects that DDoS attacks will continue to rise across all industries.

"This indicates the barrier to entry has been significantly lowered for malicious actors who seek to participate in denial-of-service attacks through improved accessibility to no-cost and simple, yet powerful tools," the report states.