SAN FRANCISCO—A pair of security researchers speaking here at the ongoing RSA Conference Feb. 7 demonstrated their techniques for catching botnet operators who use secret legions of infected computers to distribute malware programs and violent political propaganda.
The botnet experts, both of whom are employed by anti-malware software maker FaceTime Communications, based in Foster City, Calif., detailed how they identified and pursued individuals believed to be responsible for running a pair of sophisticated botnet schemes, which have been subsequently shut down or significantly scaled back.
Addressing a packed room of conference attendees, Chris Boyd, director of malware research at FaceTime Security Labs, and Wayne Porter, director of special research for the company, detailed their efforts to infiltrate the botnet community and find the people responsible for running underground networks believed to have harbored as many as 150,000 compromised computers.
One of the botnets uncovered by the researchers was based in the United States and was used to deliver malware code including spyware that stole credit card data from e-commerce systems for the purpose of committing fraud. The other crimeware distribution campaign appears to have been used by radical Middle Eastern ideologists to espouse violent messages of world domination and steal money to buy satellites, radios and computer equipment.
Porter and Boyd offered a rare inside glimpse into the world of botnet herders, which the researchers entered by hanging out on the shady online bulletin boards and chat relays where the schemers meet to share the tricks of the trade and their malware programs. By luring the prolific fraudsters to offer details about their work, and spying on the criminals, the researchers claim to have pieced together the identities of several of the unsavory individuals and helped take down their networks of subverted machines.
In the case of the U.S.-based botnet, which was actually made up of two zombie networks, the operators secretly distributed a commercially available remote computer management application made by Famatech to unsuspecting end users via instant messaging systems and hid the program on their devices. Once the software was installed, the devious parties used it to load malware onto the machines, including a Perl script dubbed “Carder,” which takes advantage of holes in several e-commerce shopping cart applications to steal peoples usernames, passwords, credit card numbers and PayPal account information.
Starting with a tip from another malware researcher identified only by the screen name “Rince” about the people believed to be responsible for running the zombie network, FaceTimes Boyd—who is often identified by his own online alter-identity, “Paper Ghost”—said the sophisticated con game began to unravel.
After laying out so-called honey pots in hopes of finding the signature work of two of the suspected botnet purveyors, known by the comic booklike villain monikers MC-Zero and Ink, Boyd said the researchers found their quarry and began examining posts the individuals made to shadowy sites in which they bragged about elements of their attacks.
“You have to be careful that people arent just yanking your chain, but we tried to use social engineering to get as much information as possible about these botnets,” Boyd said. “You have to get information from nontraditional channels, and working with Rince we were soon looking at live feeds of their IRC chats.”
By taking the information the scammers unknowingly handed over to the researchers—which included pictures of their homes and cars—and determining where the individuals lived and carried out their work, the security experts were able to partner with ISPs to get the criminals respective botnets shut down.
In the case of the other zombie net, run by a group identifying itself as the Q8Army, individuals used IM-borne adware programs to deliver malware rootkits that stole credit card information for the purpose of committing fraud. The programs also served up pop-ups that carried URLs of militant Arabic Web sites that endorse violent means for achieving “world domination,” the researchers said.
Using a paper trail left by some of the URLs and related fraudulent transactions, the researchers traced the groups origin to unidentified positions in the Middle East and observed that some of the stolen funds were being used to buy mobile communications gear and used PCs.
After discovering the Q8Armys homepage, which carried custom hacking tools, programs for generating Trojan viruses and other malware applications, the researchers were able to have a set of U.S.-based servers used by the group taken offline, although the individuals remain active on systems located in Germany and the Middle East, according to Boyd.
The researchers said there will need to be even more widespread cooperation on the part of security experts, law enforcement officials and government regulators if more of the zombie computer networks are to be shuttered in the future. However, Boyd said it is smarter to take a slow approach that yields detailed information and more powerful results in identifying the scams, versus merely attacking the hijacked computers from which their work is being delivered.
“There are an awful lot of botnets out there, which encourages a whack-a-mole approach to shutting them down,” said the researcher. “By following the people who are actually responsible and building a case behind the scenes, we can actually do a lot more damage to them.”
FaceTimes Porter warned that the groups of criminals funding many of the zombie networks have amassed significant resources via their work and are increasingly luring unemployed programmers in countries including Russia to create new malware exploits that will help them continue to steal with success.
While many botnets last for only days and do relatively little damage, based on the shoddy nature of their execution, the most sophisticated operators will continue to find new ways to stay one step ahead of their pursuers, according to the expert.
“These groups now have significant research and development budgets, and weve literally seen billions of dollars flowing through these networks,” said Porter. “Even more scary—these botnet operators are mastering the art of contextual marketing and may become even more successful at delivering their attacks.”
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