Saturday, November 20, 2010

Koobface report

I spent some time reading Nart Villeneuve's fascinating report on the Koobface botnet. The report is well-written and clear, and although it's long, it doesn't take very long to read, so if you have the time, check it out. It's a detailed and broad-ranging investigation of one of the large crimeware systems infesting the Internet.

Many malware investigations look just at technical issues: vulnerabilities, exploits, defense mechanisms, etc. I love learning about that technology, but there is a lot more to malware than just the technology: social, political, and financial aspects are all part of modern organized crime on the Internet. The Koobface study is particularly worth reading because it does a good job of exploring many of these non-computer-science aspects of the malware problem. From the report's executive summary:

The contents of these archives revealed the malware, code, and database used to maintain Koobface. It also revealed information about Koobface's affiliate programs and monetization strategies. While the technical aspects of the Koobface malware have been well-documented, this report focuses on the inner workings of the Koobface botnet with an emphasis on propagation strategies, security measures, and Koobface's business model.

Wait, botnets have a business model?

Well, of course they do.

For far too long, media and popular culture have categorized malware as originating from either:

  • A lone, socially-maladjusted, brilliant-but-deranged psychopathic individual, who for reasons of mental illness constructs damaging software and looses it upon the world, or

  • A governmentally-backed military organization, which thinks of computers, networks, and information in attack-and-defense terms, and operates computer security software for military purposes.

While both these categories do exist, a major point of the Koobface report is to show that the category of modern organized crime is at least as important in the spread and operationg of malware on the net, and to help us understand how those crime organizations operate malware systems for profit.

The report is divided into two major sections:

  1. The Botnet

  2. The Money

The first section deals with operational issues: "propagation strategies, command and control infrastructure, and the ways in which the Koobface operators monitor their system and employ counter-measures against the security community".

The second section explains "the ways in which the Koobface operators monetize their activities and provides an analysis of Koobface's financial records".

The report ends with some social and political analysis and offers some recommendations to law enforcement and security organizations about how they can evolve to address these evolving threats.

Let me particularly draw your attention to the second section, "The Money".

It is absolutely fascinating to understand how botnets such as these profit, by providing a business model that is almost, yet not quite, legitimate, and how close it is to the core business models that are driving the Internet:

The Koobface operators maintain a server ... [ which ] ... receives intercepted search queries from victims' computers and relays this information to Koobface's PPC [pay-per-click] affiliates. The affiliates then provide advertisement links that are sent to the user. When the user attempts to click on the search results, they are sent to one of the provided advertisement links...

That's right: Koobface operates, and makes money, by doing essentially the same things that core Internet companies such as Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo do:

  • Provide search services

  • Provide advertising services

  • Match individuals searching for items with others who are offering products

The report links to a great Trend Micro blog explaining this "stolen click" technique, also known as "browser hijacking", in more detail:

Browser hijacker Trojans refer to a family of malware that redirects their victims away from the sites they want to visit. In particular, search engine results are often hijacked by this type of malware. A search on popular search engines like Google, Yahoo!, or Bing still works as usual. However, once victims click a search result or a sponsored link, they are instead directed to a foreign site so the hijacker can monetize their clicks.

The history of organized crime is long and well-researched; I have nothing particular to contribute to this, and it's not my field. However, I find it very interesting to learn about it, and I hope that you'll find it worthwhile to follow some of these references and learn more about it, too.

Now it's time to "pop the stack" and get back to studying the changed I/O dispatching prioritization in Windows 2008 Server as compared to Windows 2003 Server. Ah, yes, computer science, yummm, something I understand... :)

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