On the trail of servers gone bad

'Honeyclient' Web crawlers try to find source of botnets

'That's what makes the botnet challenge so vexing. It is very difficult to trace back to the botnet herder.' ' Greg Garcia, DHS

GCN Photo by Rick Steele

LANDO, Fla. ' Federal agencies increasingly are seeking out fledgling 'honeyclient' technology to detect and analyze Web sites that contain and distribute malware, cybersecurity experts say.

The honeyclient apps built by Mitre are virtual machines, trolling the Web to detect sites that reveal signs of malware when evaluated against the baseline performance of safe sites, said computer scientist Kathy Wang, lead infosec engineer/scientist at Mitre.

Honeyclients 'provide the capability to potentially detect client-side exploits' that can be used in malware attacks, Wang said during a presentation at the recent GFirst conference here. GFirst is an acronym for Government Forum of Incident Response and Security Teams. Her previous published work on the topic has described Army honeyclient research, among other aspects of the field.

The exploits on the malicious sites often allow the server operator to enslave the PCs of unsuspecting visitors on a bot herd of zombie computers. Malicious coders routinely sell newly discovered exploits ' of the Microsoft Vista operating system, for example ' at prices as high as $250,000 for the most valuable vulnerabilities, cybersecurity experts said.

Botnet herders, in turn, rent out the capability of their hijacked computers at rates ranging from a few cents a month for a home computer to several dollars monthly for a PC inside a corporate network, the cybersecurity specialists said. Criminals and terrorists are willing to pay those rates to broadcast malicious spam and other attacks, they added.

Mitre now operates six autonomous honeyclients, which navigate the Web in a spider-like fashion as they hunt for potentially malicious servers, Wang said. The honeyclients report their findings about suspect sites and servers back to Mitre for analysis, she said.

Several federal agencies are in discussions with Wang and her Mitre colleagues about how to use honeyclients to proactively identify and counteract malicious servers, she said.

'The attackers are starting to include honeyclient avoidance technology on malicious servers,' she told the audience of cybersecurity professionals. Wang said the operators of malicious sites have started to use features in their servers that can distinguish between a visit by a human and a visit by a honeyclient virtual machine.

As a result, Wang said, 'we are building a human-like honeyclient prototype.' The prototype will mimic human behavior partly by showing the delays and bandwidth footprint that human visitors show when they check a site.

The Mitre software is available via the company's Web site as open-source code based on VMWare Server, which also is open source.

'You will need [Microsoft] Windows and as many analysts as you can afford' to set up a honeyclient operation, Wang said. Her organization has detected many more suspect sites and servers than it has time to fully analyze with its available staff of software engineers.

Greg Garcia, the Homeland Security Department's assistant secretary for cybersecurity and communications, said his organization had received more than 21,000 reports of cyberincidents through May of this fiscal year, in contrast to about 24,000 during all of fiscal 2006.

'Phishing attacks accounted for about 72 percent of complaints in the most recent quarter,' Garcia said in his opening remarks.

He highlighted the importance of the sector-specific infrastructure protection plans that DHS released in May. Adding operational content to those plans is a major department goal for the rest of this year and beyond, he added.
DHS worked with infrastructure-sector teams known as information sharing and analysis centers (ISACs) to frame the plans.

Speaking during a subsequent panel alongside leaders of the Information Technology and Communications ISACs, Garcia said he and his industry peers would work during the coming months to combine the operational functions of the two industry groups. 'Increasingly, we are finding that IT and communications are one and the same,' Garcia said.

'We are working with the IT ISAC [and its communications counterpart] to co-locate them under one roof to increase the level of integration and situational awareness,' Garcia said. 'This is a longer-term objective of mine and one we are getting started on right now.'

In a separate, private interview, Garcia cited the role of botnets during recent cyberattacks on Estonian government and commercial sites. In botnet incidents, Garcia said, 'attribution is really difficult. Before you declare war, you have to know who the enemy is.

'That's what makes the botnet challenge so vexing,' Garcia added. 'It is very difficult to trace back to the botnet herder. We have a working group within the National Cyber Response Coordination Group working to understand botnets better, to deal with them and stop them.'


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