Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Multitenancy Botnets Thwart Threat Analysis

There was a great thread on the mailing list today regarding writing IDS signatures for a recent botnet communications channel.  This a very typical topic for discussion on the list, but in researching possible signatures, I found some surprisingly easy to observe communication of a compromised asset with is controller which shows how difficult it is to parameterize the threat of a given botnet.  Even labeling a botnet has grown extremely difficult as the codebases for each botnet are so intertwined that the tell-tale characteristics of each one blend until there's little distinction between them.  This makes attribution of attacks very difficult and provides a fair amount of anonymity through abstraction to the botnet masters.

As the exploit and agent codebases converge, the best parts of each are being used which is allowing small-time, novice crooks all the advantages of the highly effective hacking and command-and-control frameworks that used to be available only to the best criminals.  The increasingly assimilated code also allows researchers fewer opportunities for attribution via inference.

A positive on the defender's side of this arms race is that the converged code means that fewer IDS signatures need to be written, though the increasing surreptitiousness of the command frameworks continues to make this a constant challenge.

As the code converges, so does the consumers of the services the bot agents provide.  A recent article by Brian Krebs looked at the convergence between cyber criminals and cyber spies.  What I observed today certainly supports a corollary to that theory in which cyber criminals sell services to hacktivists.

During routine incident response, we discovered a compromised workstation which tripped the "ET TROJAN W32/Jorik DDOS Instructions From CnC Server" IDS signature.  When we pulled the traffic up using StreamDB, we were presented with the clear-text HTTP communications between the bot and its master.  The messaging looked almost identical to that of the Anubis report pcap referred to on the mailing list:

POST /sedo.php HTTP/1.0
Keep-Alive: 300
Connection: keep-alive
Content-Type: application/x-www-form-urlencoded
Content-Length: 49

id=pc5_916a4f72ffa89a4e&s5_uidx=1337&os=2600&s5=0HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Server: nginx/1.2.0
Date: Tue, 08 May 2012 21:40:51 GMT
Content-Type: text/plain
Connection: close
X-Powered-By: PHP/5.3.12


This is an HTTP POST from the infected Anubis sandbox client to the botnet controller located in the SYS4NET virtual private server host in Alcantarilla, Spain.  The client reports its name and proxy information and is given commands, which in this case, are to download two executables and run them, then start a denial of service attack on (  The bot then proceeded to send 10 HTTP requests per second to that site for 100 seconds.

On our network, our infected machine received slightly different commands:


It downloaded a similar executable, but its denial of service attack was 10 SYN packets per second for 120 seconds against (

What is interesting is that both of these sites are related to Egyptian politics, and if I'm reading the translated page correctly, caters to Coptic Christians in Egypt.  Egypt is still in some turmoil during elections after last year's Arab Spring, and so it makes sense that hacktivists would attack rival political groups and sites affiliated with demographics belonging to those political groups.

So, this botnet is definitely receiving hacktivist commands from a Spanish IP.  However, before, during and after the denial of service attack was launched from this infected machine, it relayed any posted credentials made by the user from a web browser.  In fact, in the same second that it received its commands to begin the attack, it posted encrypted Yahoo mail credentials (the user had just then logged into Yahoo) back to a separate command and control server at  Meanwhile, it's pulling a "feed" from malicious domain ( which gives it a batch of click fraud to start with SEO keyword "1 year lpn schools georgia" and the faked referrer of ""

Just as cloud providers provide multitenancy models to maximize hardware efficiency, the botnet masters are renting out their services to more and more customers.  This makes it impossible to use characteristics of an infection vector, payload, or even bot agent code as an indicator of what threat the compromised asset poses to the business.  It could launch a denial of service attack, steal passwords, initiate click fraud, or all three at the same time.  It may also be conducting industrial espionage, but I have yet to find an instance of that in the wild.

This is compounded by the fact that the criminals in charge of running the exploit kits such as Blackhole, Scalaxy, Incognito, etc. (which share much of the same codebase), are separate entities from those that actually use the bots.  For instance, here's the infected asset, having just been compromised with a Blackhole kit, checking in to credit the exploit kit admin with a new install:

GET /api/stats/install/?&affid=56300&ver=3040003&group=sf HTTP/1.1
Accept: *//*
User-Agent: Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 7.0; Windows NT 5.1; GTB0.0; .NET CLR 1.1.4322)

This is on completely separate infrastructure from the rest of the botnet and represents the segregated "duties" of the criminals.  One is in the business of getting an agent loaded on a host, for which he is paid a small sum on a per-host basis, the other is in the business of using these agents to rent out in the multitenancy model described above.

This can create a real problem when trying to summarize an incident for the customer or for management, because what may start as a simple adware install could have the potential for any part of the cybercrime spectrum.  It also presents a difficult situation for defenders:  It's easy to identify the adware and declare the case closed, but responders must be diligent and follow-up on all actions the host took while compromised because the presence of adware does not preclude far more nefarious actions.

Above all, this should make it obvious that finding and containing compromises is of paramount importance to the business, because any compromised asset is becoming increasingly available to a growing blackmarketplace of criminal consumers.

Edit (5/10/2012):  Looks like Dancho Danchev has a post showing what the console for this kind of botnet looks like.