Tag Archives: Security

Russian botnet master nabbed in Spain, extradited to US

This is a story that has been ongoing for some time. Pyotr Levashov, a well-known and well-established Russian cybercriminal who was arrested in April of last year (2017 if you’re reading this in the distant future – welcome alien overlords!) while vacationing in Spain, has finally been extradited to the U.S. Apparently cybercriminaling does pay well sometimes. The arrest was based on a formal U.S. Department of Justice indictment against him for, among other things, operating the Kelihos Botnet, a long-running, expansive, global botnet that bombarded the world with all kinds of spam for nonsense like get-rich-quick schemes and enhancement medications; if you’re interested, and you should be, you can read the DOJ press release about the indictment and the actual search warrant that allowed for their infiltration of the botnet.

Before we continue, let’s talk about what a botnet is. When malware, or bad software (get it? Mal ware?), is surreptitiously installed on your machine, either through a drive-by attack in which it’s embedded in a Flash ad, or you click on a link or file from a rogue email, or one of many other attack vectors, it will use your machine to carry out tasks without your permission, involvement, or even knowledge. And just to be sure, those tasks it’s carrying out are bad. It can use your machine to send spam, participate in DDoS attacks, store harmful or illegal files, and many other unethical / criminal activities, all without you ever being privy to what’s going on. When that happens, your machine is what’s known as a zombie computer, or more commonly, a bot. Now, imagine hundreds of thousands of these infected machines all acting in unison, for a common goal or under a central control authority. That’s a botnet. Here’s an effective graphic from Reuters that illustrates the architecture of a botnet.

Typical botnet architecture (Source: Reuters)

Typical botnet architecture (Source: Reuters)

I wanted to embed an interactive map from Arbor Networks that shows real time attacks happening right now, and provides historical data, but their embed code which uses iframes doesn’t work on WordPress. I find it strange a security firm would still be supplying iframe embed codes, but who am I to judge? No matter; there are other sites that provide similar information using their own honeypot networks, such as Kaspersky’s real-time threat map and the well-known Norsecorp map. Actually, I had intended to use Norsecorp’s IPViking map, however it is now run under HP’s banner, although powered by Norse, and I simply couldn’t get it to work in any browser. Their map linked above works beautifully, though.

Kaspersky's Threat Map

Kaspersky’s Threat Map

Norsecorp's Threat Map

Norsecorp’s Threat Map

There are several interesting facets to this case: The first is, this guy has been around a long time and was one of the bad actors behind the Storm botnet that first manifested all the way back in 2007. That botnet was eventually dismantled by the combined efforts of Microsoft, malware firms, and the feds, a partnership and collaboration that continues to this day. We’ll come back to this particular botnet soon, because the architecture of these things is going to become important.

By soon, I mean right now! Another interesting aspect to this case is that the botnet was very sophisticated. It used a hybrid structure that is unusual for this kind of thing. Botnets are typically peer-to-peer, in which all the infected machines communicate with each other to coordinate and carry out their nefarious activities, or they use what’s known as a C&C, or Command and Control server, that oversees the whole thing and controls the botnet form a more centralized location. That allows better control and oversight of the bots.

Kelihos, however, was a hybrid, in which there was a C&C server, but there was also a peer-to-peer aspect as there was some autonomy in the architecture that allowed the bots to continuously update among themselves a list of secondary control servers to which they would report, and those would be directly overseen by the main C&C. This is in direct contrast to the Storm botnet mentioned earlier, which was pure peer to peer. A hybrid network also allows for rapid updates to, and distribution of, associated malware.

That leads to the next neat(?) thing about the botnet: It was aggressively and frequently updated. In fact, when a live sinkholing, in which the bots are redirected to to different targets that can then help track the bots or even deactivate them, took place at a 2013 RSA security conference, a new version of the botnet rapidly took its place which indicated that the creators were prepared for just such an emergency and had pre-planned a contingency.

And this was not just a spamming botnet. Along with pushing spam of both the email and desktop pop-up kind, it also stole bitcoin and targeted banks and other large industry outlets with industry specific malware that could rake in millions of dollars while running undetected. For botnet software, this had a wide range of functionalities, both general and specific, although for all it could do it was not hard to track.

The next interesting aspect of this case is Russia fought vigorously against Levashov’s extradition. Not by attempting to block it, but rather by filing an extradition request of their own based on crimes they say he committed in Russia itself. A smart move, regardless of whether the Russian charges are true or an attempt to protect one of their own, that is a clever way of approaching it. It didn’t work, ultimately, and Levashov is now in U.S. custody, but it was an interesting tactic to counter the original extradition request. Not only that, it has happened before.

A really interesting story all the way around, and I’m curious to see how it concludes. In the meantime, be careful, ensure your OS is up to date and fully patched, be sure you are running up-to-date anti-virus and anti-malware protection, try not to visit questionable sites, don’t activate or respond to emails from unknown sources, use an ad-blocker (uBlock Origin is my preferred choice, and I have no connection to them; purely my own opinion), and just generally practice safe computing.

Intel processors revealed to have major flaw, only addressable by OS updates


UPDATE: I’ve been trying to find out more, but Intel is now claiming it has a fix for the vulnerabilities affecting its chips that it will be rolling out by the end of next week. Details are slim, and I will hold off final judgment of course, but I’ll be surprised if it’s completely effective; these microcode patches can be tricky – it’s not a straight firmware update as it impacts the fundamental operation of the CPU. Additionally, it appears the fixes only address the last five year’s worth of processors. Better than nothing if it works.

Original post follows:

This is bad. It has been announced that Intel processors going back approximately ten years have a major flaw in how they separate the system and software. The details have not been released, but the general idea of the problem is already understood for the most part. To give a very high-level overview of what is going on and the impact of how it needs to be addressed, there is a component of every operating system known as a kernel, that separates the hardware from the software. When a program needs to open a port or save a file to disk or access a printer, or utilize hardware in any other way, it hands off that request to the kernel using what’s known as a system call, and the kernel completes the request (user mode to system mode). The catch is, the kernel is hidden from the program, even distributed in various memory locations to further hide it so that it can’t be exploited by malicious actors; it has to be loaded at system boot, however, in order for programs to use it.

Intel processors, though, use a kind of predictive processing, similar to client side prediction in games, in which a guess is made as to what will most likely happen next. In the case of Intel processors, they try to guess what code will be run next and load it up in the queue, however they apparently do this without any security procedures. The kernel is kept separate because it can contain confidential information such as passwords (which is why you can’t even get your own passwords back and there is no way to recover them if lost), however if the CPU provides no security check when loading up predictive code, it could, theoretically, run code that would ordinarily be blocked, which could then give savvy attackers access to low-level system processes and data.

But wait, there’s more bad news! Because this can’t be fixed with a firmware update or anything similar, OSs have to be written to address the problem. Linux, Windows, and OSX will all require updates that relocate the kernel in memory. Normally, it’s available to each program in their own process, but that will no longer be the case, and having to go back and forth between user mode and system mode in this manner will incur a possibly-significant performance hit on a PC after these updates, estimated by some to be as high as 30 percent.

Again, the details aren’t yet fully known, and the impact isn’t either, but if proven true it could be the worst design flaw I have ever seen. I’ll update when more is known.

Almost all HP laptops have a dormant keylogger

HP security

If you have an HP laptop like me, you’ll want to read this. For the second time this year, it turns out that (almost) all HP laptops have a deactivated keylogger hidden in their innards. Before, it was a component of the Conexant audio driver and was actually logging keystrokes, while this time it is part of a debugging component for the Synaptics TouchPad software, something most laptops – not just HP – have, so you might want to take a look or inquire with your manufacturer anyway. HP even states on their patch site, linked below, that the driver affects all Synaptics OEM partners, which means there will be a lot more than just HP laptops affected.

While the keylogger is not activated by default, it could be if someone has administrator privileges and knows which specific registry key to edit, a task that is itself no small matter, as anyone who has done registry edits will know. Interestingly, in an odd take on the situation, some in the security field have noted that if someone has administrator access to a machine, they won’t need to modify a registry key to activate a dormant debugger-based keylogger as they could simply install an actual keylogger. The counterpoint is that the driver-based keylogger, because it’s actually part of an integrated debugging / tracing function, would be harder to detect and leave less of a trace than a full-blown logger, so it would be a less intrusive and more opportune choice for those looking to listen in; there’s a built-in excuse for why it might be doing what it’s doing.

That’s assuming it’s detected, of course. The fact is, detecting them is notoriously difficult. Things have gotten better, but even the best antivirus program has trouble identifying them, and that’s even more true of one that’s operating at the system level – you might want to try a scanner that looks for keyloggers specifically. Since nothing is easy, those types of programs are few and far between because of the difficulty in detecting the logger in the first place. The one most often recommended is KL-Detector, but I’m not convinced of its effectiveness and definitely uncertain of the last time it was updated, which is critical in security software. While it will run on Windows 10, the only systems it explicitly confirms are Windows 2000 and XP, not something that gives me confidence as to its currency. Plus, it’s not a removal tool, only a detector. I don’t know why it’s so often recommended.

Physical keyloggers are easy – check where your keyboard plugs into its port. No additional device, no keylogger. Honestly, these are practically obsolete and were mainly used when keyboards still plugged into PS/2 ports, but don’t be fooled – USB physical keyloggers are out there, but are not commonly used because the chance of discovery is high.

It must also be noted that while there are obvious nefarious uses for keyloggers and that is why we generally hear about them, they have valid uses as well. If you are a parent who’s concerned about what your kids are doing online, a keylogger might be one option, especially these days. If you’re conducting a legitimate investigation, a keylogger is an option and has been used in the courtroom, both successfully and unsuccessfully. And, as alluded to above, they have valid testing and debugging uses. It’s similar to peer-to-peer sharing software; we mainly hear about how it’s bad, but it can also be very useful.

In a way it’s better than the previous time this happened because the keylogger is not active, but it’s worse because so many more models are impacted.  HP acted right away and issued a patch, although if you received a Windows Update in the last couple of days you should be fine as well. If you’d like to be doubly sure, you can check HP’s patch site to download a patch for your model. There are a lot of links, so you’ll need to know your exact model.

Pentagon may ban Kaspersky AV line

Kaspersky Logo

Bloomberg and others are reporting that the federal government is concerned about the widespread use of Russia-based Kaspersky Lab‘s antivirus products, which have been in widespread use around the world for almost two decades. High-ranking U.S. officials, including current acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who both gave congressional testimony related to Kaspersky, have voiced their concerns even going so far as to say they would not feel comfortable using the product in their own homes.

Times have certainly changed. I have used Kaspersky extensively over the years and never had an issue with it, nor any reason to suspect that, because of its being developed in Russia, it was anything other than an effective AV product. Speaking of which, it really is, at least in my personal experience, and apparently that of others; it’s very well-regarded. Tom’s Hardware lists it in their #2 and #3 spot of best AV products for 2017. PCMag.com lists it as their #5 choice. Windows Central has it as #3. Howtogeek noted it, along with BitDefender, found 100 percent of threats and even lists it as ‘the absolute best.’ Even MacWorld lists it as #5 for Mac protection. Their Wikipedia page, a site to which I am usually loathe to link, lists a slew of additional achievements and accolades. I have recommended it for years and have never balked once at doing so. Perhaps I’m not enough of a conspiracy theorist, maybe I should be more of one, but I find it hard to believe a company with almost half a billion users worldwide, the respect of the computing community, and the list of accomplishments it has as a product and company, would compromise their robust integrity by colluding with a nation of any sort, not just Russian.

On the other hand, as much as it hurts me to say it, such are the times in which we live. In the video on this ABC News page, which incidentally is where you can see brief bits of the FBI and National Intelligence Directors giving their congressional testimony, is an image of Kaspersky founder Eugene Kaspersky with Vladimir Putin. I personally don’t think that’s an indicator of anything; many business people meet with members of their respective governments, and others, all the time. To me personally, absolutely nothing stands out about this picture. No evidence has been provided as to why exactly Kaspersky now suddenly poses a threat, other than the current political climate.  As all my students know, I never allow politics to seep into my classes unless it is absolutely necessary, however, we are where we are at this moment in history, and Kaspersky is an enormous juggernaut of a (Russian) company. Although they have offered to turn over their source code in an effort to prove their legitimacy, I suppose the security machine here in the States would like to be safe rather than sorry.

I, on the other hand, being the eternal optimist that I try to be, will for now continue to recommend them and hope they have not been compromised by political pressure. If you are concerned, there are many, many other options from which to choose. The aforementioned and previously linked BitDefender is solid, as is Avast, I’m not a huge fan of AVG, another long-time stalwart that I used to use in the past, but it does work well, overall, and its reviews are generally strong.

Continuing on the security thing, you should also use a dedicated anti-malware package, and nothing equals MalwareBytes. I use it on Mac, PC, and mobile, and recommend running it daily; bad things can happen in an instant.

I am completely OK with this

The emojis will be with you, always

Now this I have no problem with whatsoever, although it hints at a larger issue. Researchers at University College London have discovered a dormant but massive Twitter botnet comprised of an estimated 350,000 fake accounts that does nothing but tweet out random quotes from Star Wars novels.

(Full report here)

They discovered it quite by accident while taking a pure random sample of English-speaking Twitter accounts. It’s important to note the importance of this sampling method, as other methods of sampling might bias the results in favor of those accounts that are more active or have more followers. Their one percent sample resulted in approximately six million accounts.

Once their random sample was complete, they plotted the geographic distribution of these users, and they discovered something curious. Many of the tweets formed an almost perfect rectangle along latitude/longitude lines, including open, uninhabitable places like frozen tundra and bodies of water. They conjecture the shape was deliberate to mimic where English-language tweets are most likely to originate, and hide them within the clutter of legitimate Twitter users Tweet flood.

Upon further investigation, the researchers found another surprise. All these Twitter accounts did was tweet out random passages from Star Wars novels. They also never retweet, they send out very few tweets (around ten total) and list ‘Twitter for Windows Phone’ as the tweet source. As much as I hate to say it, that is also likely a ploy to get them to stay under the radar as much as possible because of that platform’s significantly low user base.

It’s not Twitter, but Darth Vader actually posted this on Instagram. Seriously.

It’s not Twitter, but Darth Vader actually posted this on Instagram. Seriously. He doesn’t even care about that stormtrooper behind him.

Using a machine-learning word association approach (a ‘classifier,’ although classifiers are not limited to word association), it found that actual users had a very wide distribution of word choice, while the bots used words almost entirely related to Star Wars. Additionally, the platform percentages were evenly distributed for the most part among real users while the botnet was one hundred percent Twitter for Windows Phone. When the numbers are examined, the botnet is easy to see.

The authors then discuss the implications. Clearly, a dormant, low-activity Star Wars-themed Twitter botnet is not a big deal. However, if the creator decided to reactivate the botnet in order to create a spam network, send malicious messages, or use it for other nefarious purposes, they could. I personally don’t believe that will happen as it likely would have already, however as the authors also note, the botnet went out of its way to stay under the radar.

One of the things I find most interesting about it all is that the authors hint they found another, even more massive Twitter botnet using the same approach, which they will be reporting on at a later date.

Really interesting stuff, and touches on the impact of social media, machine learning and AI, cybersecurity, and geolocation/geotagging just to start (as well as the curious motivations of this particular botnet’s creator). I very much recommend giving it a read.

Destroy your stuff with just a USB stick

usb killer

Hey, now this sounds fun! Want a simple, effective, and inexpensive way to destroy your expensive stuff and all the data on it? Well do I have good news for you! Now, with just a simple USB stick you can blow up damn near any digital device with a front-facing USB port (meaning publicly accessible, it doesn’t actually matter which direction the thing is actually facing. An important distinction).

The USB Kill will charge itself from the USB’s power supply, then discharge itself back into the port, over and over again until the host device is broken. Of course they say don’t use it for malicious purposes, but come on…why else would we want one of these things? Oh right – ‘testing’ purposes.

To be fair, everyone knows USB ports are a haven for malicious attacks, they’re the mosquito-breeding stagnant pond of digital devices, a very easy way to infiltrate a system or exfiltrate (steal or lose) its data.

It’s a pretty nifty device, in and of itself, and another interesting point they make is that only Apple devices are protected against this type of attack out of the box. Everyone else, well, look out (also, it might not destroy the data, and if it doesn’t, then NSA-approved bulk erasers are for you!).

WordFence to the Rescue!

Over the weekend, I added WordFence security to the site. WordFence is a free (with premium option) service that provides backend security and monitors a WordPress site and prevents all sorts of bad things from happening. It has a slew of options and services that can be configured in any way a user would like, providing some peace of mind.

As you can see, the services and options it provides are many:

WordFence options

WordFence options

It has, for example, a firewall that prevents unwanted actors from gaining access to your site, however as with any good firewall you can whitelist sites or block sites as you see fit. It also claims it learns as time goes on, however I’m not able to test that at this time.

WordFence firewall

WordFence firewall

I’ve had this site for several years now, so as you can imagine with all the posts and photos and links there are a lot of potential hazards, and the service did a complete scan to be sure everything was on the up and up. It found a potentially malicious link in one of my posts from two years ago, and although the link was simply giving credit for a header image and not actually malware, I deleted it anyway. It scans everything for malware, the aforementioned malicious links, and any other problems and ranks what it finds in terms of its severity. I’m glad to say this site, to paraphrase Tangina Barrows, is clean.



There are many, many, many options. This kind of thing can often result in a performance deficit, although I haven’t noticed any slowdown at all. On a curious side note, I was asked to download my .htaccess file before WordFence scanned my site and implemented itself which I thought was strange. If you’re not familiar, .htaccess is an Apache-specific file placed in a directory of a website that specifies some site functionality, such as redirects or even password access without having to modify the server settings; WordPress itself states that it “uses this file to manipulate how Apache serves files from its root directory, and subdirectories thereof,” and .htaccess functionality cascades to all subdirectories (it can be overridden with another .htaccess file in a subdirectory, but that’s for another post). Why they wanted me to download that they never specified, but I did and ended up not needing to worry.

Another interesting thing about the .htaccess file is that it has been around FOREVER!

So with that sidetrack out of the way, the site is now more secure than ever, WordFence is running in real time, and I’ve already received some emails telling me about the login attempts they’ve blocked (from both Germany and France – I’m worldwide!) and how smoothly my site is running. I’m very happy with it so far. If you have a site and are interested, it’s very easy to install and can be done from the ‘install plugins’ section of the WordPress backend.

Nice try, but I have WordFence!

Nice try, but I have WordFence!

New ransomware method to worry about

Image Credit: makeuseof.com

(Header image credit: makeuseof.com)

Over on security blog Bleeping Computer, there is a post about a new type of ransomware that presents a triple threat. Known as RAA, what makes this one different is that instead of using an .exe attached to an email which would pop up an alert when a user tried to run it, this one is written entirely in JavaScript, a language often used to encode and provide functionality for web pages, and if a user runs something written in JS it likely would not pop up any alerts, and the damage would be done before you knew it.

Better change your passwords


Seriously. I’m not just telling you this because it’s World Password Day (it is, though, and I don’t know what Betty White has to do with anything). I’m saying it because it has come out that a security pro at Hold Security discovered an absolutely massive theft of usernames and passwords from Russia’s largest email provider, mail.ru, about 275 million stolen records. Not only that, there was a significant amount of credentials stolen from Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo account holders as well. Incidentally, many reports are saying ‘Microsoft’ instead of ‘Hotmail,’ which is a Microsoft property, but they also have Outlook which hasn’t, as far as I can figure out, been hit.

Most surprising of all, even more than the fact this is one of the largest theft of electronic records in history, is that the teenage hacker who acquired them was willing to sell the whole multi-hundreds-of-millions record lot for the grand sum of $1. But wait, there’s more! The hacker was discovered via his bragging of the theft in an online hacking forum, and when the Hold Security employee who engaged offered to leave positive feedback for the hacker, the price was dropped to free. That’s right, free for the mere quid pro quo of a positive review.

Off topic, but that touches on the concept of what is known as the reputation economy, in which someone’s actual worth depends on what others say about them in public and think about them in private. You can read more about it here.

It’s no secret people use bad passwords all the time, and reuse them over and over for multiple functions and sites. Don’t do that! Use a passphrase – in class just today, my students suggested ‘sheturnedmeintoanewt,’ a line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which turns out to be a perfect passphrase. It’s long, complex, yet easy to remember. Plus, it would take 16 BILLION years to crack! How do I know? Because we plugged it into howsecureismypassword.net, and that was its estimate. Even if it’s off by a billion years or so, that’s still pretty good. If we capitalize just one letter, the ‘n’ in newt, it jumps up to 17 quadrillion years. This isn’t the be-all end-all for accurately determining password strength, but it’s a good estimator.

Pretty secure

Pretty secure

If you’d like to use a different password for each site or service, but are worried about keeping track of them all, you can use a password manager like KeyPass to manage them all. Some password managers even enter the passwords for you. I don’t know how I feel about that personally, but it is easier. Beware, password managers often have a master password and if you lose or forget that, you are screwed – you’ll be resetting passwords forever.

Everyone knows I hate passwords and especially the policies that go along with them, and I hope the scourge of passwords is one we can raze from this earth in the very near future, replaced with something more robust – but not 100% foolproof – like biometrics (fingerprint scanners, for example). Until then, just remember: It’s only a flesh wound.

Spam is at a 12-year low!

Or 10-year low, depending on who you talk to. The BBC states it’s 12 years. Either way it’s still a promising sign, although that still means it’s 49.7%, however that’s the first time since 2003 it’s been at levels under 50%.

It appears all email-based attacks including phishing emails, 419 scams (also known as Nigerian prince scams), fake products scams, and others have all fallen.

The reason for this is a concerted effort by private companies and governments to bring down botnets, which are networks of compromised machines – known as bots – that are used to send spam emails. We’ll learn all about all of this in our final class.

Curiously enough, Microsoft of all companies has been a leader in bringing down these networks. Whether working with U.S. Marshals to bring down the Zeus malware botnet, or the spam behemoth Rustock, or working with Symantec to shut down the Bamital botnet, which would corrupt users’ search results and direct them to malicious websites. Other times it just works on its own.

One thing to keep in mind about the reduction in spam overall, is that criminals aren’t going away, they are merely shifting their attentions elsewhere, mainly to malware; that’s software that does something bad. Keyloggers, drive-by downloads, Flash embeds, spam isn’t doing it for them anymore so they are developing new methods of attack. None of this means you can be less vigilant, if anything you should be moreso, be sure your anti-virus software is up to date, and be careful what you click on or agree to.