The gathering storm

Got an email the other day that scared the bejesus out of me. It was a security alert from written entirely in Thai lettering, save for the names of three or four nasty Trojans and the words "Flash, "Internet Explorer," "Powerpoint," and "Outlook."

There were no nasty attachments or dubious URLs, and as far as I could tell the thing was legit. Why a Thailand-based webhost would find it necessary to warn me about malware I cannot yet fathom, though it left me a little jumpy (and with a powerful craving for Yum Pla Muek ).

Given the current state of Net security -- a term that's rapidly becoming an oxymoron -- I have good reasons to be nervous. The Storm Worm is my example du jour. Crypto-wonk Bruce Schneier has a terrific piece on detailing just how insidious and scary this nasty bit of code can be. Part worm, part Trojan, part botnet, it pushes the envelope in every direction. For example:

  • Storm is a peer-to-peer network with no central command post, making it harder to isolate and disable. (Of course, there's always a chance the RIAA will sue them.)

  • Most botnets operate as a single unit to spread themselves, spew spam, attack other machines, etc. Storm is more like a bee hive: the worker bees issue commands, the drones spread the worm to new hosts, and the soldiers await their orders from the worker bees. Again, it's harder to get rid of the bees (and easier to get stung) if you can't locate the queen.

  • Storm changes its payload every 30 minutes, making AV software even more useless than it already is. It also changes DNS, delivery methods, and social engineering tactics.

  • Storm keeps a low profile. It has minimal impact on system performance and may sit idle for months, awaiting commands. Your machine could easily be part of a Storm botnet and you'd never know it (especially if it's disabled your security software). Schneier likens it to syphilis, which displays mild symptoms at first but if ignored eventually devours your brain.
Security geek supreme Joe Stewart of SecureWorks first identified Storm in the wild back in January. He estimates it's created a massive botnet of nearly two million machines, which have been used to spew pump-and-pump spam, infect new hosts through bogus e-cards, and, incidently, subject Stewart's personal website to a series of withering DDOS attacks as revenge for his research. Quoth Joe:

We see now the spam war is escalating to new levels. It could be that the spammers have been emboldened by the successful attack on BlueFrog last year, which shut down a service that was affecting the spammers' ability to conduct their "business." With no repercussions from that attack, or even older attacks which shut down certain DNS blocklists, it seems that more spammers are willing and able to attack anyone who threatens their profit potential.

Over the last week, Storm appears to splitting into multiple botnets using encrypted P2P channels. The good news is this may make Storm botnet traffic easier to detect. The bad news? Fill in the blank. My guess is that the Storm Troopers have figured out a new way to wreak havoc, we just don't know what it is yet.

So how did we get into this mess? One culprit has to be the makers of the aforementioned Flash, IE, Outlook, and P-point. We are still paying for the years Adobe and Microsoft spent blissfully ignoring security vulnerabilities, though they seem to be trying harder now (barn door, meet escaped horse).

But the real bad guys may be them damned Russkies. Though nobody but the bad guys know where Storm came from, it has all the earmarks of the Russian cybermob. The DDOS attacks that took the country of Estonia offline earlier this year are just a hint of what may be in store.

The Cold War ain't over, it's just moved online. This time it isn't about geopolitics, it's about money -- and so far, we're losing this war.

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Robert X. Cringely

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