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[infowar.de] 'Phatbot' Trojan: Hackers Embrace P2P Concept
Hackers Embrace P2P Concept
Experts Fear 'Phatbot' Trojan Could Lead to New Wave of Spam or
By Brian Krebs
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 17, 2004; 6:23 AM
Computer security experts in the private sector and U.S. government are
monitoring the emergence of a new, highly sophisticated hacker tool that
uses the same peer-to-peer (P2P) networking abilities that power
controversial file-sharing networks like Kazaa and BearShare.
By some estimates, hundreds of thousands of computers running
Microsoft's Windows operating system have already been infected
worldwide. The tool, a program that security researchers have dubbed
"Phatbot," allows its authors to gain control over computers and link
them into P2P networks that can be used to send large amounts of spam
e-mail messages or to flood Web sites with data in an attempt to knock
The new hacker threat caught the attention of cyber-security officials
at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, prompting the agency to
send an alert last week to a select group of computer security experts.
In the alert, the agency warned that Phatbot snoops for passwords on
infected computers and tries to disable firewall and antivirus software.
A copy of the DHS alert was made available to washingtonpost.com by two
sources at different companies who asked that their identities not be
used because they did not want to risk losing access to future
government alerts. Officials at the department and US-CERT -- a
government-funded cyber-security monitoring agency -- confirmed that the
message was genuine.
Phatbot is "a virtual Swiss Army knife of attack software," said Vincent
Weafer, senior director of security response at Cupertino, Calif.-based
Joe Stewart, a researcher at the Chicago-based security firm Lurhq, has
catalogued Phatbot's many capabilities in an online posting. Those
capabilities include: the "ability to polymorph on install in an attempt
to evade antivirus signatures as it spreads from system to system";
"steal AOL account logins and passwords"; "harvest emails from the web
for spam purposes" and "sniff [Internet] network traffic for Paypal
Phatbot is a kind of "Trojan horse," a type of program named after the
legendary stealth attack because it let hackers take quiet control of
unsecured computers. Security firms have catalogued hundreds if not
thousands of Trojan horse programs in recent years, but Phatbot has
raised substantial concern because it represents a leap-forward in its
sophistication and is proving much harder for law enforcement
authorities and antivirus companies to eliminate.
Like traditional Trojan horse programs, Phatbot infects a computer
through one of several routes, such as through security flaws in
Microsoft's Windows operating system or through "backdoors" installed on
machines by the recent "Mydoom" and "Bagle" Internet worms.
But because Phatbot links infected computers into a larger network,
hackers can issue orders to the infected machines through many routes,
and cyber-security officials can only effectively shut down a Phatbot
attack if they track down every infected computer.
"The concern here is that the peer-to-peer like characteristics of these
'bot networks may make them more resilient and more difficult to shut
down," said a cyber-security official at the Department of Homeland
Security who asked not be identified because the agency is still
considering whether to issue a more public alert about Phatbot.
"With these P2P Trojan networks, even if you take down half of the
affected machines, the rest of the network continues to work just fine,"
said Mikko Hypponen, director of F-Secure, an antivirus software company
based in Finland.
Most major antivirus products detect Phatbot, but as soon as the Trojan
infects computers it disables many antivirus and firewall software
Roger Lawson, director of computing and information technology at the
University of Vermont in Burlington, said he quarantined more than 200
computers -- more than 5 percent of the machines on the school's network
-- because of Phatbot infestations. None of the school's antivirus
programs detected the Trojan, and attempts to delete it caused Phatbot
to recreate and restart itself, he said.
Phatbot's ability to disable computer security software means that the
estimated number of infected computers could rise to as high as "several
hundred thousand," said F-Secure's Hypponen.
A few computer experts said the rate of infection is much higher.
Igor Ybema, a network administrator at the University of Twente in
Enschede in The Netherlands, put the number between 1 million and 2
million computers. His conclusion was based on a Phatbot command that
forces infected computers to test their Internet connection speed by
sending a file to one of 22 specifically selected Web servers around the
world -- one of them at Twente.
He said Twente began monitoring traffic from computers running the tests
in mid-February, about the time that rival hacker gangs began an online
turf war that resulted in a volley of new worms like Bagle and "Netsky."
By early last week, Ybema said he was tracking an average of 200,000 to
300,000 Internet addresses running the speed test every day. Ybema
believes such traffic indicates that attackers who have previously
relied on less advanced remote-access Trojans are now using Phatbot.
The majority of the infections appeared to come from home user broadband
connections and from colleges and universities in the United States and
the Asia-Pacific region, he said.
Earlier this month, computer network engineers at University of
California, Santa Cruz monitored the same type of speed testing traffic
as Twente's Ybema observed. Mark Boolootian, the network engineer who
discovered the activity, said one reason infected computers may be
conducting the speed tests is to give Phatbot authors an idea of which
infected computers would be the fastest in sending out large amounts of
spam or data aimed at overwhelming a major Web site.
Security experts are divided on whether a full-force phatbot attack will
result in ruin or simply a ruinous headache.
"If there are indeed hundreds of thousands of computers infected with
Phatbot, U.S. e-commerce is in serious threat of being massively
attacked by whoever owns these networks," said Russ Cooper, a chief
scientist at Herndon, Va.-based TruSecure Corp.
There are several incidents in the past several years that show how
hackers used multiple ensnared computers to cause damage. In February
2000, a Canadian juvenile commandeered high-speed computers at
University of California, Santa Barbara to knock Amazon, eBay, CNN.com,
and a host of other Web sites off-line for hours. In October 2002,
hackers used an army of commandeered computers to assault the 13 root
servers that serve as the roadmap for Internet traffic.
But Lurhq's Stewart said his analysis of Phatbot indicates that the
Trojan is designed to link computers into groups no larger than 50
computers, which would significantly limit the Trojan's effectiveness as
a denial-of-service tool.
As a result, he said, Phatbot-infected PCs will more likely be used as
highly effective spamming machines.
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer David McGuire contributed to this
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