Agencies feel botnets’ light footprint

SPECIAL REPORT: The Next Steps for Security | DHS pilot helps agencies monitor network intrusions.

In the vast world of the Internet beyond the federal government’s borders, millions upon millions of invisible, automated soldiers are laying siege to the computers of companies and citizens alike.


These “soldiers” are bots—computers that have been taken over by worms, Trojans or other malware, knit together into vast networks and directed by bot-herders, the creators and controllers of these networks, to spew out spam and other useless or damaging content.


Government computers, too, are being corrupted and used as parts of a botnet, but the real threat is more insidious.


Hackers, particularly nation states, are using stealth botnets—they might be termed spearbots—to steal information from federal systems, experts say. This is different from the typical, wide-ranging cyberattack which looks for any hole in the defense.


“Botnets are going to be much more stealthy [in government computers] because of what they’re trying to get,” said Buck French, CEO of Securify Inc., a security monitoring and control company based in Cupertino, Calif. “They’re not trying to get compute power, they’re trying to steal sensitive data. ... They’ll have a stealthy, light footprint, because with all the effort it takes to get it there, they don’t want it detected.”


Alan Paller, research director of the SANS Institute in Bethesda, Md., said, “If I’m the Chinese trying to take over the State Department’s computers, I don’t use thousands of bots, because it won’t do any good. I use one or two. ... It’s a targeted attack; that’s what’s been happening in the past year.”


Bothunters

Researchers are looking for ways to detect the existence of a bot after it has gotten onto a computer, Paller said.


“That’s the Manhattan Project [of security research], the biggest, hardest project, to get technology to help you find these things,” he said. “They’re also working on ‘fingerprinting’ all files, so they can tell whether the files on a machine match the fingerprints of questionable software. Both approaches have the same goal, to find the bad stuff. One is more computer behavior-based, the other is looking at the software itself.”


Government systems are safer than private-sector computers because many, if not most, botherders design their malware to avoid government computers, said Richard Barger, senior principal consultant in the federal consulting services division at Symantec Corp. of Cupertino, Calif.


“Traditionally, botnets are a low threat to [Defense Department] networks because they’re loud,” creating high-profile traffic, Barger said. “When we do reverse code engineering, we see they actually stay away from .mil or .gov e-mail addresses.”


There are good reasons for bot-herders to stay away from government systems, French said.


“There are easier systems to put bots on than government systems,” he said. “They’re more likely to go after universities [and] home systems ... than federal systems, where it might be a federal felony.”


Still, the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team in the Homeland Security Department sees an increased number of incidents in the private and public sectors (see chart, below).


And because of the growth of these threats, DHS has been running a pilot program to detect bots trying to remove information from government systems, said Jerry Dixon, director of DHS’ National Cyber Security Division.


The Einstein Program, as it’s called, is a combination of government and commercial software and hardware, Dixon said. It sits outside the firewall so it sees everything interacting through the Internet with federal systems. It does not look at the payload, he said.


“We did an 18-month [privacy impact assessment] to ensure we were not looking at any private information,” Dixon said. “We look at the network address and source destination, so we know where the traffic is going to and from. If we see traffic going to a command-and-control computer, we know there might be a problem.”


If there is a problem, DHS notifies the IP provider and asks them to take it offline.


If the botherder is outside the United States, DHS works with partners in the United Kingdom, Australia, South Korea and India to shut it down, Dixon said. If the source is in a nation the U.S. doesn’t have good relations with, Dixon said, “We rely on Korea-CERT and India-CERT to work with countries like North Korea or China or others that they might have better ties to.”


Using Einstein, seven departments currently monitor outbound Internet traffic, Dixon said. When U.S.-CERT becomes aware of botnet activities, the organization can use Einstein to notify agencies, which then investigate to see if they have a problem. If so, NCSD will evaluate whether it’s a new vulnerability or a new type of bot.


Spread the Word

If it is a new vulnerability, NCSD tries to validate it and works with vendors to get antivirus software or firewalls fixed. But if it’s a new kind of bot, “we write up a paper and send it out to all agencies through the [Government Forum of Incident Responders and Security Teams] network,” Dixon said. “We give them a heads-up about the virus and new definitions coming, and remind them to check gateway logs for command-and-control channels.”


Einstein has shown real value, he said, and NCSD is now moving it out of the pilot phase.


“We had to get Einstein certified and accredited,” he said. “We have quite a few agencies lined up to deploy the program.”


Dixon added that defending against botnets is like playing a game of whack-a-mole because “they are so prevalent,” and they keep popping up everywhere you look. “It comes back down to machines being vulnerable and not being properly protected.”

NEXT STORY: Waxman to probe Doan's dealings

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.