Entries Tagged "extortion"

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Virtual Kidnapping

A real crime in Mexico:

“We’ve got your child,” he says in rapid-fire Spanish, usually adding an expletive for effect and then rattling off a list of demands that might include cash or jewels dropped off at a certain street corner or a sizable deposit made to a local bank.

The twist is that little Pablo or Teresa is safe and sound at school, not duct-taped to a chair in a rundown flophouse somewhere or stuffed in the back of a pirate taxi. But when the cellphone call comes in, that is not at all clear.


But identifying the phone numbers—they are now listed on a government Web site—has done little to slow the extortion calls. Nearly all the calls are from cellphones, most of them stolen, authorities say.

On top of that, many extortionists are believed to be pulling off the scams from prisons.

Authorities say hundreds of different criminal gangs are engaged in various telephone scams. Besides the false kidnappings, callers falsely tell people they have won cars or money. Sometimes, people are told to turn off their cellphones for an hour so the service can be repaired; then, relatives are called and told that the cellphone’s owner has been kidnapped. Ransom demands have even been made by text message.

Posted on April 29, 2008 at 5:29 AMView Comments

Hacking Power Networks

The CIA unleashed a big one at a SANS conference:

On Wednesday, in New Orleans, US Central Intelligence Agency senior analyst Tom Donahue told a gathering of 300 US, UK, Swedish, and Dutch government officials and engineers and security managers from electric, water, oil & gas and other critical industry asset owners from all across North America, that “We have information, from multiple regions outside the United States, of cyber intrusions into utilities, followed by extortion demands. We suspect, but cannot confirm, that some of these attackers had the benefit of inside knowledge. We have information that cyber attacks have been used to disrupt power equipment in several regions outside the United States. In at least one case, the disruption caused a power outage affecting multiple cities. We do not know who executed these attacks or why, but all involved intrusions through the Internet.”

According to Mr. Donahue, the CIA actively and thoroughly considered the benefits and risks of making this information public, and came down on the side of disclosure.

I’ll bet. There’s nothing like an vague unsubstantiated rumor to forestall reasoned discussion. But, of course, everyone is writing about it anyway.

SANS’s Alan Paller is happy to add details:

In the past two years, hackers have in fact successfully penetrated and extorted multiple utility companies that use SCADA systems, says Alan Paller, director of the SANS Institute, an organization that hosts a crisis center for hacked companies. “Hundreds of millions of dollars have been extorted, and possibly more. It’s difficult to know, because they pay to keep it a secret,” Paller says. “This kind of extortion is the biggest untold story of the cybercrime industry.”

And to up the fear factor:

The prospect of cyberattacks crippling multicity regions appears to have prompted the government to make this information public. The issue “went from ‘we should be concerned about to this’ to ‘this is something we should fix now,’ ” said Paller. “That’s why, I think, the government decided to disclose this.”

More rumor:

An attendee of the meeting said that the attack was not well-known through the industry and came as a surprise to many there. Said the person who asked to remain anonymous, “There were apparently a couple of incidents where extortionists cut off power to several cities using some sort of attack on the power grid, and it does not appear to be a physical attack.”

And more hyperbole from someone in the industry:

Over the past year to 18 months, there has been “a huge increase in focused attacks on our national infrastructure networks, . . . and they have been coming from outside the United States,” said Ralph Logan, principal of the Logan Group, a cybersecurity firm.

It is difficult to track the sources of such attacks, because they are usually made by people who have disguised themselves by worming into three or four other computer networks, Logan said. He said he thinks the attacks were launched from computers belonging to foreign governments or militaries, not terrorist groups.”

I’m more than a bit skeptical here. To be sure—fake staged attacks aside—there are serious risks to SCADA systems (Ganesh Devarajan gave a talk at DefCon this year about some potential attack vectors), although at this point I think they’re more a future threat than present danger. But this CIA tidbit tells us nothing about how the attacks happened. Were they against SCADA systems? Were they against general-purpose computer, maybe Windows machines? Insiders may have been involved, so was this a computer security vulnerability at all? We have no idea.

Cyber-extortion is certainly on the rise; we see it at Counterpane. Primarily it’s against fringe industries—online gambling, online gaming, online porn—operating offshore in countries like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. It is going mainstream, but this is the first I’ve heard of it targeting power companies. Certainly possible, but is that part of the CIA rumor or was it tacked on afterwards?

And here’s list of power outages. Which ones were hacker caused? Some details would be nice.

I’d like a little bit more information before I start panicking.

EDITED TO ADD (1/23): Slashdot thread.

Posted on January 22, 2008 at 2:24 PMView Comments

Bot Networks

What could you do if you controlled a network of thousands of computers—or, at least, could use the spare processor cycles on those machines? You could perform massively parallel computations: model nuclear explosions or global weather patterns, factor large numbers or find Mersenne primes, or break cryptographic problems.

All of these are legitimate applications. And you can visit distributed.net and download software that allows you to donate your spare computer cycles to some of these projects. (You can help search for Optimal Golomb Rulers—even if you have no idea what they are.) You’ve got a lot of cycles to spare. There’s no reason that your computer can’t help search for extraterrestrial life as it, for example, sits idly waiting for you to read this essay.

The reason these things work is that they are consensual; none of these projects download software onto your computer without your knowledge. None of these projects control your computer without your consent. But there are lots of software programs that do just that.

The term used for a computer remotely controlled by someone else is a “bot”. A group of computers—thousands or even millions—controlled by someone else is a bot network. Estimates are that millions of computers on the internet today are part of bot networks, and the largest bot networks have over 1.5 million machines.

Initially, bot networks were used for just one thing: denial-of-service attacks. Hackers would use them against each other, fighting hacker feuds in cyberspace by attacking each other’s computers. The first widely publicized use of a distributed intruder tool—technically not a botnet, but practically the same thing—was in February 2000, when Canadian hacker Mafiaboy directed an army of compromised computers to flood CNN.com, Amazon.com, eBay, Dell Computer and other sites with debilitating volumes of traffic. Every newspaper carried that story.

These days, bot networks are more likely to be controlled by criminals than by hackers. The important difference is the motive: profit. Networks are being used to send phishing e-mails and other spam. They’re being used for click fraud. They’re being used as an extortion tool: Pay up or we’ll DDoS you!

Mostly, they’re being used to collect personal data for fraud—commonly called “identity theft.” Modern bot software doesn’t just attack other computers; it attacks its hosts as well. The malware is packed with keystroke loggers to steal passwords and account numbers. In fact, many bots automatically hunt for financial information, and some botnets have been built solely for this purpose—to gather credit card numbers, online banking passwords, PayPal accounts, and so on, from compromised hosts.

Swindlers are also using bot networks for click fraud. Google’s anti-fraud systems are sophisticated enough to detect thousands of clicks by one computer; it’s much harder to determine if a single click by each of thousands of computers is fraud, or just popularity.

And, of course, most bots constantly search for other computers that can be infected and added to the bot network. (A 1.5 million-node bot network was discovered in the Netherlands last year. The command-and-control system was dismantled, but some of the bots are still active, infecting other computers and adding them to this defunct network.)

Modern bot networks are remotely upgradeable, so the operators can add new functionality to the bots at any time, or switch from one bot program to another. Bot authors regularly upgrade their botnets during development, or to evade detection by anti-virus and malware cleanup tools.

One application of bot networks that we haven’t seen all that much of is to launch a fast-spreading worm. (Some believe the Witty worm spread this way.) Much has been written about “flash worms” that can saturate the internet in 15 minutes or less. The situation gets even worse if 10 thousand bots synchronize their watches and release the worm at exactly the same time. Why haven’t we seen more of this? My guess is because there isn’t any profit in it.

There’s no real solution to the botnet problem, because there’s no single problem. There are many different bot networks, controlled in many different ways, consisting of computers infected through many different vulnerabilities. Really, a bot network is nothing more than an attacker taking advantage of 1) one or more software vulnerabilities, and 2) the economies of scale that computer networks bring. It’s the same thing as distributed.net or SETI@home, only the attacker doesn’t ask your permission first.

As long as networked computers have vulnerabilities—and that’ll be for the foreseeable future—there’ll be bot networks. It’s a natural side-effect of a computer network with bugs.

This essay originally appeared on Wired.com.

EDITED TO ADD (7/27): DDOS extortion is a bigger problem than you might think. Right now it’s primarily targeted against fringe industries—online gaming, online gambling, online porn—located offshore, but we’re seeing more and more of against mainstream companies in the U.S. and Europe.

EDITED TO ADD (7/27): Seems that Witty was definitely not seeded from a bot network.

Posted on July 27, 2006 at 6:35 AMView Comments

New Directions in Malware

Kaspersky Labs reports on extortion scams using malware:

We’ve reported more than once on cases where remote malicious users have moved away from the stealth use of infected computers (stealing data from them, using them as part of zombie networks etc) to direct blackmail, demanding payment from victims. At the moment, this method is used in two main ways: encrypting user data and corrupting system information.

Users quickly understand that something has happened to their data. They are then told that they should send a specific sum to an e-payment account maintained by the remote malicious user, whether it be EGold, Webmoney or whatever. The ransom demanded varies significantly depending on the amount of money available to the victim. We know of cases where the malicious users have demanded $50, and of cases where they have demanded more than $2,000. The first such blackmail case was in 1989, and now this method is again gaining in popularity.

In 2005, the most striking examples of this type of cybercrime were carried out using the Trojans GpCode and Krotten. The first of these encrypts user data; the second restricts itself to making a number of modifications to the victim machine’s system registry, causing it to cease functioning.

Among other worms, the article discusses the GpCode.ac worm, which encrypts data using 56-bit RSA (no, that’s not a typo). The whole article is interesting reading.

Posted on April 26, 2006 at 1:07 PMView Comments

VOIP Encryption

There are basically four ways to eavesdrop on a telephone call.

One, you can listen in on another phone extension. This is the method preferred by siblings everywhere. If you have the right access, it’s the easiest. While it doesn’t work for cell phones, cordless phones are vulnerable to a variant of this attack: A radio receiver set to the right frequency can act as another extension.

Two, you can attach some eavesdropping equipment to the wire with a pair of alligator clips. It takes some expertise, but you can do it anywhere along the phone line’s path—even outside the home. This used to be the way the police eavesdropped on your phone line. These days it’s probably most often used by criminals. This method doesn’t work for cell phones, either.

Three, you can eavesdrop at the telephone switch. Modern phone equipment includes the ability for someone to listen in this way. Currently, this is the preferred police method. It works for both land lines and cell phones. You need the right access, but if you can get it, this is probably the most comfortable way to eavesdrop on a particular person.

Four, you can tap the main trunk lines, eavesdrop on the microwave or satellite phone links, etc. It’s hard to eavesdrop on one particular person this way, but it’s easy to listen in on a large chunk of telephone calls. This is the sort of big-budget surveillance that organizations like the National Security Agency do best. They’ve even been known to use submarines to tap undersea phone cables.

That’s basically the entire threat model for traditional phone calls. And when most people think about IP telephony—voice over internet protocol, or VOIP—that’s the threat model they probably have in their heads.

Unfortunately, phone calls from your computer are fundamentally different from phone calls from your telephone. Internet telephony’s threat model is much closer to the threat model for IP-networked computers than the threat model for telephony.

And we already know the threat model for IP. Data packets can be eavesdropped on anywhere along the transmission path. Data packets can be intercepted in the corporate network, by the internet service provider and along the backbone. They can be eavesdropped on by the people or organizations that own those computers, and they can be eavesdropped on by anyone who has successfully hacked into those computers. They can be vacuumed up by nosy hackers, criminals, competitors and governments.

It’s comparable to threat No. 3 above, but with the scope vastly expanded.

My greatest worry is the criminal attacks. We already have seen how clever criminals have become over the past several years at stealing account information and personal data. I can imagine them eavesdropping on attorneys, looking for information with which to blackmail people. I can imagine them eavesdropping on bankers, looking for inside information with which to make stock purchases. I can imagine them stealing account information, hijacking telephone calls, committing identity theft. On the business side, I can see them engaging in industrial espionage and stealing trade secrets. In short, I can imagine them doing all the things they could never have done with the traditional telephone network.

This is why encryption for VOIP is so important. VOIP calls are vulnerable to a variety of threats that traditional telephone calls are not. Encryption is one of the essential security technologies for computer data, and it will go a long way toward securing VOIP.

The last time this sort of thing came up, the U.S. government tried to sell us something called “key escrow.” Basically, the government likes the idea of everyone using encryption, as long as it has a copy of the key. This is an amazingly insecure idea for a number of reasons, mostly boiling down to the fact that when you provide a means of access into a security system, you greatly weaken its security.

A recent case in Greece demonstrated that perfectly: Criminals used a cell-phone eavesdropping mechanism already in place, designed for the police to listen in on phone calls. Had the call system been designed to be secure in the first place, there never would have been a backdoor for the criminals to exploit.

Fortunately, there are many VOIP-encryption products available. Skype has built-in encryption. Phil Zimmermann is releasing Zfone, an easy-to-use open-source product. There’s even a VOIP Security Alliance.

Encryption for IP telephony is important, but it’s not a panacea. Basically, it takes care of threats No. 2 through No. 4, but not threat No. 1. Unfortunately, that’s the biggest threat: eavesdropping at the end points. No amount of IP telephony encryption can prevent a Trojan or worm on your computer—or just a hacker who managed to get access to your machine—from eavesdropping on your phone calls, just as no amount of SSL or e-mail encryption can prevent a Trojan on your computer from eavesdropping—or even modifying—your data.

So, as always, it boils down to this: We need secure computers and secure operating systems even more than we need secure transmission.

This essay originally appeared on Wired.com.

Posted on April 6, 2006 at 5:09 AMView Comments

Dutch Botnet

Back in October, the Dutch police arrested three people who created a large botnet and used it to extort money from U.S. companies. When the trio was arrested, authorities said that the botnet consisted of about 100,000 computers. The actual number was 1.5 million computers.

And I’ve heard reports from reputable sources that the actual actual number was “significantly higher.”

And it may still be growing. The bots continually scan the network and try to infect other machines. They do this autonomously, even after the command and control node was shut down. Since most of those 1.5 million machines—or however many there are—still have the botnet software running on them, it’s reasonable to believe that the botnet is still growing.

Posted on December 22, 2005 at 8:18 AMView Comments

Holding Computer Files Hostage

This one has been predicted for years. Someone breaks into your network, encrypts your data files, and then demands a ransom to hand over the key.

I don’t know how the attackers did it, but below is probably the best way. A worm could be programmed to do it.

1. Break into a computer.

2. Generate a random 256-bit file-encryption key.

3. Encrypt the file-encryption key with a common RSA public key.

4. Encrypt data files with the file-encryption key.

5. Wipe data files and file-encryption key.

6. Wipe all free space on the drive.

7. Output a file containing the RSA-encrypted, file encryption key.

8. Demand ransom.

9. Receive ransom.

10. Receive encrypted file-encryption key.

11. Decrypt it and send it back.

In any situation like this, step 9 is the hardest. It’s where you’re most likely to get caught. I don’t know much about anonymous money transfer, but I don’t think Swiss bank accounts have the anonymity they used to.

You also might have to prove that you can decrypt the data, so an easy modification is to encrypt a piece of the data with another file-encryption key so you can prove to the victim that you have the RSA private key.

Internet attacks have changed over the last couple of years. They’re no longer about hackers. They’re about criminals. And we should expect to see more of this sort of thing in the future.

Posted on May 30, 2005 at 8:18 AMView Comments

Sensitive Information on Used Hard Drives

A research team bought over a hundred used hard drives for about a thousand dollars, and found more than half still contained personal and commercially sensitive information—some of it blackmail material.

People have repeated this experiment again and again, in a variety of countries, and the results have been pretty much the same. People don’t understand the risks of throwing away hard drives containing sensitive information.

What struck me about this story was the wide range of dirt they were able to dig up: insurance company records, a school’s file on its children, evidence of an affair, and so on. And although it cost them a grand to get this, they still had a grand’s worth of salable computer hardware at the end of their experiment.

Posted on March 2, 2005 at 9:40 AMView Comments

Schneier: Microsoft still has work to do

Bruce Schneier is founder and chief technology officer of Mountain View, Calif.-based MSSP Counterpane Internet Security Inc. and author of Applied Cryptography, Secrets and Lies, and Beyond Fear. He also publishes Crypto-Gram, a free monthly newsletter, and writes op-ed pieces for various publications. Schneier spoke to SearchSecurity.com about the latest threats, Microsoft’s ongoing security struggles and other topics in a two-part interview that took place by e-mail and phone last month. In this installment, he talks about the “hype” of SP2 and explains why it’s “foolish” to use Internet Explorer.

What’s the biggest threat to information security at the moment?

Schneier: Crime. Criminals have discovered IT in a big way. We’re seeing a huge increase in identity theft and associated financial theft. We’re seeing a rise in credit card fraud. We’re seeing a rise in blackmail. Years ago, the people breaking into computers were mostly kids participating in the information-age equivalent of spray painting. Today there’s a profit motive, as those same hacked computers become launching pads for spam, phishing attacks and Trojans that steal passwords. Right now we’re seeing a crime wave against Internet consumers that has the potential to radically change the way people use their computers. When enough average users complain about having money stolen, the government is going to step in and do something. The results are unlikely to be pretty.

Which threats are overly hyped?

Schneier: Cyberterrorism. It’s not much of a threat. These attacks are very difficult to execute. The software systems controlling our nation’s infrastructure are filled with vulnerabilities, but they’re generally not the kinds of vulnerabilities that cause catastrophic disruptions. The systems are designed to limit the damage that occurs from errors and accidents. They have manual overrides. These systems have been proven to work; they’ve experienced disruptions caused by accident and natural disaster. We’ve been through blackouts, telephone switch failures and disruptions of air traffic control computers. The results might be annoying, and engineers might spend days or weeks scrambling, but it doesn’t spread terror. The effect on the general population has been minimal.

Microsoft has made much of the added security muscle in SP2. Has it measured up to the hype?

Schneier: SP2 is much more hype than substance. It’s got some cool things, but I was unimpressed overall. It’s a pity, though. They had an opportunity to do more, and I think they could have done more. But even so, this stuff is hard. I think the fact that SP2 was largely superficial speaks to how the poor security choices Microsoft made years ago are deeply embedded inside the operating system.

Is Microsoft taking security more seriously?

Schneier: Microsoft is certainly taking it more seriously than three years ago, when they ignored it completely. But they’re still not taking security seriously enough for me. They’ve made some superficial changes in the way they approach security, but they still treat it more like a PR problem than a technical problem. To me, the problem is economic. Microsoft—or any other software company—is not a charity, and we should not expect them to do something that hurts their bottom line. As long as we all are willing to buy insecure software, software companies don’t have much incentive to make their products secure. For years I have been advocating software liability as a way of changing that balance. If software companies could get sued for defective products, just as automobile manufacturers are, then they would spend much more money making their products secure.

After the Download.ject attack in June, voices advocating alternatives to Internet Explorer grew louder. Which browser do you use?

Schneier: I think it’s foolish to use Internet Explorer. It’s filled with security holes, and it’s too hard to configure it to have decent security. Basically, it seems to be written in the best interests of Microsoft and not in the best interests of the customer. I have used the Opera browser for years, and I am very happy with it. It’s much better designed, and I never have to worry about Explorer-based attacks.

By Bill Brenner, News Writer
4 Oct 2004 | SearchSecurity.com

Posted on October 8, 2004 at 4:45 PMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.