Thoughts on the Future Implications of Microsoft’s Legal Approach towards the TrickBot Takedown

Just this week, Microsoft announced its takedown operation against the TrickBot botnet, in collaboration with other cybersecurity partners, such as FS-ISAC, ESET, and Symantec. This takedown followed Microsoft’s successful application for a court order this month, enabling them to enact technical disruption against the botnet. Such legal processes are typical and necessary precursors to such counter-operations.

However, what was of particular interest, in this case, was the legal precedent Microsoft (successfully) sought, which was based on breaches of copyright law. Specifically, they founded their claim on the alleged reuse (and misuse) of Microsoft’s copyrighted software – the Windows 8 SDK – by the TrickBot malware authors.

Now, it is clear that this takedown operation is not likely to cripple the entirety of the TrickBot operation. As numerous researchers have found (e.g., Stone-Gross et al., 2011; Edwards et al., 2015), a takedown operation often works well in the short-term, but the long-term effects are highly variable. More often than not, unless they are arrested, and their infrastructure is seized, botnet operators tend to respond to such counter-operations by redeploying their infrastructure to new servers and ISPs, moving their operations to other geographic regions or new targets, and/or adapting their malware to become more resistant to detection and analysis. In fact, these are just some of the behaviours we observed in a case-by-case longitudinal study on botnets targeted by law enforcement (one of which involved Dyre, a predecessor of the TrickBot malware). A pre-print of this study is soon to be released.

So, no, I’m not proposing to discuss the long-term efficacy of takedown operations such as this. That is for another blog post.

Rather, what I want to discuss (or, perhaps, more accurately, put forward as some initial thoughts) are the potential implications of Microsoft’s legal approach to obtaining the court order (which is incumbent for such operations) on future botnet takedowns, particularly in the area of malicious code reuse.

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We’re fighting the good fight, but are we making full use of the armoury?

In this post, we reflect on the current state of cybersecurity and the fight against cybercrime, and identify, we believe, one of the most significant drawbacks Information Security is facing. We argue that what is needed is a new, complementary research direction towards improving systems security and cybercrime mitigation, which combines the technical knowledge and insights gained from Information Security with the theoretical models and systematic frameworks from Environmental Criminology. For the full details, you can read our paper – “Bridging Information Security and Environmental Criminology Research to Better Mitigate Cybercrime.”

The fight against cybercrime is a long and arduous one. Not a day goes by without us hearing (at an increasingly alarming rate) the latest flurry of cyber attacks, malware operations, (not so) newly discovered vulnerabilities being exploited, and the odd sprinkling of a high-profile victim or a widely-used service being compromised by cybercriminals.

A burden borne for too long?

Today, the topic of security and cybercrime is one that is prominent in a number of circles and fields of research (e.g., crime science and criminology, law, sociology, economics, policy, policing), not to talk of wider society. However, for the best part of the last half-century, the burden of understanding and mitigating cybercrime, and improving systems security has been predominantly borne by information security researchers and computer engineers. Of course, this is entirely reasonable. As circumstances had long dictated, the exponential penetration and growth in the capability of digital technologies co-dependently brought the opportunity for malicious exploitation, and, alongside it, the need to combat and prevent such malicious activities. Enter the arms race.

However, and potentially the biggest downside to holding this solitary responsibility for so long, the traditional, InfoSec approach to security and cybercrime prevention has leaned heavily towards the technical side of this mantle: discovering vulnerabilities, creating patches, redefining secure software design (e.g., STRIDE), conceptualising threat models for technical systems, and developing technologies to detect, prevent, and/or counter these threats. But, with the threat landscape of today, is this enough?

Taking stock

Make no mistake, it is clear that such technical skill-sets and innovations that abound and are produced from information security are invaluable in keeping up with similarly skilled and innovative cybercriminals. Unfortunately, however, one may find that such approaches to security and preventing cybercrime are generally applied in an ad hoc manner and lacking systemic structure, with, on the other hand, focus being constantly drawn towards the “top” vulnerabilities (e.g., OWASP’s Top 10) as opposed to “less important” ones (which are just as capable in enabling a compromise), or focus on the most recent wave of cyber threats as opposed to those only occurring a few years ago (e.g., the Mirai botnet and its variants, which have been active as far back as 2016, but are seemingly now on the back burner of priorities).

How much thought, can we say, is being directed towards understanding the operational aspects of cybercrime – the journey of the cybercriminal, so to speak, and their opportunity framework? Patching vulnerabilities and taking down botnets are indeed important, but how much attention is placed on understanding criminal displacement and adaptation: the shift of criminal activity from one form to another, or the adaptation of cybercriminals (and even the victims, targets, and other stakeholders), in reaction to new countermeasures? Are system designers taking the necessary steps to minimise the attack surfaces effectively, considering all techniques available to them? Is it enough to look a problem at face value, develop a state-of-the-art detection system, and move on to the next one? We believe much more can and should be done.

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A Reflection on the Waves Of Malice: Malicious File Distribution on the Web (part 2)

The first part of this article introduced the malicious file download dataset and the delivery network structure. This final part explores the types of files delivered, discusses how the network varies over time, and concludes with challenges for the research community.

The Great Divide: A PUP Ecosystem and a Malware Ecosystem

We found a notable divide in the delivery of PUP and malware. First, there is much more PUP than malware in the wild: we found PUP-to-malware ratios of 5:1 by number of SHA-2s, and 17:2 by number of raw downloads. Second, we found that mixed delivery mechanisms of PUP and malware are not uncommon (e.g., see our Opencandy case study in the paper). Third, the highly connected Giant Component is predominantly a PUP Ecosystem (8:1 PUP-to-malware by number of SHA-2s), while the many “islands” of download activity outside of this component are predominantly a Malware Ecosystem (1.78:1 malware-to-PUP by number of SHA-2s).

Comparing the structures of the two ecosystems,we found that the PUP Ecosystem leverages a higher degree of IP address and autonomous system (AS) usage per domain and per dropper than the Malware Ecosystem, possibly indicating higher CDN usage or the use of evasive fast-flux techniques to change IP addresses (though, given earlier results, the former is the more likely). On the other hand, the Malware Ecosystem was attributed with fewer SHA-2s being delivered per domain than the PUP Ecosystem with the overall numbers in raw downloads remaining the same, which could again be indicative of a disparity in the use of CDNs between the two ecosystems (i.e., CDNs typically deliver a wide range of content). At the same time, fewer suspicious SHA-2s being delivered per domain could also be attributable to evasive techniques being employed (e.g., malicious sites delivering a few types of files before changing domain) or distributors in this ecosystem dealing with fewer clients and smaller operations.

We tried to estimate the number of PPIs in the wild by defining a PPI service as a network-only component (or group of components aggregated by e2LD) that delivered more than one type of malware or PUP family. Using this heuristic, we estimated a lower bound of 394 PPIs operating on the day, 215 of which were in the PUP Ecosystem. In terms of proportions, we found that the largest, individual PPIs in the PUP and Malware Ecosystems involved about 99% and 24% of all e2LDs and IPs in their ecosystems, respectively.

With there being a number of possible explanations for these structural differences between ecosystems, and such a high degree of potential PPI usage in the wild (especially within the PUP Ecosystem), this is clearly an area in which further research is required.

Keeping Track of the Waves

The final part of the study involved tracking these infrastructures and their activities over time. Firstly, we generated tracking signatures of the network-only (server-side) and file-only (client-side) delivery infrastructures. In essence, this involved tracking the root and trunk nodes in a component, which typically had the highest node degrees, and thus, were more likely to be stable, as opposed to the leaf nodes, which were more likely to be ephemeral.

Continue reading A Reflection on the Waves Of Malice: Malicious File Distribution on the Web (part 2)

A Reflection on the Waves Of Malice: Malicious File Distribution on the Web (part 1)

The French cybercrime unit, C3N, along with the FBI and Avast, recently took down the Retadup botnet that infected more than 850,000 computers, mostly in South America. Though this takedown operation was successful, the botnet was created as early as 2016, with the operators reportedly making millions of euros since. It is clear that large-scale analysis, monitoring, and detection of malicious downloads and botnet activity, even as far back as 2016, is still highly relevant today in the ongoing battle against increasingly sophisticated cybercriminals.

Malware delivery has undergone an impressive evolution since its inception in the 1980s, moving from being an amateur endeavor to a well-oiled criminal business. Delivery methods have evolved from the human-centric transfer of physical media (e.g., floppy disks), sending of malicious emails, and social engineering, to the automated delivery mechanisms of drive-by downloads (malicious code execution on websites and web advertisements), packaged exploit kits (software packages that fingerprint user browsers for specific exploits to maximise the coverage of potential victims), and pay-per-install (PPI) schemes (botnets that are rented out to other cybercriminals).

Furthermore, in recent times, researchers have uncovered the parallel economy of potentially unwanted programs (PUP), which share many traits with the malware ecosystem (such as their delivery through social engineering and PPI networks), while being primarily controlled by different actors. However with some types of PUP, including adware and spyware, PUP has generally been regarded as an annoyance rather than a direct threat to security.

Using the download metadata of millions of users worldwide from 2015/16, we (Colin C. Ife, Yun Shen, Steven J. Murdoch, Gianluca Stringhini) carried out a comprehensive measurement study in the short-term (a 24-hour period), the medium-term (daily, over the course of a month), and the long-term (weekly, over the course of a year) to characterise the structure of this complex malicious file delivery ecosystem on the Web, and how it evolves over time. This work provides us with answers to some key questions, while, at the same time, posing some more and exemplifying some significant issues that continue to hinder security research on unwanted software activity.

An Overview

There were three main research questions that influenced this study, which we will traverse in the following sections of this post:

    1. What does the malicious file delivery ecosystem look like?
    2. How do the networks that deliver only malware, only PUP, or both compare in structure?
    3. How do these file delivery infrastructures and their activities change over time?

For full technical details, you can refer to our paper – Waves of Malice: A Longitudinal Measurement of the Malicious File Delivery Ecosystem on the Web – published by and presented at the ACM AsiaCCS 2019 conference.

The Data

The dataset was provided (and pre-sanitized) by Symantec and consisted of 129 million download events generated by 12 million users. Each download event contained information such as the timestamp, the SHA-2s of the downloaded file and its parent file, the filename, the size (in bytes), the referrer URL, Host URLs (landing pages after redirection) of the download and parent file, and the IP address hosting the download.

Continue reading A Reflection on the Waves Of Malice: Malicious File Distribution on the Web (part 1)