Botnets: The new political activism

Security researchers find evidence of politically motivated botnet DOS attacks that appear to be tied to recent Russian and Ukrainian elections

As the United States' presidential candidates pinball their way across New Hampshire on the day of the state's closely watched primary elections, a new form of grassroots activism appears to be taking root across the Atlantic, in Eastern Europe, that melds dirty pool tactics with the cutting edge of malware technology.

Researchers with carrier security specialists Arbor Networks claim that they recently discovered several additional incidents of botnet-driven DOS attacks that were tied to political issues. Danny McPherson, chief research officer at Arbor, will report his group's findings to the assembled computer security and law enforcement experts at next week's Department of Defense Cyber-crime conference in St. Louis.

Since April 2007, when a campaign of targeted denial-of-service (DOS) attacks against Web sites controlled by the prime minister of Estonia and several regional banks were carried out with crushing results -- crippling the URLs for a period of several days -- experts have wondered aloud to what extent politics played a hand in the scheme.

At the time, press reports and IT security experts speculated that tension between Estonia and Russia -- sparked by Estonia's decision to move a Soviet-era World War II memorial of a bronze soldier -- may have motivated the coordinated DOS attacks. With a number of well-known malware distribution and botnet control networks based out of the region, experts speculated that Russian hackers, either on their own or at the behest of a paying customer, took out the Estonian sites to display their displeasure with the statue's removal.

Now new evidence has been discovered that indicates the same sort of political activism believed to have driven the 2007 Estonian Web site attacks not only exists but is becoming more popular.

"We spent some time after the Estonia attacks looking into this part of the world, and we've found evidence of other politically motivated botnet DOS attacks," said Jose Nazario, senior software engineer at Arbor. "It's hard to tell who is responsible for these campaigns, but they definitely appear to be tied to some recent Russian and Ukrainian elections."

According to Nazario, who is known as an expert tracker of botnets -- the armies of malware-infected computers that can be controlled remotely to be used for everything from DOS campaigns to the distribution of spam -- two elections in particular appear to have drawn activity similar to the Estonia incidents.

In one instance, Nazario said his team uncovered a botnet-driven DOS threat carried out against several Web sites controlled by Viktor Yanukovych, the recently defeated Ukranian prime minister, during his re-election campaign.

In another incident, Nazario said that his team was able to discover a DOS campaign aimed at sites controlled by the "Other Russia" political party led by one-time 2008 Russian presidential candidate Garry Kasparov, who is more widely known as one of the greatest chess players of all time.

During each of the individual attacks, banks of botnet-infected computers successfully took the candidates' sites down for several days before they were restored, according to Arbor.

Additionally, Nazario said the botnets used in both sets of attacks represent the cutting-edge of the increasingly popular and sophisticated malware sub-genre.

Rather than using IRC relays to communicate with each other like most traditional botnets, the politically driven threats utilized Web-based requests to speak to each other -- a much harder form of traffic to differentiate from legitimate network throughput, Nazario said.

The same advanced botnets are currently being used to distribute malware and spam, but the systems also appear to have been specifically designed to help their controllers carry out different types of distributed DOS attacks, he said.

Nazario said the botnets being used in Russia and the Ukraine closely resembled the zombie PC armies that have been used in years past to attack anti-spam efforts such as Spamhaus and CastleCops -- both of which have previously been targeted successfully and had their sites temporarily taken offline.

The activity could also suggest that the systems are being rented out by their creators to other people for the purpose of executing their own threats -- or being built through botnet toolkit technologies being developed in the region, the expert said.

Whether or not botnet activism will wash ashore in the U.S. any time soon remains unclear, but it seems apparent the trend is taking off across the pond.

Nazario said it remains hard to tell if the botnet campaign tactic has become a weapon of official political entities, or merely a tool of groups acting independently to promote some cause or belief, but lean towards the latter scenario.

"We don't know who is behind any of this activity, and we don't want to speculate, but you have to ask yourself, is this directed by someone higher in the political organizations, or is it merely somebody who is acting as a lone vigilante?" Nazario said. "It could be that this is something that is being carried out by a handful of individuals that have some sort of belief or disagreement to promote, or it could of course represent something bigger."

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