Hackers learn from open source

McAfee says the same techniques that made Apache and Linux successful are being applied to hacking

Hackers are taking a page from the open-source playbook, using the same techniques that made Linux and Apache successes to improve their malicious software, according to McAfee Inc.

Nowhere is this more apparent than within the growing families of "bot" software, which allow hackers to remotely control infected computers. Unlike viruses of the past, bots tend to be written by a group of authors, who often collaborate by using the same tools and techniques as open source developers, said Dave Marcus, security research and communications manager with McAfee's Avert Labs.

"Over the last year and a half, we've noticed how bot development in particular has latched on to open-source tools and the open-source development model," he said.

The current generation of bot software has grown to the point where open-source software development tools make a natural fit. With hundreds of source files now being managed, developers of the Agobot family of malware, for example, are using the open-source Concurrent Versions System (CVS) software to manage their project.

Mcafee researchers have described this use of open-source techniques in a new magazine set to be unveiled Monday. Called "Sage," the publication features a cover story entitled "Paying a price for the open-source advantage" in its inaugural issue. McAfee plans to publish Sage every six months, Marcus said.

Marcus said his company is drawing attention to the open-source trend in order to educate users, and not as an attempt to discredit open-source alternatives to its own proprietary software products. "We think [open-source antivirus products] are fine. They've never been something that was really in the same class as ours, but we've always been big supporters of open-source antivirus," he said.

However, Marcus did take issue with security researchers who distribute samples of malicious software, a practice known as full disclosure.

"We're not taking aim at the open-source movement; we're talking about the full-disclosure model and how that effectively serves malware development," he said.

Marcus's opinion was not well-received by one security professional.

Full disclosure serves legitimate researchers and helps users by making vendors more responsive, said Stefano Zanero, chief technology officer with Secure Network SRL. "I drive an A-class Mercedes," he said. "And I feel much safer since [a] car magazine revealed that the original design of the A-class was flawed," he wrote via instant message.

"Research works on disclosure, not on secrets," Zanero added.

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