DNS tools play key role in Hollywood thriller 'Untraceable'

FBI agents in Sony Pictures’ upcoming 'Untraceable' movie turn to tools from DNSstuff to solve crime

The technology behind DNS can be used to exploit servers or become a tool with which FBI agents capture criminals. In the upcoming movie "Untraceable," DNS tool vendor DNSstuff is highlighted as one of the ways police attempt to catch a killer.

When the FBI agents in Sony Pictures’ upcoming "Untraceable" movie need to catch a killer, they turn to network technologies IT pros have been using for years, such as whois domain name lookup, traceroute and ping, via products developed by DNS tools vendor DNSstuff.

DNSstuff, based in Newburyport, Mass., made its way into the major motion picture by word of mouth. Former FBI agent Ernest E.J. Hilbert II told directors and writers of the Diane Lane thriller scheduled to be released Jan. 25 that when he was working on a case and needed to track down the source of cybercrime or locate a cyber criminal, he would use DNS tools. (Read more in our Q&A with Hilbert.) 

"DNSstuff is one of the various companies I would use to do a whois search and track down domain name information," says Hilbert, who today is director of security enforcement at MySpace.com. "I worked with the movie’s CGI folks to help them understand how such technologies would work and could look, or how they should appear. For example, what Web site you would to go to run whois or where to go to run traceroute."

Photo of Diane Lane's FBI agent character uses DNS technology to track cyber criminals.

That’s when DNSstuff realized its technology would soon move from behind the scenes to center stage. The company worked with the film to depict its technology in a visual way that would be suitable for the movie-going public. As a result of that, DNSstuff plans in the coming months to release a new product, dubbed Vector Trace, based on technology in its suite of DNS tools and the look and feel created for "Untraceable."

"We created a bit of eye candy for the film, and this opportunity for us was very interesting because the movie is incorporating the technology with real plausibility in terms of how DNS can be exploited or used in a positive way to avoid getting attacked," says Rich Person, CEO at DNSstuff.

DNS is the network function that translates domain names, such as www.networkworld.com, into an IP address, for instance, 65.214.57.165. If DNS doesn’t work properly, a user won’t gain access to the Web site, and that would become a perceived network failure. DNS is "essentially the phone book for the Internet," says DNSstuff CTO Paul Parisi. Criminals can use DNS to redirect legitimate traffic in such a way to exploit Web site visitors for profit or other purposes.

"DNS can be exploited in ways that make it difficult for people to detect. Most wouldn’t notice if a DNS system has been diverted," Parisi says. "In most cases, DNS systems are distributed and weak. It’s fairly easy to subvert different parts of it to direct people online away from where they thought they were going to another location and make them vulnerable."

While "Untraceable" portrays the FBI’s efforts to stop a cyber serial killer, the most common crimes committed via DNS include phishing and pharming, Parisi says.

Phishing involves would-be attackers luring their victims to click on links in what appear to be legitimate e-mails from, say, a financial institution such as a bank or credit card company. Phishing attempts to trick victims into sharing personal information or into committing an act they might have not otherwise, such as sending money to a specific location.

Pharming is similar to phishing, but also incorporates domain spoofing, or IP spoofing. In the latter example, misspelled URLs could lead customers looking to visit, for example, Amazon.com to a Amazone.com, which is designed to look similar to its namesake. Pharming also involves malicious code being installed or downloaded to a computer, which misdirects victims to Web sites.

For instance, in "Untraceable" it appears the lead character becomes a target of the serial killer who is able to find her home via software downloaded to her daughter’s video game. Technical consultant Hilbert says, "It can happen -- it does happen."

DNSstuff agrees, saying while most network professionals understand how critical DNS is to maintaining fluid operations and protecting an organization, DNS upgrade projects still seem to get pushed to the back burner. "It’s easy to put DNS aside because it doesn’t seem to impact the business until it fails," Parisi says.

On the positive side, DNSstuff executives say they feel the film will bring to the fore a technology that network engineers have always known is critical to keeping businesses up and running. The company offers some tools free in a limited capacity on its Web site, but points out signing up to its tools and services costs $36 per year.

"I think it is less expensive than NetFlix for the average person to do the same thing the FBI, CIA and Interpol do," Person says. Parisi adds that concerned parents in this age of MySpace and Facebook could use DNSstuff tools to ensure their children aren’t falling victim to some technology-based attacks. "Our tools are for the IT community, there is complex technology underneath. But when the average person thinks something is suspicious or wants to know who their child is talking to online, they can run a whois lookup," he says. 

While DNSstuff has yet to see the finished film, and executives are uncertain to what extent their technology will be included in the final result, the company is excited that high-tech topics such as DNS are "bubbling to the surface" in entertainment for the general public. The movie, they say, could raise visibility of the importance of companies protecting their DNS servers and of individuals acting more carefully on the Internet.

"One thing is for certain, the movie will establish that most people don’t fully understand the nature of cybercrime and how nasty it can get," Person says.

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