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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

By , Network World
January 18, 2008 12:17 PM ET

Network World - 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."

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.

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