Black Hat: Networked systems are putty in the hands of a good hacker

VoIP security holes, virtualization root kits, botnets, hot topics at conference

Security practitioners at Black Hat prove that the computer systems in use today are pretty much just putty in the hands of a good hacker.

LAS VEGAS --  If Las Vegas is a place to expose all, then that notion worked for the security experts who spent two days here at the Black Hat Conference laying bare the security weaknesses of everything from VoIP, to rootkits, and cell phones.

For the roughly 3,700 attendees who packed the conference held at Caesar’s Palace, it was a walk on the wild side as some security practitioners shed their reserve and gloried in the naked truth that the computer systems in use today are pretty much just putty in the hands of a good hacker. At one session, speaker Nick Harbour, senior consultant at security services firm Mandiant, went so far as to educate his audience on how to write better malware.

Being able to find more clever malware that can evade forensics will "make my job more interesting," said Harbour, who gave a presentation titled "Stealth Secrets of the Malware Ninjas." Harbour went on to describe in detail techniques for Live System Anti-Forensics, Windows hook injection mechanisms, Library Injections and more that he assured his listeners could take evasive malware to a new level. "This talk is mostly about evil," he said.

Much in keeping with the theme of Black Hat, where honesty is not the best policy but the only policy, iSec Partners security experts Himanshu Dwivedi and Zane Lackey took the stage to deliver the bad news: VoIP systems based on H.323 and the Inter Asterisk eXchange (IAX) protocols can be fairly easily compromised and brought down.

“There are a lot of known problems with SIP,” said Dwivedi, principal partner at iSec, referring to the VoIP Session Initiation Protocol. “But we are here to say H.323 and IAX are just as bad.”

In case anyone doubts their revelations about how weak authentication and authorization design in H.323 and IAX can let attackers compromise VoIP systems and launch denial-of-service (DoS) attacks, they have made available exploit tools on the iSec Partners Web site to prove their claims.

Returning to Black Hat to take up the theme of virtualization rootkits, Joanna Rutkowska, the noted expert who brought the topic to worldwide attention last year with her virtualization rootkit malware called “Blue Pill,” acknowledged that researchers are getting closer to detecting her creation. At the end of her technical presentation, she announced she was posting Blue Pill  —and its nested hypervisor variant New Blue Pill — for general download.

That evoked some concern at Symantec, which had been begging her to share a Blue Pill sample prior to the conference because Symantec, Matasano Security and Root Labs are teaming on a project to detect virtualization malware, and the only virtualized malware they had tested was on something they already had in hand, Vitriol, created by researcher Dino Dai Zovi.

“We think it’s actually quite dangerous to release code like that to the public,” said Oliver Friedrichs, director of Symantec’s Security Response division, about the release of Blue Pill. While the stealthy Blue Pill is intended for research purposes only, Symantec anticipates it could quickly become a new attack vector. He said there were no plans to release Vitriol, a similar type of virtualization rootkit.

Hacker techniques for DoS and botnet attacks are making their way into social conflicts, such as the cyber attacks that occurred earlier this year against Estonia, a small nation of 1.3 million people with a well-developed Internet-based e-commerce and Web infrastructure.

Estonia saw its banking and government Web sites electronically fired on in late April and May. The electronic DoS attacks, coupled with what one investigator says was a custom-built botnet designed to disrupt Estonian home and business networks, came as tensions between Russian nationalists and Estonians spilled over into street riots in the nation’s capital.

“I tried to understand both sides,” said Gadi Evron, the well-known botnet hunter who works for Beyond Security and also the Israeli Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT), who says he was invited by the Estonian CERT to help with defense and analyzing the aftermath of the event, which some are calling the “first Internet war.”

Evron, who said during his Black Hat presentation that he wouldn’t use that term but it was a cyber-conflict, said the current analysis done with Estonian officials indicates the first wave of DoS attacks against specific Web sites may have been triggered by the “Russian blogosphere” where angry Russian speakers urged use of attack tools to Ping Web sites. “They provided a tool for the entire population to use,” Evron said.

The second phase of the attacks a few weeks later saw something more sinister. “One attack was launched by specifically crafted bots,” Evron said. “The attack target was hard-coded into the source.”

These hard-coded bots, designed to attack specific Estonia Web sites, were dropped onto home computers in Estonia, basically making Estonian home computers the source of attacks on their own country’s infrastructure. In the aftermath, analysts are now trying to figure out whether the attack was simply energetic hacktivists, or something even darker, like a coordinated attack by the Moscow Kremlin, something the Russian government has fiercely denied.

“Who is behind the attacks” Evron said, answering with some wry humor, “The KGB. But that doesn’t exist anymore.”

While the old Soviet Union’s KGB secret security service technically no longer exists, it’s hard to forget its style. “OK, the KGB no longer exists,” Evron said. “I can’t tell if it was something random from the blogosphere or a planned attack.” But he added: “I find it hard to believe it was a mere epidemic.”

Several signs point to a well-organized plan with attack events commencing at virtually the same time. “The Russian-language blogosphere was updated periodically with new attack instructions,” he noted. “It was adjusting and responding to the defensive actions of Estonia.”

Evron noted that this style of Internet-based information battles are likely to be part and parcel of future conflicts, where adversaries turn the citizens’ computers and networks against them.

Not all the news was bad at Black Hat.

For instance, at least we can take comfort in the fact that cell-phone and smartphone viruses still constitute a minute proportion of the hundreds of thousands of overall computer viruses, with only 373 distinct phone-based specimens to worry about so far.

That’s according to Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer at F-Secure, whose Black Hat presentation vividly demonstrated how some of those phone viruses can attack phones via Bluetooth wireless and other means.

Most phone-based viruses are targeting Symbian platform phones today, said Hypponen, though he guessed that would shift more toward Windows Mobile and the iPhone. Cell-phone virus writers today largely just remain malicious pranksters who write malware to disrupt phone use, he pointed out.

So far there’s little indication that these virus writers are turning into the kind of money-loving types who write malware for PCs today mainly to make a buck. Nor has the type of malware hitting PCs these days, such as rootkits or viruses that replicate over e-mail, yet been seen, “and we haven’t seen anything that we couldn’t clean and get out of a phone,” Hypponen concluded.

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.