Technology June 2010

The Enemy Within

When the Conficker computer “worm” was unleashed on the world in November 2008, cyber-security experts didn’t know what to make of it. It infiltrated millions of computers around the globe. It constantly checks in with its unknown creators. It uses an encryption code so sophisticated that only a very few people could have deployed it. For the first time ever, the cyber-security elites of the world have joined forces in a high-tech game of cops and robbers, trying to find Conficker’s creators and defeat them. The cops are failing. And now the worm lies there, waiting …
A Digital Sam Spade

Twenty years ago, computers were bedeviled by hackers. These were savvy outlaws who used their deep knowledge of operating systems to invade, steal, and destroy, or sometimes just to tap into secure facilities and show off their skills. Hackers became heroes to a generation of teenagers, and had all sorts of motives, but their most distinctive trait was a tendency to show off.

Some had truly malicious intent. In his 1989 best seller, The Cuckoo’s Egg, Cliff Stoll told the story of his stubborn, virtually single-handed hunt for an elusive hacker in Germany who was using Stoll’s computer system at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory as a portal to Defense Department computers. For many people, Stoll’s book was the introduction to the netherworld of rarefied gamesmanship that defines computer security. Stoll’s hacker never penetrated the most secret corners of the national-security net, and even relatively serious breaches like the one Stoll described were more nuisance than threat. But the individual hacker working as a spy or vandal has evolved into something more organized and menacing.

Andre’ M. DiMino, a computer sleuth who is part of the Conficker Cabal, is considered one of the world’s foremost authorities on botnets. He stumbled into his avocation on a Monday morning a decade ago, when he discovered that over the weekend, someone had broken into the computer system he was administering for a small company in New Jersey. DiMino has an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering with an emphasis in computer science, but he has mostly taught himself up to his present level of expertise, which is extreme. At 45, he is a slender, affable idealist who keeps a small array of computers in an upstairs bedroom. When I stopped by to talk to him, he baked me pizza. His day job is doing computer forensics for law enforcement in Bergen County, New Jersey, but he has a kind of alter ego as what he calls a “botnet hunter.”

Back when he discovered the weekend break-in, DiMino assumed at first that it was the work of a hacker, a vandal, or possibly a former employee, only to discover, based on an analysis of the IP (Internet Protocol) addresses of the incoming data, that his little computer network had been invaded by someone from Turkey or Ukraine. What would someone halfway around the planet want with the computer system of a small business-management firm in a New Jersey office park? Apparently, judging by what he found, his invader was in the business of selling pirated software, movies, and music. Needing large amounts of digital storage space to hide stolen inventory, the culprit seemed to have conducted an automated search over the Internet, looking worldwide for vulnerable systems with large amounts of unused disc space—DiMino equates it to walking around rattling doorknobs, looking for one door left unlocked. DiMino’s system fit the bill, so the crooks had dumped a huge bloc of data onto his discs. He erased the stash and locked the door that had allowed the pirates in. As far as the company was concerned, that solved the problem. No harm done. No need to call the police or investigate further.

But DiMino was intrigued. He reviewed the server logs for previous weeks and saw that this successful invasion was one of many such efforts. Other attackers had been rattling the doors of his network, looking for vulnerabilities. If there were bad guys actively exploiting other people’s computers all over the world, designing sophisticated programs to exploit weaknesses … how cool was that? And who was trying to stop them?

DiMino set about educating himself on the fine points of this obscure battle of wits. He eventually co-founded the Shadowserver Foundation, a nonprofit partnership of defense-minded geeks at war with malware, effectively transforming himself into a digital Sam Spade—indeed, the graphic atop Shadowserver’s home page features a Dashiell Hammett–style detective emerging from shadow.

Both sides in this cyberwar have become astonishingly sophisticated, operating at the cutting edge of programming theory and cryptography. Both understand the limits of security methodology, the one side working to broaden its reach, the other working to surpass it. Because malware has been automated, the good guys usually can only guess at who they are up against.

Trojans, Viruses, and Worms

Rodney Joffe heads the cabal that has been battling Conficker. He is a burly, garrulous South African–born American who serves as senior vice president and chief technologist for Neustar, a company that provides trunk-line service for competing cell-phone companies around the world. Joffe’s interest in stopping the worm did not stem just from his outrage and sense of justice. His concern for Neustar’s operation is professional, and illustrative.

The company runs a huge local-number-portability database. Almost every phone call in North America, before it’s completed, must ask Neustar where to go. Back in the old days, when the phone company was a monopoly, telecommunications were relatively simple. You could figure out where a phone call was going, right down to the building where the target phone would ring, just by looking at the number. Today we have competing telephone companies, and cell phones, and a person’s telephone number is no longer necessarily tied to a geographic location. In this more complex world, someone needs to keep track of every single phone number, and know where to route calls so they end up in the right place. Neustar performs this service for telephone calls, and is one of many registries that oversee high-level Internet domains. It is, in Joffe’s words, “the map.”

“If I disappear, there’s no map,” he says. “So if you take us down, whole countries can actually disappear from the grid. They’re connected, but no one can find their way there, because the map’s disappeared.”

A botnet like Conficker could theoretically be used to shut down Neustar’s system. So Joffe helped form the Conficker Cabal. He scoffed when he read in late 2009 that the Obama administration’s Department of Homeland Security planned to hire “a thousand” computer-security experts over the next three years. “There aren’t more than a few hundred people in the world who understand this stuff.”

Most of us use the word virus to describe all malware, but in geekspeak, it means something more specific. There are three types of the stuff: Trojans, viruses, and worms. A Trojan is a piece of software that works like a Trojan horse, masquerading as one thing to get inside a computer, and then attacking. A virus attacks the host computer after slipping in through a hole in its operating system. It depends on the computer-operator—you—doing something stupid to activate it, like opening an attachment to an e-mail that appears innocuous, or clicking on an enticing link. A worm works like a virus, exploiting flaws in operating systems, but it doesn’t attack once it breaks in. It generally doesn’t have a malicious payload. Exactly like the most-sophisticated viruses in the biological world, it does not cripple or kill its host. It is primarily designed to spread. The instructions that will put a worm like Conficker to work are not embedded in its code; they will be delivered later, from a remote command center.

In the old days, when your computer got infected, it slowed down because your commands had to compete for processing with viral invaders. You knew something was wrong because the machine took 10 times longer to boot up, or there was a delay between command and response. You began to get annoying pop-ups on your screen directing you to download supposedly remedial software. Programs would freeze. In this sense, the old malware was like the Ebola virus, a very scary strain that messily kills nearly everyone it infects—which is another way of saying that it is grossly ineffective, because it burns out the very host organisms it needs to survive. The miscreants who created computer viruses years ago learned that malware that announces itself in these ways doesn’t last.

So today’s malware produces no pop-ups, no slowdowns. A worm is especially quiet, since all it does, at least initially, is spread. Conficker stealthily sets up shop without making a ripple, and—other than calling home periodically for instructions—just waits. Its regular messages to its command center amount to only a couple hundred bytes of data, which is not enough to even light up the little bulb that flashes when a computer hard drive is at work.

After Phil Porras and others began snaring Conficker in increasing numbers, they began dissecting it. The worm itself was exquisite. It consisted of only a few hundred lines of code, no more than 35 kilobytes—slightly smaller than a 2,000-word document. In comparison, the average home computer today has anywhere from 40 to 200 gigabytes of storage. Unless you were looking for it, unless you knew how to look for it, you would never see it. Conficker drifts in like a mote.

It exploited a specific hole, Port 445, in the Microsoft operating systems, a vulnerability that the manufacturer had tried to repair just weeks earlier. Ports are designated “listening” points in a system, designed to transmit and receive particular kinds of data. There are many of them, more than 65,000, because an operating system consists of layer upon layer of functions. A firewall is a security program that guards these ports, controlling the flow of data in and out. Some ports, like the one that handles e-mail, are heavily trafficked. Most are not; they listen for updates and instructions that deal with a narrow and specific function, usually routine procedures that never rise to the notice of computer-users. Only certain very specific kinds of data can flow through ports, and then only with the appropriate codes. Windows opens Port 445 by default to perform tasks like issuing instructions for print-sharing or file-sharing. Late in the summer of 2008, Microsoft learned that even a system protected by a firewall was vulnerable at Port 445 if print-sharing and file-sharing were enabled (which they were on many computers). In other words, even a well-protected computer had a hole. On October 23, 2008, the company issued a rare “critical security bulletin” (MS08-067) with a patch to repair that hole. A specially crafted “remote procedure call” could allow the port to be used by a remote operator, the security bulletin warned, and “an attacker could exploit this vulnerability without authentication to run arbitrary code.” The patch Microsoft offered theoretically slammed the door on a worm like Conficker almost a month before it appeared.

Theoretically.

In fact, the bulletin itself may have inspired the creation of Conficker. Many, many computer-operators worldwide—you know who you are—fail to diligently heed security updates. And the patches are issued only to computers with validated software installations; millions of computers run on bootlegged operating systems, which have never been validated. Microsoft issues its updates on the second Tuesday of every month. Every geek in the world knows this; it’s called “Patch Tuesday.” The company employs some of the best programmers in the world to stay one step ahead of the bad guys. If everyone applied the new patches promptly, Windows would be nigh impregnable. But because so many people fail to apply the patches promptly, and because so many machines run on illegitimate Windows systems, Patch Tuesday has become part of Microsoft’s problem. The company points out its own vulnerabilities, which is like a general responsible for defending a fort making a public announcement—“The back door to the supply shed in the southeast corner of the garrison has a broken lock; here’s how to fix it.” When there is only one fort, and it is well policed, the lock is fixed and the vulnerability disappears. But when you are defending millions of forts, and a goodly number of the people responsible for their security snooze right through Patch Tuesday, the security bulletin doesn’t just invite attack, it provides a map! Twenty-eight days after the MS08-067 security bulletin appeared, Conficker started worming its way into unpatched computers.

Presented by

Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

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