By Ellen Messmer
August 06, 2007
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 mobile 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 Barbour, 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 Barbour, who gave a presentation
titled "Stealth Secrets of the Malware Ninjashe." Barbour 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."
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 authorisation 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
Returning to Black Hat to take up the theme of virtualisation rootkits,
Joanna Rutkowska, the noted expert who brought the topic to worldwide
attention last year with her virtualisation 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
virtualisation malware, and the only virtualised 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 virtualisation 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 ecommerce and web infrastructure.
Estonia saw its banking and government websites 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
"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 defence and analysing 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 websites.
"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 websites,
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 humour,
"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-organised 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
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 email, 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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