Conficker is Proof We Need to Log Broadly and Analyze Deeply

At RSA this week it’s easy to got lost in the menagerie of security technologies to conquer malware proliferation, stomp out spam and protect virtualized and cloud computing environments. But the most recent statistics show we are still losing the war on cybercrime. Symantec’s latest Internet Security Threat Report sited 1,656,227 malicious-code threats last year and 75,158 new active bot-infected computers per day. And yes the United States is still the most frequently targeted by denial-of-service attacks accounting for 51% worldwide and the top country for underground economy servers advertising stolen credit cards accounting for 67% of all activity worldwide.

Why are we losing so badly? Not surprisingly, there was a lot of talk at RSA about the Conficker worm. Some of the chatter points to reasons why the security industry is falling behind. At first glance, the Conficker worm looks harmless. So far there are not too many significant reports of infected machines and hijacked data,
but it may be too early to feel so smug about it. The worm’s real danger is its demonstrated ability to evade the expensive IDS technology enterprises have put into place and rely on today. Estimates are that 90% of the enterprise IDS implementations have failed to detect the worm’s presence and create some kind of actionable alert. How can this be?

Conficker properties are simple but different from the typical threat. First Conficker affected systems outside of IDS coverage like USB keys and mobile user laptops. So if you’re looking for attacks from outside your network only, you won’t see it. It’s a “walk-in virus”. Second it isn’t greedy like Code Red and other viruses of late. The Conficker worm has built-in sleep cycles. So where a typical worm might scan 1,000 or 10,000 IPs a minute, Conficker was happy to scan maybe say 100 and evade the baseline trip wires. Third Conficker is very selective with its payload delivery. It only delivers when it sees a vulnerability. All this helps Conficker evade IDS systems that want to witness the crime. But Conficker is the perfect crime in that it goes undetected. With no payload delivered and seemingly fewer IPs scanned there is no grossly abnormal behavior to witness. The evidence is circumstantial.

At a lunch on Wednesday, Tom Le of BT gave a good overview of how BT Managed Security Services detected Conficker for their customers. It was one of the first times I’ve really been sold on a managed security service beyond the value of cost and convenience.

First, as Tom explained it, they started by assuming IDS would miss the attack. They didn’t assume a payload had to be delivered and didn’t assume that large number of scans were needed to indicate the presence of an intruder. Instead of depending on IDS, BT uses logs and events to baseline the natural behavior of even netbios triggered scans (which Conficker happened to use) and was able to alert on small changes in scans that would be missed if you were only looking at things like netflow. As it turns out most firewalls blocked the netbios scans going out so again most customers didn’t even know they had the Conficker worm present.

Second Tom and his team assumed some type of command and control activity associated with Conficker. They followed the money watching for things like confikur trying to phone home in different ways. By having a broad set of logs and events from switches, routers, applications and IDS they were able to look for outlying behaviors like DNS lookups to obscure locations not typically seen in customer networks and aggregate this information across customers to identify common abnormalities. Tom estimates that BT sees roughly five billion messages a week across their customer base. That’s a lot of messages.

After listening to all the chatter about Conficker and walking the show floor, it gets easier to understand how criminals continue to evade the security infrastructure enterprises put in place. There are just too many ways in which breaches can occur and there is just too much data scattered about to collect and correlate in order to find the anomalies. So the security industry continues down the path of specific solutions to specific vulnerabilities and criminals continue to create new threats that evade the industry’s point approaches. I say the industry as a whole needs to move to more of an adaptable and flexible approach that can apply security to what ever threats arise, when they appear.

The best real world detectives are able to piece together seemingly circumstantial evidence and sift out the clues that lead to catching criminals. But every time it’s different. Perhaps we need to take the same approach in order to obtain more adaptable security solutions. Assume every time it’s different not the same.

Logging broadly and analyzing deeply is one of the best defenses. Without a broad swath of data you won’t have the pieces of the puzzle to put together at the moment you need to solve the crime.

Few criminals are caught in the act.

Posted by


Join the Discussion