The data about Aurora has always felt just a little off for me. Maybe its that everyone writing about it just has their own piece of the puzzle to analyse, without the detail required to accurately link the pieces together.
When it comes to the command and control infrastructure, maybe it’s that some obfuscated the domain names while others published them, but with a domain on the blog post that’s not in technical write up. Maybe it is that some have significantly bigger lists than others (that include duplicates as well as the root domain for a dynamic dns provider that hands out sub-domains).
Maybe it is that some name domains that hosted the exploit but do not provide details on C&C’s that compromised hosts check-in with. Maybe the difference between the long lists and short lists is that some are including “copycats” — sites that host the IE exploit. Since “Aurora” is now being used to refer to the specific attack on Google, the 0day vulnerability in Internet Explorer (that was apparently used), and the malware that was apparently dropped by the exploit (Hydraq) interchangeably it is difficult to get a handle on exactly what is what.
Google says the attacks were “highly sophisticated and targeted” (as does McAfee, Mandiant, and iDefense) while Damballa says that it was the work of amateurs, Dancho Danchev says that “[i]t’s in fact [an] average team” and Mikko Hypponen says “[t]his wasn’t in my opinion ground-breaking as an attack. We see this fairly regularly.” OK, well, that’s quite the continuum of “sophistication.” Back to that in a bit.
Attribution? The New York Times reported that the attacks were traced to two schools in China: Shanghai Jiaotong University and the Lanxiang Vocational School. While some have drawn links between these schools and the Chinese military others cast doubt on it. The Financial Times reportsthat “a freelance security consultant in his 30s” in China wrote (part of) the Internet Explorer exploit but “is not a full-time government worker, did not launch the attack, and in fact would prefer not be used in such offensive efforts.” Hmm. OK. Mandiant indicated that the quality of the exploit points toward some kind of relationship with the Chinese state, while iDefense, looking at the command and control infrastructure, pretty unambiguously states that the Chinese State was being the attacks whether or not “amateurs” were used.
So here we are at the crossroads of the exploit, the malware, and the command and control infrastructure. And as Richard Bejtlich points out there’s more to it than just the technical aspects of malware, there is, as Mike Cloppert describes, a range of indicators that allow one to characterize the adversary behind the attacks. Clearly, most of us relying on public sources do not have a sufficient level of detailed information to analyse the attack on Google with such depth.
This brings me back to the Damballa report. I really liked this report because is focused on the command and control infrastructure, it was based on interesting data collected via passive DNS data collection and included many interesting conclusion and enough detail to begin connecting their data with other publicly available data. In fact, one of the most interesting observations for me was evidence that the DNS resolutions indicate that Google China was compromised first, followed by Google in Mountain View some 17 hours later. Still, there are parts of the report that are confusing to me.
The Damballa report starts by looking at “five CnC domain names associated with the Aurora botnet” that were publicly disclosed, however, these domain names are not explicitly stated in the report. The most seemingly authoritative list, from Symantec, for example, lists 7 domains. The starting point appears to be “blog1.servebeer.com”. This one is common to all lists (except Symantec’s technical write-up). The domain servebeer.com is a Dymanic DNS serverice offered by No-IP that allows people to register sub-domains such as “blog1.” Based on factors such as “DDNS credentials” Damballa linked the following domains together (four of which are not disclosed).
At some point each of the 5 domains above pointed at at least one of the “IP addresses associated with two of the CnC servers used during the Aurora attack.” The IP’s were not disclosed. Therefore, I am not entirely sure of how the next group of domain names are linked.
While the last 2 domains (filoups.info and google.homeunix.com) appear on the US CERT list of “Aurora” domains, the first 5 domains (baltika1.servebeer.com, m7been.zapto.org, miecros.info, mcsmc.org, and yahoo.blogdns.net) do not.
Damballa then links this second group to “two distinct families of Fake AV Alert / Scareware: Login Software 2009 and Microsoft Antispyware Services.”
Fake AV Alert / Scareware
Fake Microsoft Antispyware
So, filoups.info links the “Fake AV Alert / Scareware” to the US CERT list of “Aurora” domains and google.homeunix.com links the “Fake Microsoft Antispyware” to the US CERT list of “Aurora” domains. Both appear in Damballa’s second cluster (which has an unclear relationship with the first cluster).
Using the Damballa list along with samples from ThreatExpert I compiled a list that included a few additional domain names. I included domain names that the individual piece of malware requested that had similar paths to those identiofied by Damballa and excluded those that appeared to be other malware or SEO URLs.
For example, one sample contains google.homeunix.com, yahoo.blogdns.net, tyuqwer.blogdns.com, and tyuqwer.dyndns.org. The domains google.homeunix.com and tyuqwer.dyndns.org appear on the US CERT list, yahoo.blogdns.net appears on the Damballa list and tyuqwer.blogdns.com appears on neither. Another sample contains google.homeunix.com tyuqwer.dyndns.org blogspot.blogsite.org and voanews.ath.cx. All of these domains appear on the US CERT list google.homeunix.com and voanews.ath.cx appear on the Damballa list.
The next grouping largely focuses on “mcsmc.org” abnd the domain names that apear with it and request similar URL paths but are not in the Damballa report.
The relationships between the domains can be built our further, especially if we include common IP addresses. I think this indicates that there are a variety of conclusion being drawn based on data that comes bundled with a variety of assumptions. For example, is the sample detailed by Symatec the same — as opposed to similar to — the one used in attack on Google? How were these “master” lists — such as the one by US CERT created? How were these domains bundled together?
In the Damballa report in particular there are a few additional assumptions that I am not entirely sure of. First, I’m not sure that DDNS == amateur. Many of the targeted attack on civil society and human rights groups I’ve looked at used DDNS. And while many DDNS providers do cooperate with the security industry and law enforcement, the ones in China (like 3322.org) don’t. Moreover, I’m not sure that “amateur” necessarily excludes state involvement — even governments can engage in behaviour that would be considered amateurish. And would you want to tip off state involvement by being uber3l33t? The logic just starts to become circular after a while, especially if you only focus on the technical aspects.
I mean, if we take Google at their word and believe that “a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists” how do we explain the connection to (probably Eastern European) SEO and related common malware?
Even if we assume that the “master” list is accurate, Damballa does raise some alternative explanations for the association between the two:
- it is possible that two different groups purchased the services of the same crimeware group (probably the same people behind Operation Aurora) to distribute and manage their malware family. Or the crimeware group rented out different variants of the same malware to different groups with different intentions.
- There is no natural progression seen between the two families. Usually malware writers evolve in both technology and protection of their creation but these two families did not show any related evolution. The malware families appear to exist independently, and then become superseded by Trojan.Hydraq.
The relationship between crimeware — or common botnet operators/kits — and targeted malware attacks in order to extract sensitive data (some might call this espionage) is something I tried to explore in “The “Kneber” Botnet, Spear Phishing Attacks and Crimeware.” Again, given the lack of precise data I don’t claim to know what’s going on in the Google case — in fact, I may have just made it worse with this post. But if we accepts the links that Damballa has found to be accurate it does raise the important issue of the relationship between crimeware and espionage.
But, maybe, we’re jumping to conclusions based on faulty assumptions. I just don’t know. It is still a mess.