Over 75,000 systems compromised in cyberattack

Kneber botnet used to gather wide range of corporate, personal data, NetWitness says

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the cyberattacks began in 1998. They began in 2008. Security researchers at Herndon, Va.-based NetWitness Corp. have unearthed a massive botnet affecting at least 75,000 computers at 2,500 companies and government agencies worldwide.

The Kneber botnet, named for the username linking the affected machines worldwide, has been used to gather login credentials to online financial systems, social networking sites and e-mail systems for the past 18 months, according to NetWitness.

A 75GB cache of stolen data discovered by NetWitness included 68,000 corporate login credentials, login data for user accounts at Facebook, Yahoo and Hotmail, 2,000 SSL certificate files and a large amount of highly detailed "dossier-level" identity information. In addition, systems compromised by the botnet also give attackers remote access inside the compromised network, the company said.

"Disturbingly, the data was only a one-month snapshot of data from a campaign that has been in operation for more than a year," NetWitness said in a statement announcing the discovery of the botnet late yesterday.

NetWitness did not release the names of the companies compromised in the attacks, which it described as being highly targeted and well coordinated. But a story Wednesday in the Wall Street Journal identified pharmaceutical company Merck & Co., Cardinal Health Inc., Paramount Pictures and Juniper Networks Inc. as some of U.S. firms that had been infiltrated. Systems belonging to 10 government agencies were also penetrated in the attacks.

According to the Journal, the attacks started in late 2008 and appeared to originate in Europe and China. Computers in as many as 196 countries have been affected, with many systems compromised after users clicked on phishing e-mails with links to sites containing malicious code. Most of the compromised systems appeared to be in Egypt, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the U.S., the Journal reported, quoting an unnamed source with information on the attacks.

NetWitness, which provides a range of network monitoring and forensics services for companies and government agencies, discovered the botnet in January during a routine engagement with one of its clients. According to the company, the botnet is a variant of the ZeuS botnet, which is known primarily for stealing banking credentials.

More than half of the infected systems in the Kneber botnet also contained the competing Waledac Trojan, probably because those behind the attacks wanted to build some redundancy into their attacks, NetWitness said. "The coexistence of ZeuS and Waledac suggests the goals of resilience and survivability and potential deeper cross-crew collaboration in the criminal underground," the company noted.

NetWitness' discovery comes just weeks after Google disclosed that it and several other high-tech firms had been victims of organized cyberattacks originating from China. Both incidents underscore what analysts are calling the Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) faced by a growing number of financial, commercial and government entities.

The term has been used for some time in government and military domains to describe targeted cyberattacks carried out by highly organized state-sponsored groups and organized cybergangs with deep technical skills and computing resources. Such attacks are typically highly targeted, stealthy, customized and persistent. They also often involve intensive surveillance and advanced social engineering.

In many cases, the attacks target highly placed individuals within organizations, who are tricked into visiting malicious sites or downloading malicious software onto their systems.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

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