Researcher wants hacker groups hounded mercilessly

Botnet expert Joe Stewart says 'special ops' teams could thwart cybercriminals

Criminal cybergangs must be harried, hounded and hunted until they're driven out of business, a noted botnet researcher said today as he prepared to pitch a new anti-malware strategy later this week at the RSA Conference in San Francisco.

"We need a new approach to fighting cybercrime," said Joe Stewart, director of SecureWorks Inc.'s counterthreat unit. "What we're doing now is not making a significant dent."

Rather than pursue malware makers the old-fashioned way -- a tack Stewart argued is haphazard, at best -- he said that teams of paid security researchers should be created to stalk and disrupt specific criminal gangs or botnets. Set up like a police department's major crimes unit or a military special operations team, the researchers would take a long-term view, get to know their target, perhaps even infiltrate the group responsible for the botnet and employ a spectrum of disruptive tactics.

"Criminals are operating with the same risk-effort-reward model of legitimate businesses," said Stewart. "If we really want to dissuade them, we have to attack all three of those. Only then can we disrupt their business."

Researchers have had some success, said Stewart, who cited last November's takedown of McColo Corp., a hosting company that was harboring the command-and-control servers for several large botnets, as an one example. The creation of the Conficker Working Group, a consortium of companies and organizations that has worked to keep that worm's makers from communicating with infected PCs, is another.

"McColo didn't take all the botnets out," said Stewart, who was instrumental in identifying the botnets controlled by McColo-hosted systems, "even though some, like Srizbi, suffered. But even though Srizbi didn't really come back, [its authors] are back up and running another bot. It's much less sophisticated, and just one-tenth the size, but they're back."

To affect a botnet, and the criminal group behind it, Stewart believes that small, independent teams must focus on just that one malware family. "These small groups would have a long-term focus on just one criminal group or botnet, and employ every tactic that they can come up with," he said.

Current tactics, such as taking down a command-and-control server or building spam filtering lists, are not enough, Stewart argued. "We need to keep doing them, over and over again," he said.

A purely volunteer effort won't cut it, he's convinced, and some way to fund professionals must be found. "Maybe a bank or group of banks would fund a team that goes after a phishing group or banking Trojan groups," Stewart speculated. But he acknowledged he doesn't have all the answers. "I'm more of an idea guy."

By necessity, the work would have to be done in secret, so as to not alert hackers that a group is on their trail. "The Conficker Working Group is way, way out in the open," said Stewart, using that collection of researchers as an example of what his approach could not be. "The author of Conficker knows that the working group is out there, and has redoubled his efforts. We have to infiltrate these groups, not just monitor their postings. We have to understand who they are, chat them up, get some metrics and try to become a trusted member of the group. That's a huge time investment."

Stewart declined to comment on whether there were teams organized along the lines he suggests already in operation. "I don't want to comment on ones that have or have not started," he said.

He admitted the battle would be long, and convincing others will be difficult. But there's not really an alternative, he argued. "I think this can work. We've seen we can't have a short-term impact on these guys. We have to constantly hound them."

Stewart will present his idea at RSA on Thursday, and follow that with a pitch to Interpol, the international police organization, in the near future.

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