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Details of hijacked 24/7 ad server emerge

Compromised server seeds legit sites with ads that invisibly steer users to exploit

October 21, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Hackers have hijacked a server operated by Internet advertising company 24/7 Real Media Inc. and are using it to seed legitimate Web sites with ads carrying attack code, Symantec Corp. said Friday.

Windows users who visited sites with the attacking ads were infected if they browsed with Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer and had RealNetworks Inc.'s popular RealPlayer media player program installed on their PCs, Symantec said in an analysis written by three company researchers. This is the first time that malware has piggybacked on Internet ads served from a major advertising firm.

The attack should be a warning to the Web, said Andrew Storms, director of security operations at nCircle Network Security Inc. "So much of the content we consume today comes from many syndication services," Storms said in an e-mail interview. "We trust that the content provided to us by Internet 'blue chips' is safe from malware.

"This should be a wakeup call for sites which offer syndicated content," Storms said. "They need to take a more active role in ensuring the security of [that] content."

Working off reports last week that RealPlayer and Internet Explorer could be exploited to infect Windows computers, Symantec researchers Aaron Adams, Raymond Ball and Anthony Roe used a compromised company honeypot to trace an attack back to 24/7 Real Media's server. Although Symantec didn't speculate on how the server was compromised, it did lay out the attack's progression.

How the hack worked

After they'd gotten access to the server, the attackers added code that embedded an IFrame in every advertisement. The invisible IFrame contained instructions to redirect any browser that rendered the ad to another, unauthorized IP address. In other words, users who surfed to a theoretically trustworthy site that contained ads inserted by New York-based 24/7 were, in fact, secretly shunted to the second, malicious site.

Script hosted on that second site sniffed users' machines to determine if they were vulnerable to the unpatched RealPlayer vulnerability before actually launching an attack, according to Symantec. "The script first tests the user-agent supplied by the browser ensuring that it is Internet 6 or 7 and the system is identified as NT 5.1 [Windows XP] or NT 5.0 [Windows 2000]," Adams, Ball and Roe said in a report. Other sniff tests included one to identify the version of RealPlayer on the vulnerable PC.

If the computer met the attack criteria, a second exploit script was executed, which in turn downloaded and installed a Trojan horse to the PC. The Trojan horse was a variation of "Zonebac," malware first detected last year that disables a slew of security software and lowers Internet Explorer's security settings, said the analysts. On Friday, Symantec called the original Zonebac "fairly unsophisticated" but added that the variant in the RealPlayer attack "retrieves information from numerous Web sites."



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