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Last month, ESET, a leading IT security company, published a detailed analysis of operation Windigo. This operation, active since 2011, has compromised over 25,000 Linux and Unix webservers. Cyber-criminals use these servers to steal SSH credentials, redirect visitors to malicious websites, and send millions of spam messages per day. The ESET report provides information on several components of Windigo, including Linux/Ebury, an OpenSSH backdoor used to steal payloads, SSH passwords, SSH keys, private keys, private key passphrases, and other credentials.
I found it very intriguing that the report indicated that Windigo does not exploit any cryptographic or system vulnerabilities. Instead, this operation leverages only stolen credentials—highlighting the rapidly increasing prevalence of trust-based attacks.
At the heart of operation Windigo’s success is the SSH credential-stealing Linux/Ebury backdoor. Without the SSH credentials, Windigo is not able to expand and compromise additional systems. Once malicious actors have obtained the SSH credentials and installed Linux/Ebury on systems, they can continue to collect new or modified credentials on infected systems. As they do with SSH daemon backdoors, cyber-criminals exploit the blind trust in encryption to own the compromised systems, maintaining access even if the credentials are later changed.
Stolen SSH credentials that do not provide root-level access do not go to waste; they are used as part of spam bot operations or to log into other servers. ESET monitored data sent to exfiltration servers over a period of five days. During that time, ESET captured 5,362 unique successful logins. The figure below shows the number of logins that used root credentials as compared to other forms of access.
Although the Windigo botnet is smaller than most end-user botnets, it’s important to note that Windigo-compromised systems are all webservers with a magnified ability to direct users to malicious sites hosting malware. In fact, Windigo is redirecting over 500’000 web visitors to malicious content every day. By using keys, adversaries have the privileges and trusted status required to turn legitimate systems into a malicious infrastructure that dwarfs even some cloud computing vendors.
Infected systems that are part of the operation Windigo botnet are extremely difficult to detect, in no small part because adversaries have the elevated privileges required to install any binaries they choose. They then conceal these highly sophisticated binaries with advanced cryptography. "System administrators attempting to clean systems that are part of the Windigo operation are usually able to remove other malware components such as Linux/Cdorked, but often overlook the OpenSSH backdoor due to the stealth mechanisms used.” With the backdoor still open, the Windigo operators can return at a later date and revert the changes made by system administrators.
For this reason, the ESET paper advises administrators to “completely wipe their [infected] servers and rebuild them from scratch using a verified source.” Administrators should also assume that all administrator credentials on a compromised system have also been compromised. Like Mask malware, used to steal cryptographic keys and digital certificates, operation Windigo demonstrates the increasing numbers of advanced and persistent adversaries targeting keys and credentials. Last week the latest set of released Snowden documents, titled "I Hunt Sys Admins,” further revealed how malicious attackers and nation states target the SSH credentials of system admins for theft. This unsurprising information still highlights most organizations’ lack of visibility and control over their keys and certificates.
It’s no surprise that adversaries are increasingly using keys and certificates in their nefarious campaigns. Too many organizations employ a lackluster approach to protecting their SSH keys, recklessly exposing themselves to eager cyber-criminals. In addition, most organizations have little visibility into their cryptographic assets—the very assets that criminals are exploiting—making it hard for administrators to understand the scope of the problem or to detect anomalous usages.
In research conducted by Venafi, 74% of organizations have inadequate SSH security policies. This statistic alone is an enticing invitation for any attacker. Why not target an organization with no security controls or ability to respond? Based on revelations in just the first three months of this year (including the release of more Snowden documents and revelations about Mask and Windigo), I’d suggest that we are seeing only the first crest of a threatening tsunami of attacks on SSH. It’s time organizations understand what trust-based attacks are and how to protect against them.