Revelations in Data Protection in the Aftermath of Shellshock

October 28, 2014
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3 min read

Who came up with the notion that less is more? In terms of data protection, I’m pretty sure that more is more. Sometimes, having more results in a positive outcome (such as more canned foods during a food drive) and sometimes, having more results in a negative outcome (such as more rain in a flood zone).

When it comes to data, more is a good thing, and analysts such as myself become giddier when there are massive amounts of data to play with. With all this data to analyze, my colleagues and I shared some of our thoughts in a research and intelligence paper titled “Shellshock.”

The majority of the attacks source from the well-known search engine Shodan.io probing and cataloging vulnerable systems. This data is often used by attackers to identify vulnerable systems. Who can blame them for wanting to narrow their attack surface? Outside of this activity, we investigated several interesting vectors used to target this vulnerability, including email reconnaissance, perlbot password-grab attempt, perl reverse shell and mayhem malware installer.

During the beginning stages of an incident, security groups spend most of their energy putting out fires and working quickly to research, respond and mitigate the threat. There is no time for us to “ooh” and “aah” at wondrous charts or bask in the beauty of a glorious trend line. When all is said and done (well, sort of — the threat never really goes away), we take a deeper look at the data.

The First 76 Hours

In looking at data protection, we now expect high-profile threats to be exploited almost immediately after the public release of an exploit; Shellshock was no exception. Still, I reserve the right to be surprised by the speed at which attackers jumped all over the vulnerability in GNU Bash.

Within one hour of the public release of an exploit targeting this issue, we observed a significant uptick in activity associated with this threat. This initial spike on Sept. 25 was caused by over 800 events. A much larger spike in activity was witnessed on Sept. 27, with more than 1,200 events reported.

Attacks came in waves from different source IPs and originating countries. Almost as soon as one attack was mitigated by the Internet service provider, another one quickly took its place. Many of the attacks originated from a single Autonomous Systems Number or even a single IP, which is not uncommon in widespread attacks such as this. The clear leader in attacks is the United States, with more than 15,000 recorded attacks (ooh, ahh).

Data Protection in the Face of Rising Attacks

You’ll have to view the paper to “ooh” and “ahh” at the other graphs, but I would like to point out that other notable discoveries include Iceland making our top 10 attacking countries list for the first time. Additionally, while Japan ranked low in the list of attacking countries, it sustained the highest number of attacks from the most countries. The finance and information technology industries experienced spikes in activity throughout the time period analyzed, whereas the targeted activity against the other top industries remained relatively flat.

The Shellshock threat is a good example of a growing trend we’re observing on the attacker front called “attacks that snub malware,” which is often referred to in the industry as “malware-less” attacks. This simply means attackers don’t want to risk malware detection, so they instead exploit existing application functionalities.

This is why it is important for organizations to take a holistic approach to securing their networks. Make sure to monitor your distribution sites and apply updates as they become available for this vulnerability. Many vendors that offer intrusion prevention or intrusion detection systems also now have specific coverage to address this threat and provide assistance with an organization’s data-protection efforts.

Michelle Alvarez
Manager, IBM X-Force IRIS

Michelle Alvarez is the manager of the Threat Intelligence Production Team with IBM X-Force Incident Response and Intelligence Services (IRIS). She brings mo...
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