On September 22, 2016, this site was forced offline for nearly four days after it was hit with “Mirai,” a malware strain that enslaves poorly secured Internet of Things (IoT) devices like wireless routers and security cameras into a botnet for use in large cyberattacks. Roughly a week after that assault, the individual(s) who launched that attack — using the name “Anna-Senpai” — released the source code for Mirai, spawning dozens of copycat attack armies online.

After months of digging, KrebsOnSecurity is now confident to have uncovered Anna-Senpai’s real-life identity, and the identity of at least one co-conspirator who helped to write and modify the malware.

The Hackforums post that includes links to the Mirai source code.

Mirai co-author Anna-Senpai leaked the source code for Mirai on Sept. 30, 2016.

Before we go further, a few disclosures are probably in order. First, this is easily the longest story I’ve ever written on this blog. It’s lengthy because I wanted to walk readers through my process of discovery, which has taken months to unravel. The details help in understanding the financial motivations behind Mirai and the botnet wars that preceded it. Also, I realize there are a great many names to keep track of as you read this post, so I’ve included a glossary.

The story you’re reading now is the result of hundreds of hours of research.  At times, I was desperately seeking the missing link between seemingly unrelated people and events; sometimes I was inundated with huge amounts of information — much of it intentionally false or misleading — and left to search for kernels of truth hidden among the dross.  If you’ve ever wondered why it seems that so few Internet criminals are brought to justice, I can tell you that the sheer amount of persistence and investigative resources required to piece together who’s done what to whom (and why) in the online era is tremendous.

As noted in previous KrebsOnSecurity articles, botnets like Mirai are used to knock individuals, businesses, governmental agencies, and non-profits offline on a daily basis. These so-called “distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks are digital sieges in which an attacker causes thousands of hacked systems to hit a target with so much junk traffic that it falls over and remains unreachable by legitimate visitors. While DDoS attacks typically target a single Web site or Internet host, they often result in widespread collateral Internet disruption.

A great deal of DDoS activity on the Internet originates from so-called ‘booter/stresser’ services, which are essentially DDoS-for-hire services which allow even unsophisticated users to launch high-impact attacks.  And as we will see, the incessant competition for profits in the blatantly illegal DDoS-for-hire industry can lead those involved down some very strange paths, indeed.

THE FIRST CLUES

The first clues to Anna-Senpai’s identity didn’t become clear until I understood that Mirai was just the latest incarnation of an IoT botnet family that has been in development and relatively broad use for nearly three years.

Earlier this summer, my site was hit with several huge attacks from a collection of hacked IoT systems compromised by a family of botnet code that served as a precursor to Mirai. The malware went by several names, including “Bashlite,” “Gafgyt,” “Qbot,” “Remaiten,” and “Torlus.”

All of these related IoT botnet varieties infect new systems in a fashion similar to other well-known Internet worms — propagating from one infected host to another. And like those earlier Internet worms, sometimes the Internet scanning these systems perform to identify other candidates for inclusion into the botnet is so aggressive that it constitutes an unintended DDoS on the very home routers, Web cameras and DVRs that the bot code is trying to subvert and recruit into the botnet. This kind of self-defeating behavior will be familiar to those who recall the original Morris Worm, NIMDA, CODE RED, Welchia, Blaster and SQL Slammer disruptions of yesteryear.

Infected IoT devices constantly scan the Web for other IoT things to compromise, wriggling into devices that are protected by little more than insecure factory-default settings and passwords. The infected devices are then forced to participate in DDoS attacks (ironically, many of the devices most commonly infected by Mirai and similar IoT worms are security cameras).

Mirai’s ancestors had so many names because each name corresponded to a variant that included new improvements over time. In 2014, a group of Internet hooligans operating under the banner “lelddos” very publicly used the code to launch large, sustained attacks that knocked many Web sites offline.

The most frequent target of the lelddos gang were Web servers used to host Minecraft, a wildly popular computer game sold by Microsoft that can be played from any device and on any Internet connection.

The object of Minecraft is to run around and build stuff, block by large pixelated block. That may sound simplistic and boring, but an impressive number of people positively adore this game – particularly pre-teen males. Microsoft has sold more than a 100 million copies of Minecraft, and at any given time there are over a million people playing it online. Players can build their own worlds, or visit a myriad other blocky realms by logging on to their favorite Minecraft server to play with friends.

Image: Minecraft.net

Image: Minecraft.net

A large, successful Minecraft server with more than a thousand players logging on each day can easily earn the server’s owners upwards of $50,000 per month, mainly from players renting space on the server to build their Minecraft worlds, and purchasing in-game items and special abilities.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the top-earning Minecraft servers eventually attracted the attention of ne’er-do-wells and extortionists like the lelddos gang. Lelddos would launch a huge DDoS attack against a Minecraft server, knowing that the targeted Minecraft server owner was likely losing thousands of dollars for each day his gaming channel remained offline.

Adding urgency to the ordeal, many of the targeted server’s loyal customers would soon find other Minecraft servers to patronize if they could not get their Minecraft fix at the usual online spot.

Robert Coelho is vice president of ProxyPipe, Inc., a San Francisco company that specializes in protecting Minecraft servers from attacks.

“The Minecraft industry is so competitive,” Coelho said. “If you’re a player, and your favorite Minecraft server gets knocked offline, you can switch to another server. But for the server operators, it’s all about maximizing the number of players and running a large, powerful server. The more players you can hold on the server, the more money you make. But if you go down, you start to lose Minecraft players very fast — maybe for good.”

In June 2014, ProxyPipe was hit with a 300 gigabit per second DDoS attack launched by lelddos, which had a penchant for publicly taunting its victims on Twitter just as it began launching DDoS assaults at the taunted.

The hacker group "lelddos" tweeted at its victims before launching huge DDoS attacks against them.

The hacker group “lelddos” tweeted at its victims before launching huge DDoS attacks against them.

At the time, ProxyPipe was buying DDoS protection from Reston, Va. -based security giant Verisign. In a quarterly report published in 2014, Verisign called the attack the largest it had ever seen, although it didn’t name ProxyPipe in the report – referring to it only as a customer in the media and entertainment business.

Verisign said the 2014 attack was launched by a botnet of more than 100,000 servers running on SuperMicro IPMI boards. Days before the huge attack on ProxyPipe, a security researcher published information about a vulnerability in the SuperMicro devices that could allow them to be remotely hacked and commandeered for these sorts of attacks.

THE CENTRALITY OF PROTRAF

Coelho recalled that in mid-2015 his company’s Minecraft customers began coming under attack from a botnet made up of IoT devices infected with Qbot. He said the attacks were directly preceded by a threat made by a then-17-year-old Christopher “CJ” Sculti, Jr., the owner and sole employee of a competing DDoS protection company called Datawagon.

Datawagon also courted Minecraft servers as customers, and its servers were hosted on Internet space claimed by yet another Minecraft-focused DDoS protection provider — ProTraf Solutions.

CJ Sculti, Jr.

Christopher “CJ” Sculti, Jr.

According to Coelho, ProTraf was trying to woo many of his biggest Minecraft server customers away from ProxyPipe. Coelho said in mid-2015, Sculti reached out to him on Skype and said he was getting ready to disable Coelho’s Skype account. At the time, an exploit for a software weakness in Skype was being traded online, and this exploit could be used to remotely and instantaneously disable any Skype account.

Sure enough, Coelho recalled, his Skype account and two others used by co-workers were shut off just minutes after that threat, effectively severing a main artery of support for ProxyPipe’s customers – many of whom were accustomed to communicating with ProxyPipe via Skype.

“CJ messaged me about five minutes before the DDoS started, saying he was going to disable my skype,” Coelho said. “The scary thing about when this happens is you don’t know if your Skype account has been hacked and under control of someone else or if it just got disabled.”

Once ProxyPipe’s Skype accounts were disabled, the company’s servers were hit with a massive, constantly changing DDoS attack that disrupted ProxyPipe’s service to its Minecraft server customers. Coelho said within a few days of the attack, many of ProxyPipe’s most lucrative Minecraft servers had moved over to servers run protected by ProTraf Solutions.

“In 2015, the ProTraf guys hit us offline tons, so a lot of our customers moved over to them,” Coelho said. “We told our customers that we knew [ProTraf] were the ones doing it, but some of the customers didn’t care and moved over to ProTraf anyway because they were losing money from being down.”

I found Coelho’s story fascinating because it eerily echoed the events leading up to my Sept. 2016 record 620 Gbps attack. I, too, was contacted via Skype by Sculti — on two occasions. The first was on July 7, 2015, when Sculti reached out apropos of nothing to brag about scanning the Internet for IoT devices running default usernames and passwords, saying he had uploaded some kind of program to more than a quarter-million systems that his scans found.

Here’s a snippet of that conversation:

July 7, 2015:

21:37 CJ: http://krebsonsecurity.com/2015/06/crooks-use-hacked-routers-to-aid-cyberheists/
21:37 CJ: vulnerable routers are a HUGE issue
21:37 CJ: a few months ago
21:37 CJ: I scanned the internet with a few sets of defualt logins
21:37 CJ: for telnet
21:37 CJ: and I was able to upload and execute a binary
21:38 CJ: on 250k devices
21:38 CJ: most of which were routers
21:38 Brian Krebs: o_0

The second time I heard from Sculti on Skype was Sept. 20, 2016 — the day of my 620 Gbps attack. Sculti was angry over a story I’d just published that mentioned his name, and he began rather saltily maligning the reputation of a source and friend who had helped me with that story.

Indignant on behalf of my source and annoyed at Sculti’s rant, I simply blocked his Skype account from communicating with mine and went on with my day. Just minutes after that conversation, however, my Skype account was flooded with thousands of contact requests from compromised or junk Skype accounts, making it virtually impossible to use the software for making phone calls or instant messaging.

Six hours after that Sept. 20 conversation with Sculti, the huge 620 Gbps DDoS attack commenced on this site.

WHO IS LELDDOS?

Coelho said he believes the main members of lelddos gang were Sculti and the owners of ProTraf. Asked why he was so sure of this, he recounted a large lelddos attack in early 2015 against ProxyPipe that coincided with a scam in which large tracts of Internet address space were temporarily stolen from the company.

According to ProxyPipe, a swath of Internet addresses was hijacked from the company by FastReturn, a cloud hosting firm. Dyn, a company that closely tracks which blocks of Internet addresses are assigned to which organizations, confirmed the timing of the Internet address hijack that Coelho described.

A few months after that attack, the owner of FastReturn — a young man named Ammar Zuberi — went to work as a software developer for ProTraf. In the process, Zuberi transferred the majority of Internet addresses assigned to FastReturn over to ProTraf.

Zuberi told KrebsOnSecurity that he was not involved with lelddos, but he acknowledged that he did hijack ProxyPipe’s Internet address space before moving over to ProTraf.

“I was stupid and new to this entire thing and it was interesting to me how insecure the underlying ecosystem of the Internet was,” Zuberi said. “I just kept pushing the envelope to see how far I could get with that, I guess. I eventually realized though and got away from it, although that’s not really much of a justification.”

According to Zuberi, CJ Sculti Jr. was a member of lelddos, as were the two co-owners of ProTraf. This is interesting because not long after the September 2016 Mirai attack took this site offline, several sources who specialize in lurking on cybercrime forums shared information suggesting that the principal author of Bashlite/Qbot was a ProTraf employee: A 19-year-old computer whiz from Washington, Penn. named Josiah White.

White’s profile on LinkedIn lists him as an “enterprise DDoS mitigation expert” at ProTraf, but for years he was better known to those in the hacker community under the alias “LiteSpeed.”

LiteSpeed is the screen name White used on Hackforums[dot]net – a sprawling English-language marketplace where mostly young, low-skilled hackers can buy and sell cybercrime tools and stolen goods with ease. Until very recently, Hackforums also was the definitive place to buy and sell DDoS-for-hire services.

I contacted White to find out if the rumors about his authorship of Qbot/Bashlite were true. White acknowledged that he had written some of Qbot/Bashlite’s components — including the code segment that the malware uses to spread the infection to new machines. But White said he never intended for his code to be sold and traded online.

White claims that a onetime friend and Hackforums member nicknamed “Vyp0r” betrayed his trust and forced him to publish the code online by threatening to post White’s personal details online and to “swat” his home. Swatting is a potentially deadly hoax in which an attacker calls in a fake hostage situation or bomb threat at a residence or business with the intention of sending a team of heavily-armed police officers to the target’s address.

“Most of the stuff that I had wrote was for friends, but as I later realized, things on HF [Hackforums] tend to not remain private,” White wrote in an instant message to KrebsOnSecurity. “Eventually I learned they were reselling them in under-the-table deals, and so I just released everything to stop that. I made some mistakes when I was younger, and I realize that, but I’m trying to set my path straight and move on.”

WHO IS PARAS JHA?

paraslinkedin

White’s employer ProTraf Solutions has only one other employee – 20-year-old President Paras Jha, from Fanwood, NJ. On his LinkedIn profile, Jha states that “Paras is a passionate entrepreneur driven by the want to create.” The profile continues:

“Highly self-motivated, in 7th grade he began to teach himself to program in a variety of languages. Today, his skillset for software development includes C#, Java, Golang, C, C++, PHP, x86 ASM, not to mention web ‘browser languages’ such as Javascript and HTML/CSS.”

Jha’s LinkedIn page also shows that he has extensive experience running Minecraft servers, and that for several years he worked for Minetime, one of the most popular Minecraft servers at the time.

After first reading Jha’s LinkedIn resume, I was haunted by the nagging feeling that I’d seen this rather unique combination of computer language skills somewhere else online. Then it dawned on me: The mix of programming skills that Jha listed in his LinkedIn profile is remarkably similar to the skills listed on Hackforums by none other than Mirai’s author — Anna-Senpai.

Prior to leaking the Mirai source code on HackForums at the end of September 2016, the majority of Anna-Senpai’s posts on Hackforums were meant to taunt other hackers on the forum who were using Qbot to build DDoS attack armies.

The best example of this is a thread posted to Hackforums on July 10, 2016 titled “Killing All Telnets,” in which Anna-Senpai boldly warns forum members that the malicious code powering his botnet contains a particularly effective “bot killer” designed to remove Qbot from infected IoT devices and to prevent systems infected with his malware from ever being reinfected with Qbot again.

Anna-Senpai warns Qbot users that his new worm (relatively unknown by its name "Mirai" at the time) was capable of killing off IoT devices infected with Qbot.

Anna-Senpai warns Qbot users that his new worm (relatively unknown by its name “Mirai” at the time) was capable of killing off IoT devices infected with Qbot.

Initially, forum members dismissed Anna’s threats as idle taunts, but as the thread continues for page after page we can see from other forum members that his bot killer is indeed having its intended effect. [Oddly enough, it’s very common for the authors of botnet code to include patching routines to protect their newly-enslaved bots from being compromised by other miscreants.  Just like in any other market, there is a high degree of competition between cybercrooks who are constantly seeking to add more zombies to their DDoS armies, and they often resort to unorthodox tactics to knock out the competition.  As we’ll see, this kind of internecine warfare is a major element in this story.]

“When the owner of this botnet wrote a July 2016 Hackforums thread named ‘Killing all Telnets’, he was right,” wrote Allison Nixon and Pierre Lamy, threat researchers for New York City-based security firm Flashpoint. “Our intelligence around that time reflected a massive shift away from the traditional gafgyt infection patterns and towards a different pattern that refused to properly execute on analysts’ machines. This new species choked out all the others.”

It wasn’t until after I’d spoken with Jha’s business partner Josiah White that I began re-reading every one of Anna-Senpai’s several dozen posts to Hackforums. The one that made Jha’s programming skills seem familiar came on July 12, 2016 — a week after posting his “Killing All Telnets” discussion thread — when Anna-Senpai contributed to a Hackforums thread started by a hacker group calling itself “Nightmare.”

Such groups or hacker cliques are common on Hackforums, and forum members can apply for membership by stating their skills and answering a few questions. Anna-Senpai posted his application for membership into this thread among dozens of others, describing himself thusly:

Age: 18+

Location and Languages Spoken: English

Which of the aforementioned categories describe you the best?: Programmer / Development

What do you Specialize in? (List only): Systems programming / general low level languages (C + ASM)

Why should we choose you over other applicants?: I have 8 years of development under my belt, and I’m very familiar with programming in a variety of languages, including ASM, C, Go, Java, C#, and PHP. I like to use this knowledge for personal gain.”

The Hackforums post shows Jha and Anna-Senpai have the exact same programming skills. Additionally, according to an analysis of Mirai by security firm Incapsula, the malicious software used to control a botnet powered by Mirai is coded in Go (a.k.a. “Golang”), a somewhat esoteric programming language developed by Google in 2007 that saw a surge in popularity in 2016. Incapsula also said the malcode that gets installed on IoT bots is coded in C.

anna_senpai_intro_on_hackforums

DREADIS[NOT]COOL

I began to dig deeper into Paras Jha’s history and footprint online, and discovered that his father in October 2013 registered a vanity domain for his son, parasjha.info. That site is no longer online, but a historic version of it cached by the indispensable Internet Archive includes a resume of Jha’s early work with various popular Minecraft servers. Here’s a autobiographical snippet from parasjha.info:

“My passion is to utilize my skills in programming and drawing to develop entertaining games and software for the online game ‘Minecraft. Someday, I plan to start my own enterprise focused on the gaming industry targeted towards game consoles and the mobile platform. To further my ideas and help the gaming community, I have released some of my code to open source projects on websites centered on public coding under the handle dreadiscool.”

A Google search for this rather unique username “dreadiscool” turns up accounts by the same name at dozens of forums dedicated to computer programming and Minecraft. In many of those accounts, the owner is clearly frustrated by incessant DDoS attacks targeting his Minecraft servers, and appears eager for advice on how best to counter the assaults.

From Dreadiscool’s various online postings, it seems clear that at some point Jha decided it might be more profitable and less frustrating to defend Minecraft servers from DDoS attacks, as opposed to trying to maintain the servers themselves.

“My experience in dealing with DDoS attacks led me to start a server hosting company focused on providing solutions to clients to mitigate such attacks,” Jha wrote on his vanity site.

Some of the more recent Dreadiscool posts date to November 2016, and many of those posts are lengthy explanations of highly technical subjects. The tone of voice in these posts is far more confident and even condescending than the Dreadiscool from years earlier, covering a range of subjects from programming to DDoS attacks.

Dreadiscool's account on Spigot Minecraft forum since 2013 includes some interesting characters photoshopped into this image.

Dreadiscool’s account on Spigot Minecraft forum since 2013 includes some interesting characters photoshopped into this image.

For example, Dreadiscool has been an active member of the Minecraft forum spigotmc.org since 2013. This user’s avatar (pictured above) on spigotmc.org is an altered image taken from the 1994 Quentin Tarantino cult hit “Pulp Fiction,” specifically from a scene in which the gangster characters Jules and Vincent are pointing their pistols in the same direction. However, the heads of both actors have been digitally altered to include someone else’s faces.

Pasted over the head of John Travolta’s character (left) is a real-life picture of Vyp0r — the Hackforums nickname of the guy that ProTraf’s Josiah White said threatened him into releasing the source code for Bashlite. On the shoulders of Samuel L. Jackson’s body is the face of Tucker Preston, co-founder of BackConnect Security — a competing DDoS mitigation provider that also has a history of hijacking Internet address ranges from other providers.

Pictured below and to the left of Travolta and Jackson’s characters — seated on the bed behind them — is “Yamada,” a Japanese animation (“anime”) character featured in the anime movie B Gata H Hei.

Turns out, there is a Dreadiscool user on MyAnimeList.net, a site where members proudly list the various anime films they have watched. Dreadiscool says B Gata H Kei is one of nine anime film series he has watched. Among the other eight? The anime series Mirai Nikki, from which the Mirai malware derives its name.

Dreadiscool’s Reddit profile also is very interesting, and most of the recent posts there relate to major DDoS attacks going on at the time, including a series of DDoS attacks on Rutgers University. More on Rutgers later.

A CHAT WITH ANNA-SENPAI

At around the same time as the record 620 Gbps attack on KrebsOnSecurity, French Web hosting giant OVH suffered an even larger attack — launched by the very same Mirai botnet used to attack this site. Although this fact has been widely reported in the news media, the reason for the OVH attack may not be so well known.

According to a tweet from OVH founder and chief technology officer Octave Klaba, the target of that massive attack also was a Minecraft server (although Klaba mistakenly called the target “mindcraft servers” in his tweet).

A tweet from OVH founder and CTO, stating the intended target of Sept. 2016 Mirai DDoS on his company.

A tweet from OVH founder and CTO, stating the intended target of Sept. 2016 Mirai DDoS on his company.

Turns out, in the days following the attack on this site and on OVH, Anna-Sempai had trained his Mirai botnet on Coelho’s ProxyPipe, completely knocking his DDoS mitigation service offline for the better part of a day and causing problems for many popular Minecraft servers.

Unable to obtain more bandwidth and unwilling to sign an expensive annual contract with a third-party DDoS mitigation firm, Coelho turned to the only other option available to get out from under the attack: Filing abuse complaints with the Internet hosting firms that were responsible for providing connectivity to the control server used to orchestrate the activities of the Mirai botnet.

“We did it because we had no other options, and because all of our customers were offline,” Coelho said. “Even though no other DDoS mitigation company was able to defend against these attacks [from Mirai], we still needed to defend against it because our customers were starting to move to other providers that attracted fewer attacks.”

After scouring a list of Internet addresses tied to bots used in the attack, Coelho said he was able to trace the control server for the Mirai botnet back to a hosting provider in Ukraine. That company — BlazingFast[dot]io — has a reputation for hosting botnet control networks (even now, Spamhaus is reporting an IoT botnet controller running out of BlazingFast since Jan. 17, 2017).

Getting no love from BlazingFast, Coelho said he escalated his complaint to Voxility, a company that was providing DDoS protection to BlazingFast at the time.

“Voxility acknowledged the presence of the control server, and said they null-routed [removed] it, but they didn’t,” Coelho said. “They basically lied to us and didn’t reply to any other emails.”

Undeterred, Coelho said he then emailed the ISP that was upstream of BlazingFast, but received little help from that company or the next ISP further upstream. Coelho said the fifth ISP upstream of BlazingFast, however — Internet provider Telia Sonera — confirmed his report, and promptly had the Mirai botnet’s control server killed.

As a result, many of the systems infected with Mirai could no longer connect to the botnet’s control servers, drastically reducing the botnet’s overall firepower.

“The action by Telia cut the size of the attacks launched by the botnet down to 80 Gbps,” well within the range of ProxyPipe’s in-house DDoS mitigation capabilities, Coelho said.

Incredibly, on Sept. 28, Anna-Senpai himself would reach out to Coelho via Skype. Coelho shared a copy of that chat conversation with KrebsOnSecurity. The log shows that Anna correctly guessed ProxyPipe was responsible for the abuse complaints that kneecapped Mirai. Anna-Senpai said he guessed ProxyPipe was responsible after reading a comment on a KrebsOnSecurity blog post from a reader who shared the same username as Coelho’s business partner.

In the following chat, Coelho is using the Skype nickname “katie.onis.”

[10:23:08 AM] live:anna-senpai: ^
[10:26:08 AM] katie.onis: hi there.
[10:26:52 AM] katie.onis: How can I help you?
[10:28:06 AM] live:anna-senpai: hi
[10:28:45 AM] live:anna-senpai: you know i had my suspicions, but this one was proof

http://imgur.com/E1yFJOp [this is a benign/safe link to a screenshot of some comments on KrebsOnSecurity.com]

[10:28:59 AM] live:anna-senpai: don’t get me wrong, im not even mad, it was pretty funny actually. nobody has ever done that to my c2 [Mirai “command and control” server]
[10:29:25 AM] live:anna-senpai: (goldmedal)
[10:29:29 AM] katie.onis: ah you’re mistaken, that’s not us.
[10:29:33 AM] katie.onis: but we know who it is
[10:29:42 AM] live:anna-senpai: eric / 9gigs
[10:29:47 AM] katie.onis: no, 9gigs is erik
[10:29:48 AM] katie.onis: not eric
[10:29:53 AM] katie.onis: different people
[10:30:09 AM] live:anna-senpai: oh?
[10:30:17 AM] katie.onis: yep
[10:30:39 AM] live:anna-senpai: is he someone related to you guys?
[10:30:44 AM] katie.onis: not related to us, we just know him
[10:30:50 AM] katie.onis: anyway, we’re not interested in any harm, we simply don’t want attacks against us.
[10:31:16 AM] live:anna-senpai: yeah i figured, i added you because i wanted to tip my hat if that was actually you lol
[10:31:24 AM] katie.onis: we didn’t make that dumb post
[10:31:26 AM] katie.onis: if that is what you are asking
[10:31:30 AM] katie.onis: but yes, we were involved in doing that.
[10:31:47 AM] live:anna-senpai: so you got it nulled, but some other eric is claiming credit for it?
[10:31:52 AM] katie.onis: seems so.
[10:31:52 AM] live:anna-senpai: eric with a c
[10:31:56 AM] live:anna-senpai: lol
[10:32:17 AM] live:anna-senpai: can’t say im surprised, tons of people take credit for things that they didn’t do if nobody else takes credit for
[10:32:24 AM] katie.onis: we’re not interested in taking credit
[10:32:30 AM] katie.onis: we just wanted the attacks to get smaller

NOTICE AND TAKEDOWN

One reason Anna-Senpai may have been enamored of Coelho’s approach to taking down Mirai is that Anna-Senpai had spent the previous month doing exactly the same thing to criminals running IoT botnets powered by Mirai’s top rival — Qbot.

A month before this chat between Coelho and Anna-Senpai, Anna is busy sending abuse complaints to various hosting firms, warning them that they are hosting huge IoT botnet control channels that needed to be shut down. This was clearly just part of an extended campaign by the Mirai botmasters to eliminate other IoT-based DDoS botnets that might compete for the same pool of vulnerable IoT devices. Anna confirmed this in his chat with Coelho:

[10:50:36 AM] live:anna-senpai: i have good killer so nobody else can assemble a large net
[10:50:53 AM] live:anna-senpai: i monitor the devices to see for any new threats
[10:51:33 AM] live:anna-senpai: and when i find any new host, i get them taken down

The ISPs or hosting providers that received abuse complaints from Anna-Senpai were all encouraged to reply to the email address ogmemes123123@gmail.com for questions and/or confirmation of the takedown. ISPs that declined to act promptly on Anna-Senpai’s Qbot email complaints soon found themselves on the receiving end of enormous DDoS attacks from Mirai.

Francisco Dias, owner of hosting provider Frantech, found out firsthand what it would cost to ignore one of Anna’s abuse reports. In mid-September 2016, Francisco accidentally got into an Internet fight with Anna-Senpai.  The Mirai botmaster was using the nickname “jorgemichaels” at the time — and Jorgemichaels was talking trash on LowEndTalk.com, a discussion forum for vendors of low-costing hosting.

Specifically, Jorgemichaels takes Francisco to task publicly on the forum for ignoring one of his Qbot abuse complaints. Francisco tells Jorgemichaels to file a complaint with the police if it’s so urgent. Jorgemichaels tells Francisco to shut up, and when Francisco is silent for a while Jorgemichaels gloats that Francisco learned his place. Francisco explains his further silence on the thread by saying he’s busy supporting customers, to which Jorgemichaels replies, “Sounds like you just got a lot more customers to help. Don’t mess with the underworld francisco or it will harm your business.”

Shortly thereafter, Frantech is systematically knocked offline after being attacked by Mirai. Below is a fascinating snippet from a private conversation between Francisco and Anna-Senpai/Jorgemichaels, in which Francisco kills the reported Qbot control server to make Anna/Jorgemichaels call off the attack.

Using the nickname "jorgemichaels" on LowEndTalk, Anna-Senpai reaches out to Francisco Dias after Dias ignores Anna's abuse complaint. Francisco agrees to kill the Qbot control server after being walloped with Mirai.

Using the nickname “jorgemichaels” on LowEndTalk, Anna-Senpai reaches out to Francisco Dias after Dias ignores Anna’s abuse complaint. Francisco agrees to kill the Qbot control server only after being walloped with Mirai.

Back to the chat between Anna-Senpai and Coelho at the end of Sept 2016.  Anna-Senpai tells Coelho that the attacks against ProxyPipe aren’t personal; they’re just business. Anna says he has been renting out “net spots” — sizable chunks of his Mirai botnet — to other hackers who use them in their own attacks for pre-arranged periods of time.

By way of example, Anna brags that as he and Coelho are speaking, the owners of a large Minecraft server were paying him to launch a crippling DDoS against Hypixel, currently the world’s most popular Minecraft server. KrebsOnSecurity confirmed with Hypixel that they were indeed under a massive attack from Mirai between Sept. 27 and 30.

[12:24:00 PM] live:anna-senpai: right now i just have a script sitting there hitting them for 45s every 20 minutes
[12:24:09 PM] live:anna-senpai: enough to drop all players and make them rage

Coelho told KrebsOnSecurity that the on-again, off-again attack DDoS method that Anna described using against Hypixel was designed not just to cost Hypixel money. The purpose of that attack method, he said, was to aggravate and annoy Hypixel’s customers so much that they might take their business to a competing Minecraft server.

“It’s not just about taking it down, it’s about making everyone who is playing on that server crazy mad,” Coelho explained. “If you launch the attack every 20 minutes for a short period of time, you basically give the players just enough time to get back on the server and involved in another game before they’re disconnected again.”

Anna-Senpai told Coelho that paying customers also were the reason for the 620 Gbps attack on KrebsOnSecurity. Two weeks prior to that attack, I published the results of a months-long investigation revealing that “vDOS” — one of the largest and longest-running DDoS-for-hire services — had been hacked, exposing details about the services owners and customers.

The story noted that vDOS earned its proprietors more than $600,000 and was being run by two 18-year-old Israeli men who went by the hacker aliases “applej4ck” and “p1st0”. Hours after that piece ran, Israeli authorities arrested both men, and vDOS — which had been in operation for four years — was shuttered for good.

[10:47:42 AM] live:anna-senpai: i sell net spots, starting at $5k a week
[10:47:50 AM] live:anna-senpai: and one client was upset about applejack arrest
[10:48:01 AM] live:anna-senpai: so while i was gone he was sitting on them for hours with gre and ack
[10:48:14 AM] live:anna-senpai: when i came back i was like oh fuck
[10:48:16 AM] live:anna-senpai: and whitelisted the prefix
[10:48:24 AM] live:anna-senpai: but then krebs tweeted that akamai is kicking them off
[10:48:31 AM] live:anna-senpai: fuck me
[10:48:43 AM] live:anna-senpai: he was a cool guy too, i like his article

[SIDE NOTE: If true, it’s ironic that someone would hire Anna-Senpai to attack my site in retribution for the vDOS story. That’s because the firepower behind applej4ck’s vDOS service was generated in large part by a botnet of IoT systems infected with a Qbot variant — the very same botnet strain that Anna-Senpai and Mirai were busy killing and erasing from the Internet.]

Coelho told KrebsOnSecurity that if his side of the conversation reads like he was being too conciliatory to his assailant, that’s because he was wary of giving Anna a reason to launch another monster attack against ProxyPipe. After all, Coelho said, the Mirai attacks on ProxyPipe caused many customers to switch to other Minecraft servers, and Coelho estimates the attack cost the company between $400,000 and $500,000.

Nevertheless, about halfway through the chat Coelho gently confronts Anna on the consequences of his actions.

[10:54:17 AM] katie.onis: People have a genuine reason to be unhappy though about large attacks like this
[10:54:27 AM] live:anna-senpai: yeah
[10:54:32 AM] katie.onis: There’s really nothing anyone can do lol
[10:54:36 AM] live:anna-senpai: 😛
[10:54:38 AM] katie.onis: And it does affect their lives
[10:55:10 AM] live:anna-senpai: well, i stopped caring about other people a long time ago
[10:55:18 AM] live:anna-senpai: my life experience has always been get fucked over or fuck someone else over
[10:55:52 AM] katie.onis: My experience with [ProxyPipe] thus far has been
[10:55:54 AM] katie.onis: Do nothing bad to anyone
[10:55:58 AM] katie.onis: And still get screwed over
[10:55:59 AM] katie.onis: Haha

The two even discussed anime after Anna-Senpai guessed that Coelho might be a fan of the genre. Anna-Senpai says he watched the anime series “Gate,” a reference to the above-mentioned B Gata H Hei that Dreadiscool included in the list of anime film series he’s watched. Anna also confirms that the name for his bot malware was derived from the anime series Mirai Nikki.

[5:25:12 PM] live:anna-senpai: i rewatched mirai nikki recently
[5:25:22 PM] live:anna-senpai: (it was the reason i named my bot mirai lol)

DREADISCOOL = ANNA = JHA?

Coelho said when Anna-Senpai first reached out to him on Skype, he had no clue about the hacker’s real-life identity. But a few weeks after that chat conversation with Anna-Senpai, Coelho’s business partner (the Eric referenced in the first chat segment above) said he noticed that some of the code in Mirai looked awfully similar to code that Dreadiscool had posted to his Github account.

“He started to come to the conclusion that maybe Anna was Paras,” Coelho said. “He gave me a lot of ideas, and after I did my own investigation I decided he was probably right.”

Coelho said he’s known Paras Jha for more than four years, having met him online when Jha was working for Minetime — which ProxyPipe was protecting from DDoS attacks at the time.

“We talked a lot back then and we used to program a lot of projects together,” Coelho said. “He’s really good at programming, but back then he wasn’t. He was a little bit behind, and I was teaching him most everything.”

According to Coelho, as Jha became more confident in his coding skills, he also grew more arrogant, belittling others online who didn’t have as firm a grasp on subjects such as programming and DDoS mitigation.

“He likes to be recognized for his knowledge, being praised and having other people recognize that,” Coelho said of Jha. “He brags too much, basically.”

Coelho said not long after Minetime was hit by a DDoS extortion attack in 2013, Paras joined Hackforums and fairly soon after stopped responding to his online messages.

“He just kind of dropped off the face of the earth entirely,” he said. “When he started going on Hackforums, I didn’t know him anymore. He became a different person.”

Coelho said he doesn’t believe his old friend wished him harm, and that Jha was probably pressured into attacking ProxyPipe.

“In my opinion he’s still a kid, in that he gets peer-pressured a lot,” Coelho said. “If he didn’t [launch the attack] not only would he feel super excluded, but these people wouldn’t be his friends anymore, they could out him and screw him over. I think he was pretty much in a really bad position with the people he got involved with.”

THE RUTGERS DDOS ATTACKS

On Dec. 16, security vendor Digital Shadows presented a Webinar that focused on clues about the Mirai author’s real life identity. According to their analysis, before the Mirai author was known as Anna-Senpai on Hackforums, he used the nickname “Ogmemes123123” (this also was the alias of the Skype username that contacted Coelho), and the email address ogmemes123123@gmail.com (recall this is the same email address Anna-Senpai used in his alerts to various hosting firms about the urgent need to take down Qbot control servers hosted on their networks).

Digital Shadows noted that the Mirai author appears to have used another nickname: “OG_Richard_Stallman,” a likely reference to the founder of the Free Software Foundation. The ogmemes123123@gmail.com account was used to register a Facebook account in the name of OG_Richard Stallman.

That Facebook account states that OG_Richard_Stallman began studying computer engineering at New Brunswick, NJ-based Rutgers University in 2015.

As it happens, Paras Jha is a student at Rutgers University. This is especially notable because Rutgers has been dealing with a series of DDoS attacks on its network since the fall semester of 2015 — more than a half dozen incidents in all. With each DDoS, the attacker would taunt the university in online posts and media interviews, encouraging the school to spend the money to purchase some kind of DDoS mitigation service.

rutgersddos

Using the nicknames  “og_richard_stallman,” “exfocus” and “ogexfocus,” the person who attacked Rutgers more than a half-dozen times took to Reddit and Twitter to claim credit for the attacks. Exfocus even created his own “Ask Me Anything” interview on Reddit to discuss the Rutgers attacks.

Exfocus also gave an interview to a New Jersey-based blogger, claiming he got paid $500 an hour to DDoS the university with as many as 170,000 bots. Here are a few snippets from that interview, in which he blames the attacks on a “client” who is renting his botnet:

Are you for real? Why would you do an interview with us if you’re getting paid?

Normally I don’t show myself, but the entity paying me has something against the school. They want me to “make a splash”.

Why do you have a twitter account where you publically broadcast patronizing messages. Are you worried that this increases the risk of things getting back to you?

Public twitter is on clients request. The client hates the school for whatever reason. They told me to say generic things like that I hate the bus system and etc.

Have you ever attacked RU before?

During freshman registration the client requested it also – he didn’t want any publicity then though.

What are your plans for the future in terms of DDOSing and attacking the Rutgers cyber infrastructure?

When I stop getting paid – I’ll stop DDosing lol. I’m hoping that RU will sign on some ddos mitigation provider. I get paid extra if that happens.

At some point you said you were at the Livingston student center – outside of Sbarro. In this interview you said that you aren’t affiliated directly with Rutgers, did you lie then?

Yes”

An online search for the Gmail address used by Anna-Senpai and OG_Richard_Stallman turns up a Pastebin post from July 1, 2016, in which an anonymous Pastebin user creates a “dox” of OG_Richard_Stallman. Doxing refers to the act of publishing someone’s personal information online and/or connecting an online alias to a real life identity.

The dox said OG_Richard_Stallman was connected to an address and phone number of an individual living in Turkey. But this is almost certainly a fake dox intended to confuse cybercrime investigators. Here’s why:

A Google search shows that this same address and phone number showed up in another dox on Pastebin from almost three years earlier — June 2013 — intended to expose or confuse the identity of a Hackforums user known as LiteSpeed. Recall that LiteSpeed is the same alias that ProTraf’s Josiah White acknowledged using on Hackforums.

EXTORTION ATTEMPTS BY OG_RICHARD_STALLMAN

This OG_Richard_Stallman identity is connected to Anna-Senpai by another person we’ve heard from already: Francisco Dias, whose Frantech ISP was attacked by Anna-Senpai and Mirai in mid-September. Francisco told KrebsOnSecurity that in early August 2016 he began receiving extortion emails from a Gmail address associated with a OG_Richard_Stallman.

“This guy using the Richard Stallman name added me on Skype and basically said ‘I’m going to knock all of your [Internet addresses] offline until you pay me’,” Dias recalled. “He told me the up front cost to stop the attack was 10 bitcoins [~USD $5,000 at the time], and if I didn’t pay within four hours after the attack started the fee would double to 20 bitcoins.”

Dias said he didn’t pay the demand and eventually OG_Richard_Stallman called off the attack. But he said for a while the attacks were powerful enough to cause problems for Frantech’s Internet provider.

“He was hitting us so hard with Mirai that he was dropping large parts of Hurricane Electric and causing problems at their Los Angeles point of presence,” Dias said. “I basically threw everything behind [DDoS mitigation provider] Voxility, and eventually Stallman buggered off.”

The OG_Richard_Stallman identity also was tied to similar extortion attacks at the beginning of August against one hosting firm that had briefly been one of ProTraf’s customers in 2016. The company declined to be quoted on the record, but said it stopped doing business with Protraf in mid-2016 because they were unhappy with the quality of service.

The Internet provider said not long after that it received an extortion demand from the “OG_Richard_Stallman” character for $5,000 in Bitcoin to avoid a DDoS attack. One of the company’s researchers contacted the extortionist via the ogmemes123123@gmail.com address supplied in the email, but posing as someone who wished to hire some DDoS services.

OG_Richard_Stallman told the researcher that he could guarantee 350 Gbps of attack traffic and that the target would go down or the customer would receive a full refund. The price for the attack? USD $100 worth of Bitcoin for every five minutes of attack time.

My source at the hosting company said his employer declined to pay the demand, and subsequently got hit with an attack from Mirai that clocked in at more than 300 Gbps.

“Clearly, the attacker is very technical, as they attacked every single [Internet address] within the subnet, and after we brought up protection, he started attacking upstream router interfaces,” the source said on condition of anonymity.

Asked who they thought might be responsible for the attacks, my source said his employer immediately suspected ProTraf. That’s because the Mirai attack also targeted the Internet address for the company’s home page, but that Internet address was hidden by DDoS mitigation firm Cloudflare. However, ProTraf knew about the secret address from its previous work with the company, the source explained.

“We believe it’s Protraf’s staff or someone related to Protraf,” my source said.

A source at an Internet provider agreed to share information about an extortion demand his company received from Richard Stallman in August 2016. Here he is contacting Stallman directly and pretending to be someone interested in hiring Stallman/Anna-Senpai to attack others.

A source at an Internet provider agreed to share information about an extortion demand his company received from OG_Richard_Stallman in August 2016. Here he is contacting the Stallman character directly and pretending to be someone interested in renting a botnet. Notice the source brazenly said he wanted to DDoS ProTraf.

DDOS CONFESSIONS

After months of gathering information about the apparent authors of Mirai, I heard from Ammar Zuberi, once a co-worker of ProTraf President Paras Jha.

Zuberi told KrebsOnSecurity that Jha admitted he was responsible for both Mirai and the Rutgers DDoS attacks. Zuberi said when he visited Jha at his Rutgers University dorm in October 2015, Paras bragged to him about launching the DDoS attacks against Rutgers.

“He was laughing and bragging about how he was going to get a security guy at the school fired, and how they raised school fees because of him,” Zuberi recalled.  “He didn’t really say why he did it, but I think he was just sort of experimenting with how far he could go with these attacks.”

Zuberi said he didn’t realize how far Jha had gone with his DDoS attacks until he confronted him about it late last year. Zuberi said he was on his way to see his grandmother in Arizona at the end of November 2016, and he had a layover in New York. So he contacted Jha and arranged to spend the night at Jha’s home in Fanwood, New Jersey.

As I noted in Spreading the DDoS Disease and Selling the Cure, Anna-Senpai leaked the Mirai code on a domain name (santasbigcandycane[dot]cx) that was registered via Namecentral, an extremely obscure domain name registrar which had previously been used to register fewer than three dozen other domains over a three-year period.

According to Zuberi, only five people knew about the existence of Namecentral: himself, CJ Sculti, Paras Jha, Josiah White and Namecentral’s owner Jesse Wu (19-year-old Wu features prominently in the DDoS Disease story linked in the previous paragraph).

“When I saw that the Mirai code had been leaked on that domain at Namecentral, I straight up asked Paras at that point, ‘Was this you?,’ and he smiled and said yep,” Zuberi recalled. “Then he told me he’d recently heard from an FBI agent who was investigating Mirai, and he showed me some text messages between him and the agent. He was pretty proud of himself, and was bragging that he led the FBI on a wild goose chase.”

Zuberi said he hasn’t been in contact with Jha since visiting his home in November. Zuberi said he believes Jha wrote most of the code that Mirai uses to control the individual bot-infected IoT devices, since it was written in Golang and Jha’s partner White didn’t code well in this language. Zuberi said he thought White’s role was mainly in developing the spreading code used to infect new IoT devices with Mirai, since that was written in C — a language White excelled at.

In the time since most of the above occurred, the Internet address ranges previously occupied by ProTraf have been withdrawn. ProxyPipe’s Coelho said it could be that the ProTraf simply ran out of money.

ProTraf’s Josiah White explained the disappearance of ProTraf’s Internet space as part of an effort to reboot the company.

“We [are] in the process of restructuring and refocusing what we are doing,” White told KrebsOnSecurity.

Jha did not respond to requests for comment.

Update: Jan. 19, 10:51 a.m. ET: Jha responded to my request for comment. His first comment about this story was that I erred in citing the proper anime film listed on one of the dreadiscool profiles mentioned above. When asked directly about his alleged involvement with Mirai, Jha said he did not write Mirai and was not involved in attacking Rutgers.

“The first time it happened, I was a freshman, and living in the dorms,” Jha said. “At the culmination of the attacks near the end of the year, I was without internet for almost a week, along with the rest of the student body. I couldn’t register for classes, and had a host of issues dealing with it. This semester and the previous semester were the reasons I moved to commute, because of these problems that I frankly don’t have time to deal with.”

Jha said Zuberi did spend the night at his house last year but he denied admitting anything to Zuberi. He acknowledged hearing from an FBI agent investigating Mirai, but said “no comment” when asked if he’d heard from that FBI agent since then.

“I don’t think there are enough facts to definitively point the finger at me,” Jha said. “Besides this article, I was pretty much a nobody. No history of doing this kind of stuff, nothing that points to any kind of sociopathic behavior. Which is what the author is, a sociopath.”

Original story:

Rutgers University did not respond to requests for comment.

The FBI officials could not be immediately reached for comment.

A copy of the entire chat between Anna-Senpai and ProxyPipe’s Coelho is available here.

Source: krebsonsecurity

Earlier this month a hacker released the source code for Mirai, a malware strain that was used to launch a historically large 620 Gbps denial-of-service attack against this site in September. That attack came in apparent retribution for a story here which directly preceded the arrest of two Israeli men for allegedly running an online attack for hire service called vDOS. Turns out, the site where the Mirai source code was leaked had some very interesting things in common with the place vDOS called home.

The domain name where the Mirai source code was originally placed for download — santasbigcandycane[dot]cx — is registered at the same domain name registrar that was used to register the now-defunct DDoS-for-hire service vdos-s[dot]com.

Normally, this would not be remarkable, since most domain registrars have thousands or millions of domains in their stable. But in this case it is interesting mainly because the registrar used by both domains — a company called namecentral.comhas apparently been used to register just 38 domains since its inception by its current owner in 2012, according to a historic WHOIS records gathered by domaintools.com (for the full list see this PDF).

What’s more, a cursory look at the other domains registered via namecentral.com since then reveals a number of other DDoS-for-hire services, also known as “booter” or “stresser” services.

It’s extremely odd that someone would take on the considerable cost and trouble of creating a domain name registrar just to register a few dozen domains. It costs $3,500 to apply to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) for a new registrar authority. The annual fee for being an ICANN-approved registrar is $4,000, and then there’s a $800 quarterly fee for smaller registrars. In short, domain name registrars generally need to register many thousands of new domains each year just to turn a profit.

Many of the remaining three dozen or so domains registered via Namecentral over the past few years are tied to vDOS. Before vDOS was taken offline it was massively hacked, and a copy of the user and attack database was shared with KrebsOnSecurity. From those records it was easy to tell which third-party booter services were using vDOS’s application programming interface (API), a software function that allowed them to essentially resell access to vDOS with their own white-labeled stresser.

And a number of those vDOS resellers were registered through Namecentral, including 83144692[dot].com — a DDoS-for-hire service marketed at Chinese customers. Another Namecentral domain — vstress.net — also was a vDOS reseller.

Other DDoS-for-hire domains registered through Namecentral include xboot[dot]net, xr8edstresser[dot]com, snowstresser[dot]com, ezstress[dot]com, exilestress[dot]com, diamondstresser[dot]net, dd0s[dot]pw, rebelsecurity[dot]net, and beststressers[dot]com.

WHO RUNS NAMECENTRAL?

Namecentral’s current owner is a 19-year-old California man by the name of Jesse Wu. Responding to questions emailed from KrebsOnSecurity, Wu said Namecentral’s policy on abuse was inspired by Cloudflare, the DDoS protection company that guards Namecentral and most of the above-mentioned DDoS-for-hire sites from attacks of the very kind they sell.

“I’m not sure (since registrations are automated) but I’m going to guess that the reason you’re interested in us is because some stories you’ve written in the past had domains registered on our service or otherwise used one of our services,” Wu wrote.

“We have a policy inspired by Cloudflare’s similar policy that we ourselves will remain content-neutral and in the support of an open Internet, we will almost never remove a registration or stop providing services, and furthermore we’ll take any effort to ensure that registrations cannot be influenced by anyone besides the actual registrant making a change themselves – even if such website makes us uncomfortable,” Wu said. “However, as a US based company, we are held to US laws, and so if we receive a valid court issued order to stop providing services to a client, or to turn over/disable a domain, we would happily comply with such order.”

Wu’s message continued:

“As of this email, we have never received such an order, we have never been contacted by any law enforcement agency, and we have never even received a legitimate, credible abuse report. We realize this policy might make us popular with ‘dangerous’ websites but even then, if we denied them services, simply not providing them services would not make such website stop existing, they would just have to find some other service provider/registrar or change domains more often. Our services themselves cannot be used for anything harmful – a domain is just a string of letters, and the rest of our services involve website/ddos protection/ecommerce security services designed to protect websites.”

Taking a page from Cloudflare, indeed. I’ve long taken Cloudflare to task for granting DDoS protection for countless DDoS-for-hire services, to no avail. I’ve maintained that Cloudflare has a blatant conflict of interest here, and that the DDoS-for-hire industry would quickly blast itself into oblivion because the proprietors of these attack services like nothing more than to turn their attack cannons on each other. Cloudflare has steadfastly maintained that picking and choosing who gets to use their network is a slippery slope that it will not venture toward.

Although Mr. Wu says he had nothing to do with the domains registered through Namecentral, public records filed elsewhere raise serious unanswered questions about that claim.

In my Sept. 8 story, Israeli Online Attack Service Earned $600,000 in Two Years, I explained that the hacked vDOS database indicated the service was run by two 18-year-old Israeli men. At some point, vDOS decided to protect all customer logins to the service with an extended validation (EV) SSL certificate. And for that, it needed to show it was tied to an actual corporate entity.

My investigation into those responsible for supporting vDOS began after I took a closer look at the SSL certificate that vDOS-S[dot]com used to encrypt customer logins. On May 12, 2015, Digicert.com issued an EV SSL certificate for vDOS, according to this record.

As we can see, whoever registered that EV cert did so using the business name VS NETWORK SERVICES LTD, and giving an address in the United Kingdom of 217 Blossomfield Rd., Solihull, West Midlands.

Who owns VS NETWORK SERVICES LTD? According this record from Companies House UK — an official ledger of corporations located in the United Kingdom — the director of the company was listed as one Thomas McGonagall. 

Records from Companies House UK on the firm responsible for registering vDOS's SSL certificate.

Records from Companies House UK on the firm responsible for registering vDOS’s SSL certificate.

This individual gave the same West Midlands address, stating that he was appointed to VS Network Services on May 12, 2015, and that his birthday was in May 1988. A search in Companies House for Thomas McGonagall shows that a person by that same name and address also was listed that very same day as a director for a company called REBELSECURITY LTD.

If we go back even further into the corporate history of this mysterious Mr. McGonagall we find that he was appointed director of NAMECENTRAL LTD on August 18, 2014. Mr. McGonagall’s birthday is listed as December 1995 in this record, and his address is given as 29 Wigorn Road, 29 Wigorn Road, Smethwick, West Midlands, United Kingdom, B67 5HL. Also on that same day, he was appointed to run EZSTRESS LTD, a company at the same Smethwick, West Midlands address.

Strangely enough, those company names correspond to other domains registered through Namecentral around the same time the companies were created, including rebelsecurity[dot]net, ezstress[dot]net.

Asked to explain the odd apparent corporate connections between Namecentral, vDOS, EZStress and Rebelsecurity, Wu chalked that up to an imposter or potential phishing attack.

“I’m not sure who that is, and we are not affiliated with Namecentral Ltd.,” he wrote. “I looked it up though and it seems like it is either closed or has never been active. From what you described it could be possible someone set up shell companies to try and get/resell EV certs (and someone’s failed attempt to set up a phishing site for us – thanks for the heads up).”

Interestingly, among the three dozen or so domains registered through Namecentral.com is “certificateavenue.com,” a site that until recently included nearly identical content as Namecentral’s home page and appears to be aimed at selling EV certs. Certificateavenue.com was responding as of early-October, but it is no longer online.

I also asked Wu why he chose to become a domain registrar when it appeared he had very few domains to justify the substantial annual costs of maintaining a registrar business.

“Like most other registrars, we register domains only as a value added service,” he replied via email. “We have more domains than that (not willing to say exactly how many) but primarily we make our money on our website/ddos protection/ecommerce protection.”

Now we were getting somewhere. Turns out, Wu isn’t really in the domain registrar business — not for the money, anyway. The real money, as his response suggests, is in selling DDoS protection against the very DDoS-for-hire services he is courting with his domain registration service.

Asked to reconcile his claim for having a 100 percent hands-off, automated domain registration system with the fact that Namecentral’s home page says the company doesn’t actually have a way to accept automated domain name registrations (like most normal domain registrars), Wu again had an answer.

“Our site says we only take referred registrations, meaning that at the moment we’re asking that another prior customer referred you to open a new account for our services, including if you’d like a reseller account,” he wrote.

CAUGHT IN A FIB?

I was willing to entertain the notion that perhaps Mr. Wu was in fact the target of a rather elaborate scam of some sort. That is, until I stumbled upon another company that was registered in the U.K. to Mr. McGonagall.

That other company —SIMPLIFYNT LTD — was registered by Mr. McGonagall on October 29, 2014. Turns out, almost the exact same information included in the original Web site registration records for Jesse Wu’s purchase of Namecentral.com was used for the domain simplifynt.com, which also was registered on Oct. 29, 2014. I initially missed this domain because it was not registered through Namecentral. If someone had phished Mr. Wu in this case, they had been very quick to the punch indeed.

In the simplyfynt.com domain registration records, Jesse Wu gave his email address as jesse@jjdev.ru. That domain is no longer online, but a cached copy of it at archive.org shows that it was once a Web development business. That cached page lists yet another contact email address: sales@jjdevelopments.org.

I ordered a reverse WHOIS lookup from domaintools.com on all historic Web site registration records that included the domain “jjdevelopments.org” anywhere in the records. The search returned 15 other domains, including several more apparent DDoS-for-hire domains such as twbooter69.com, twbooter3.com, ratemyddos.com and desoboot.com.

Among the oldest and most innocuous of those 15 domains was maplemystery.com, a fan site for a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) called Maple Story. Another historic record lookup ordered from domaintools.com shows that maplemystery.com was originally registered in 2009 to a “Denny Ng.” As it happens, Denny Ng is listed as the co-owner of the $1.6 million Walnut, Calif. home where Jesse until very recently lived with his mom Cindy Wu (Jesse is now a student at the University of California, San Diego).

WHO IS DATAWAGON?

Another domain of interest that was secured via Namecentral is datawagon.net. Registered by 19-year-old Christopher J. “CJ” Sculti Jr., Datawagon also bills itself as a DDoS mitigation firm. It appears Mr. Sculti built his DDoS protection empire out of his parents’ $2.6 million home in Rye, NY. He’s now a student at Clemson University, according to his Facebook page.

CJ Sculti Jr.'s Facebook profile photo. Sculti is on pictured on the right.

CJ Sculti Jr.’s Facebook profile photo. Sculti is on pictured on the right.

As I noted in my story DDoS Mitigation Firm Has a History of Hijacks, Sculti earned his 15 minutes of fame in 2015 when he lost a cybersquatting suit with Dominos Pizza after registering the domain dominos.pizza (another domain registered via Namecentral).

Around that time, Sculti contacted KrebsOnSecurity via Skype, asking if I’d be interested in writing about this cybersquatting dispute with Dominos. In that conversation, Sculti — apropos of nothing — admits to having just scanned the Internet for routers that were known to be protected by little more than the factory-default usernames and passwords.

Sculti goes on to brag that his scan revealed a quarter-million routers that were vulnerable, and that he then proceeded to upload some kind software to each vulnerable system. Here’s a snippet of that chat conversation, which is virtually one-sided.

July 7, 2015:

21:37 CJ http://krebsonsecurity.com/2015/06/crooks-use-hacked-routers-to-aid-cyberheists/

21:37 CJ
vulnerable routers are a HUGE issue

21:37 CJ
a few months ago

21:37 CJ
I scanned the internet with a few sets of defualt logins

21:37 CJ
for telnet

21:37 CJ
and I was able to upload and execute a binary

21:38 CJ
on 250k devices

21:38 CJ
most of which were routers

21:38 Brian Krebs
o_0

21:38 CJ
yea

21:38 CJ
i’m surprised no one has looked into that yet

21:38 CJ
but

21:39 CJ
it’s a huge issue lol

21:39 CJ
that’s tons of bandwidth

21:39 CJ
that could be potentially used

21:39 CJ
in the wrong way

21:39 CJ
lol

Tons of bandwidth, indeed. The very next time I heard from Sculti was the same day I published the above-mentioned story about Datawagon’s relationship to BackConnect Inc., a company that admitted to hijacking 256 Internet addresses from vDOS’s hosting provider in Bulgaria — allegedly to defend itself against a monster attack allegedly launched by vDOS’s proprietors.

Sculti took issue with how he was portrayed in that report, and after a few terse words were exchanged, I blocked his Skype account from further communicating with mine. Less than an hour after that exchange, my Skype inbox was flooded with thousands of bogus contact requests from hacked or auto-created Skype accounts.

Less than six hours after that conversation, my site came under the biggest DDoS attack the Internet had ever witnessed at the time, an attack that experts have since traced back to a large botnet of IoT devices infected with Mirai.

As I wrote in the story that apparently incurred Sculti’s ire, Datawagon — like BackConnect — also has a history of hijacking broad swaths of Internet address space that do not belong to it. That listing came not long after Datawagon announced that it was the rightful owner of some 256 Internet addresses (1.3.3.0/24) that had long been dormant.

The Web address 1.3.3.7 currently does not respond to browser requests, but it previously routed to a page listing the core members of a hacker group calling itself the Money Team. Other sites also previously tied to that Internet address include numerous DDoS-for-hire services, such as nazistresser[dot]biz, exostress[dot]in, scriptkiddie[dot]eu, packeting[dot]eu, leet[dot]hu, booter[dot]in, vivostresser[dot]com, shockingbooter[dot]com and xboot[dot]info, among others.

Datawagon has earned a reputation on hacker forums as a “bulletproof” hosting provider — one that will essentially ignore abuse complaints from other providers and turn a blind eye to malicious activity perpetrated by its customers. In the screenshot below — taken from a thread on Hackforums where Datawagon was suggested as a reliable bulletproof hoster — the company is mentioned in the same vein as HostSailor, another bulletproof provider that has been the source of much badness (as well as legal threats against this author).

dw-bp

In yet another Hackforums discussion thread from June 2016 titled “VPS [virtual private servers] that allow DDoS scripts,” one user recommends Datawagon. “I use datawagon.net. They allow anything.”

Last year, Sculti formed a company in Florida along with a self-avowed spammer. Perhaps unsurprisingly, anti-spam group Spamhaus soon listed virtually all of Datawagon’s Internet address space as sources of spam.

Are either Mr. Wu or Mr. Sculti behind the Mirai botnet attacks? I cannot say. But I’d be willing to bet money that one or both of them knows who is. In any case, it would appear that both men may have hit upon a very lucrative business model. More to come.

Source: krebsonsecurity

Last week, KrebsOnSecurity detailed how BackConnect Inc. — a company that defends victims against large-scale distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks — admitted to hijacking hundreds of Internet addresses from a European Internet service provider in order to glean information about attackers who were targeting BackConnect. According to an exhaustive analysis of historic Internet records, BackConnect appears to have a history of such “hacking back” activity.

On Sept. 8, 2016, KrebsOnSecurity exposed the inner workings of vDOS, a DDoS-for-hire or “booter” service whose tens of thousands of paying customers used the service to launch attacks against hundreds of thousands of targets over the service’s four-year history in business.

vDOS as it existed on Sept. 8, 2016.

vDOS as it existed on Sept. 8, 2016.

Within hours of that story running, the two alleged owners — 18-year-old Israeli men identified in the original report — were arrested in Israel in connection with an FBI investigation into the shady business, which earned well north of $600,000 for the two men.

In my follow-up report on their arrests, I noted that vDOS itself had gone offline, and that automated Twitter feeds which report on large-scale changes to the global Internet routing tables observed that vDOS’s provider — a Bulgarian host named Verdina[dot]net — had been briefly relieved of control over 255 Internet addresses (including those assigned to vDOS) as the direct result of an unusual counterattack by BackConnect.

Asked about the reason for the counterattack, BackConnect CEO Bryant Townsend confirmed to this author that it had executed what’s known as a “BGP hijack.” In short, the company had fraudulently “announced” to the rest of the world’s Internet service providers (ISPs) that it was the rightful owner of the range of those 255 Internet addresses at Verdina occupied by vDOS.

In a post on NANOG Sept. 13, BackConnect’s Townsend said his company took the extreme measure after coming under a sustained DDoS attack thought to have been launched by a botnet controlled by vDOS. Townsend explained that the hijack allowed his firm to “collect intelligence on the actors behind the botnet as well as identify the attack servers used by the booter service.”

Short for Border Gateway Protocol, BGP is a mechanism by which ISPs of the world share information about which providers are responsible for routing Internet traffic to specific addresses. However, like most components built into the modern Internet, BGP was never designed with security in mind, which leaves it vulnerable to exploitation by rogue actors.

BackConnect’s BGP hijack of Verdina caused quite an uproar among many Internet technologists who discuss such matters at the mailing list of the North American Network Operators Group (NANOG).

BGP hijacks are hardly unprecedented, but when they are non-consensual they are either done accidentally or are the work of cyber criminals such as spammers looking to hijack address space for use in blasting out junk email. If BackConnect’s hijacking of Verdina was an example of a DDoS mitigation firm “hacking back,” what would discourage others from doing the same, they wondered?

“Once we let providers cross the line from legal to illegal actions, we’re no better than the crooks, and the Internet will descend into lawless chaos,” wrote Mel Beckman, owner of Beckman Software Engineering and a computer networking consultant in the Los Angeles area. “BackConnect’s illicit action undoubtedly injured innocent parties, so it’s not self defense, any more than shooting wildly into a crowd to stop an attacker would be self defense.”

A HISTORY OF HIJACKS

Townsend’s explanation seemed to produce more questions than answers among the NANOG crowd (read the entire “Defensive BGP Hijacking” thread here if you dare). I grew more curious to learn whether this was a pattern for BackConnect when I started looking deeper into the history of two young men who co-founded BackConnect (more on them in a bit).

To get a better picture of BackConnect’s history, I turned to BGP hijacking expert Doug Madory, director of Internet analysis at Dyn, a cloud-based Internet performance management company. Madory pulled historic BGP records for BackConnect, and sure enough a strange pattern began to emerge.

Madory was careful to caution up front that not all BGP hijacks are malicious. Indeed, my DDoS protection provider — a company called Prolexic Communications (now owned by Akamai Technologies) — practically invented the use of BGP hijacks as a DDoS mitigation method, he said.

In such a scenario, an organization under heavy DDoS attack might approach Prolexic and ask for assistance. With the customer’s permission, Prolexic would use BGP to announce to the rest of the world’s ISPs that it was now the rightful owner of the Internet addresses under attack. This would allow Prolexic to “scrub” the customer’s incoming Web traffic to drop data packets designed to knock the customer offline — and forward the legitimate traffic on to the customer’s site.

Given that BackConnect is also a DDoS mitigation company, I asked Madory how one could reasonably tell the difference between a BGP hijack that BackConnect had launched to protect a client versus one that might have been launched for other purposes — such as surreptitiously collecting intelligence on DDoS-based botnets and their owners?

Madory explained that in evaluating whether a BGP hijack is malicious or consensual, he looks at four qualities: The duration of the hijack; whether it was announced globally or just to the target ISP’s local peers; whether the hijacker took steps to obfuscate which ISP was doing the hijacking; and whether the hijacker and hijacked agreed upon the action.

bcbgp

For starters, malicious BGP attacks designed to gather information about an attacking host are likely to be very brief — often lasting just a few minutes. The brevity of such hijacks makes them somewhat ineffective at mitigating large-scale DDoS attacks, which often last for hours at a time. For example, the BGP hijack that BackConnect launched against Verdina lasted a fraction of an hour, and according to the company’s CEO was launched only after the DDoS attack subsided.

Second, if the party conducting the hijack is doing so for information gathering purposes, that party may attempt to limit the number ISPs that receive the new routing instructions. This might help an uninvited BGP hijacker achieve the end result of intercepting traffic to and from the target network without informing all of the world’s ISPs simultaneously.

“If a sizable portion of the Internet’s routers do not carry a route to a DDoS mitigation provider, then they won’t be sending DDoS traffic destined for the corresponding address space to the provider’s traffic scrubbing centers, thus limiting the efficacy of any mitigation,” Madory wrote in his own blog post about our joint investigation.

Thirdly, a BGP hijacker who is trying not to draw attention to himself can “forge” the BGP records so that it appears that the hijack was performed by another party. Madory said this forgery process often fools less experienced investigators, but that ultimately it is impossible to hide the true origin of forged BGP records.

Finally, in BGP hijacks that are consensual for DDoS mitigation purposes, the host under attack stops “announcing” to the world’s ISPs that it is the rightful owner of an address block under siege at about the same time the DDoS mitigation provider begins claiming it. When we see BGP hijacks in which both parties are claiming in the BGP records to be authoritative for a given swath of Internet addresses, Madory said, it’s less likely that the BGP hijack is consensual.

Madory and KrebsOnSecurity spent several days reviewing historic records of BGP hijacks attributed to BackConnect over the past year, and at least three besides the admitted hijack against Verdina strongly suggest that the company has engaged in this type of intel-gathering activity previously. The strongest indicator of a malicious and non-consensual BGP hijack, Madory said, were the ones that included forged BGP records.

Working together, Madory and KrebsOnSecurity identified at least 17 incidents during that time frame that were possible BGP hijacks conducted by BackConnect. Of those, five included forged BGP records. One was an hours-long hijack against Ghostnet[dot]de, a hosting provider in Germany.

Two other BGP hijacks from BackConnect that included spoofed records were against Staminus Communications, a competing DDoS mitigation provider and a firm that employed BackConnect CEO Townsend for three years as senior vice president of business development until his departure from Staminus in December 2015.

“This hijack wasn’t conducted by Staminus. It was BackConnect posing as Staminus,” Dyn’s Madory concluded.

Two weeks after BackConnect hijacked the Staminus routes, Staminus was massively hacked. Unknown attackers, operating under the banner “Fuck ‘Em All,” reset all of the configurations on the company’s Internet routers, and then posted online Staminus’s customer credentials, support tickets, credit card numbers and other sensitive data. The intruders also posted to Pastebin a taunting note ridiculing the company’s security practices.

BackConnect's apparent hijack of address space owned by Staminus Communications on Feb. 20, 2016. Image: Dyn.

BackConnect’s apparent hijack of address space owned by Staminus Communications on Feb. 20, 2016. Image: Dyn.

POINTING FINGERS

I asked Townsend to comment on the BGP hijacks identified by KrebsOnSecurity and Dyn as having spoofed source information. Townsend replied that he could not provide any insight as to why these incidents occurred, noting that he and the company’s chief technology officer — 24-year-old Marshal Webb — only had access and visibility into the network after the company BackConnect Inc. was created on April 27, 2016.

According to Townsend, the current BackConnect Inc. is wholly separate from BackConnect Security LLC, which is a company started in 2014 by two young men: Webb and a 19-year-old security professional named Tucker Preston. In April 2016, Preston was voted out of the company by Webb and Townsend and forced to sell his share of the company, which was subsequently renamed BackConnect Inc.

“Before that, the original owner of BackConnect Security LLC was the only one that had the ability to access servers and perform any type of networking commands,” he explained. “We had never noticed these occurred until this last Saturday and the previous owner never communicated anything regarding these hijacks. Wish I could provide more insight, but Marshal and I do not know the reasons behind the previous owners decision to hijack those ranges or what he was trying to accomplish.”

In a phone interview, Preston told KrebsOnSecurity that Townsend had little to no understanding about the technical side of the business, and was merely “a sales guy” for BackConnect. He claims that Webb absolutely had and still has the ability to manipulate BackConnect’s BGP records and announcements.

Townsend countered that Preston was the only network engineer at the company.

“We had to self-learn how to do anything network related once the new company was founded and Tucker removed,” he said. “Marshal and myself didn’t even know how to use BGP until we were forced to learn it in order to bring on new clients. To clarify further, Marshal did not have a networking background and had only been working on our web panel and DDoS mitigation rules.”

L33T, LULZ, W00W00 AND CHIPPY

Preston said he first met Webb in 2013 after the latter admitted to launching DDoS attacks against one of Preston’s customers at the time. Webb had been painted with a somewhat sketchy recent history at the time — being fingered as a low-skilled hacker who went by the nicknames “m_nerva” and “Chippy1337.”

Webb, whose Facebook alias is “lulznet,” was publicly accused in 2011 by the hacker group LulzSec of snitching on the activities of the group to the FBI, claiming that information he shared with law enforcement led to the arrest of a teen hacker in England associated with LulzSec. Webb has publicly denied being an informant for the FBI, but did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

LulzSec members claimed that Webb was behind the hacking of the Web site for the video game “Deus Ex.” As KrebsOnSecurity noted in a story about the Deus Ex hack, the intruder defaced the gaming site with the message “Owned by Chippy1337.”

The defacement message left on deusex.com.

The defacement message left on deusex.com.

I was introduced to Webb at the Defcon hacking convention in Las Vegas in 2014. Since then, I have come to know him a bit more as a participant of w00w00, an invite-only Slack chat channel populated mainly by information security professionals who work in the DDoS mitigation business. Webb chose the handle Chippy1337 for his account in that Slack channel.

At the time, Webb was trying to convince me to take another look at Voxility, a hosting provider that I’ve previously noted has a rather checkered history and one that BackConnect appears to rely upon exclusively for its own hosting.

In our examination of BGP hijacks attributed to BackConnect, Dyn and KrebsOnSecurity identified an unusual incident in late July 2016 in which BackConnect could be seen hijacking an address range previously announced by Datawagon, a hosting provider with a rather dodgy reputation for hosting spammers and DDoS-for-hire sites.

That address range previously announced by Datawagon included the Internet address 1.3.3.7, which is hacker “leet speak” for the word “leet,” or “elite.” Interestingly, on the w00w00 DDoS discussion Slack channel I observed Webb (Chippy1337) offering other participants in the channel vanity addresses and virtual private connections (VPNs) ending in 1.3.3.7. In the screen shot below, Webb can be seen posting a screen shot demonstrating his access to the 1.3.3.7 address while logged into it on his mobile phone.

Webb, logged into the w00w00 DDoS discussion channel using his nickname "chippy1337," demonstrating that his mobile phone connection was being routed through the Internet address 1.3.3.7, which BackConnect BGP hijacked in July 2016.

Webb, logged into the w00w00 DDoS discussion channel using his nickname “chippy1337,” demonstrating that his mobile phone connection was being routed through the Internet address 1.3.3.7, which BackConnect BGP hijacked in July 2016.

THE MONEY TEAM

The Web address 1.3.3.7 currently does not respond to browser requests, but it previously routed to a page listing the core members of a hacker group calling itself the Money Team. Other sites also previously tied to that Internet address include numerous DDoS-for-hire services, such as nazistresser[dot]biz, exostress[dot]in, scriptkiddie[dot]eu, packeting[dot]eu, leet[dot]hu, booter[dot]in, vivostresser[dot]com, shockingbooter[dot]com and xboot[dot]info, among others.

The Money Team comprised a group of online gaming enthusiasts of the massively popular game Counterstrike, and the group’s members specialized in selling cheats and hacks for the game, as well as various booter services that could be used to knock rival gamers offline.

Datawagon’s founder is an 18-year-old American named CJ Sculti whose 15-minutes of fame came last year in a cybersquatting dispute after he registered the domain dominos.pizza. A cached version of the Money Team’s home page saved by Archive.org lists CJ at the top of the member list, with “chippy1337” as the third member from the top.

The MoneyTeam's roster as of November 2015. Image: Archive.org.

The MoneyTeam’s roster as of November 2015. Image: Archive.org.

Asked why he chose to start a DDoS mitigation company with a kid who was into DDoS attacks, Preston said he got to know Webb over several years before teaming up with him to form BackConnect LLC.

“We were friends long before we ever started the company together,” Preston said. “I thought Marshal had turned over a new leaf and had moved away from all that black hat stuff. He seem to stay true to that until we split and he started getting involved with the Datawagon guys. I guess his lulz mentality came back in a really stupid way.”

Townsend said Webb was never an FBI informant, and was never arrested for involvement with LulzSec.

“Only a search warrant was executed at his residence,” Townsend said. “Chippy is not a unique handle to Marshal and it has been used by many people. Just because he uses that handle today doesn’t mean any past chippy actions are his doing. Marshal did not even go by Chippy when LulzSec was in the news. These claims are completely fabricated.”

As for the apparent Datawagon hijack, Townsend said Datawagon gave BackConnect permission to announce the company’s Internet address space but later decided not to become a customer.

“They were going to be a client and they gave us permission to announce that IP range via an LOA [letter of authorization]. They did not become a client and we removed the announcement. Also note that the date of the screen shot you present of Marshal talking about the 1.3.3.7. is not even the same as when we announced Datawagons IPs.”

SOMETHING SMELLS BAD

When vDOS was hacked, its entire user database was leaked to this author. Among the more active users of vDOS in 2016 was a user who went by the username “pp412” and who registered in February 2016 using the email address mn@gnu.so.

The information about who originally registered the gnu.so domain has long been hidden behind WHOIS privacy records. But for several months in 2015 and 2016 the registration records show it was registered to a Tucker Preston LLC. Preston denies that he ever registered the gnu.so domain, and claims that he never conducted any booter attacks via vDOS. However, Preston also was on the w00w00 Slack channel along with Webb, and registered there using the email address tucker@gnu.so.

But whoever owned that pp412 account at vDOS was active in attacking a large number of targets, including multiple assaults on networks belonging to the Free Software Foundation (FSF).

Logs from the hacked vDOS attack database show the user pp4l2 attacked the Free Software Foundation in May 2016.

Logs from the hacked vDOS attack database show the user pp4l2 attacked the Free Software Foundation in May 2016.

Lisa Marie Maginnis, until very recently a senior system administrator at the FSF, said the foundation began evaluating DDoS mitigation providers in the months leading up to its LibrePlanet2016 conference in the third week of March. The organization had never suffered any real DDoS attacks to speak of previously, but NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden was slated to speak at the conference, and the FSF was concerned that someone might launch a DDoS attack to disrupt the streaming of Snowden’s keynote.

“We were worried this might bring us some extra unwanted attention,” she said.

Maginnis said the FSF had looked at BackConnect and other providers, but that it ultimately decided it didn’t have time to do the testing and evaluation required to properly vet a provider prior to the conference. So the organization tabled that decision. As it happened, the Snowden keynote was a success, and the FSF’s fears of a massive DDoS never materialized.

But all that changed in the weeks following the conference.

“The first attack we got started off kind of small, and it came around 3:30 on a Friday morning,” Maginnis recalled. “The next Friday at about the same time we were hit again, and then the next and the next.”

The DDoS attacks grew bigger with each passing week, she said, peaking at more than 200 Gbps — more than enough to knock large hosting providers offline, let alone individual sites like the FSF’s. When the FSF’s Internet provider succeeded in blacklisting the addresses doing the attacking, the attackers switched targets and began going after larger-scale ISPs further upstream.

“That’s when our ISP told us we had to do something because the attacks were really starting to impact the ISP’s other customers,” Maginnis said. “Routing all of our traffic through another company wasn’t exactly an ideal situation for the FSF, but the other choice was we would just be disconnected and there would be no more FSF online.”

In August, the FSF announced that it had signed up with BackConnect to be protected from DDoS attacks, in part because the foundation only uses free software to perform its work, and BackConnect advertises “open source DDoS protection and security,” and it agreed to provide the service without charge.

The FSF declined to comment for this story. Maginnis said she can’t be sure whether the foundation will continue to work with BackConnect. But she said the timing of the attacks is suspicious.

“The whole thing just smells bad,” she said. “It does feel like there could be a connection between the DDoS and BackConnect’s timing to approach clients. On the other hand, I don’t think we received a single attack until Tucker [Preston] left BackConnect.”

DDoS attacks are rapidly growing in size, sophistication and disruptive impact, presenting a clear and present threat to online commerce and free speech alike. Since reporting about the hack of vDOS and the arrest of its proprietors nearly two weeks ago, KrebsOnSecurity.com has been under near-constant DDoS attack. One assault this past Sunday morning maxed out at more than 210 Gbps — the largest assault on this site to date.

Addressing the root causes that contribute to these attacks is a complex challenge that requires cooperation, courage and ingenuity from a broad array of constituencies — including ISPs, hosting providers, policy and hardware makers, and even end users.

In the meantime, some worry that as the disruption and chaos caused by DDoS attacks continues to worsen, network owners and providers may be increasingly tempted to take matters into their own hands and strike back at their assailants.

But this is almost never a good idea, said Rich Kulawiec, an anti-spam activist who is active on the NANOG mailing list.

“It’s tempting (and even trendy these days in portions of the security world which advocate striking back at putative attackers, never mind that attack attribution is almost entirely an unsolved problem in computing),” Kulawiec wrote. “It’s emotionally satisfying. It’s sometimes momentarily effective. But all it really does [is] open up still more attack vectors and accelerate the spiral to the bottom.”

KrebsOnSecurity would like to thank Dyn and Doug Madory for their assistance in researching the technical side of this story. For a deep dive into the BGP activity attributed to BackConnect, check out Madory’s post, BackConnect’s Suspicious Hijacks.

Source: krebsonsecurity