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8/17/2009
11:01 AM
Sara Peters
Sara Peters
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Who Are These Followers And Followees of the Twitter Botnet?

Social networks really do bring people together, don't they? Old friends. Long-lost relatives. Bots and bot-herders. Warms the heart.

Social networks really do bring people together, don't they? Old friends. Long-lost relatives. Bots and bot-herders. Warms the heart.Last Thursday, Jose Nazario, Arbor Networks' manager of security research, discovered a Twitter account--username "upd4t3"--being used as a botnet command-and-control center.

Bot-herders have been troubled to find a safe and reliable way to communicate new commands to their bots, often migrating from one technology to another, and this is the first known instance of one using a micro-blog. Bully for upd4t3.

Says Nazario: "We maintain a database of malicious connections--malware, attacks, etc.--and I went looking more deeply for any suspicious connections to Twitter.com that may be a part of the DDoS attacks from the past two weeks. A handful of connections to Twitter accounts and profiles looked suspicious, but only one of them in that round turned out to be a bot."

The Twitter status updates were obfuscated links to new download code (which Symantec is calling Downloader.Sninfs), which would, in turn, download another piece of malware--currently an info-stealer called Infostealer.Bancos (by Symantec), which mimics Brazilian banks and steals access credentials. Bots retrieved these updates through the RSS feed of upd4t3's tweets.

Nazario notified security folks at Twitter, who immediately suspended the account.

However, what interests me is that based on this screenshot provided by Symantec, upd4t3 had 7 followers and was following 20 users. (The screenshot is also located on Nazario's blog, but the image was loaded up from Flickr so I thought you'd rather I give you a different link.) So, the big curiosity needling me is: who are these 20 followees and these 7 followers?

Looking at the screen shot, we can see that the botnet C&C is interested in the goings-on of LIFE Magazine and E! News. (I can't imagine that LIFE would be thrilled to find themselves in the same club as E! News. That might be worse than being in the same club as a bot-herder.)

As for the rest, Nazario says he doesn't know. "The bots themselves used the RSS feed, which does not register in the following stats on a user's profile." In other words, there's no reason to believe that those 27 users are bots, because there's no need for owners (not pwners) of bot computers to "follow" upd4t3; they just need to subscribe to upd4t3's RSS feed.

Nonetheless, they are real Twitter user accounts, with usernames and profile photos and everything. They could be phony people, of course. And there's not necessarily any way to know what the relationship is between upd4t3 and the others. They're quite likely just for show, to throw off the suspicion that might be raised by a regularly posting account with no followers or followees. Yet, if they saw fit to do so, Twitter could easily cancel those accounts. Or at least notify the users that they are following or being followed by a botnet C&C.

I'm trying to find out the usernames of all the followers/ees, and I've put in a few questions to Twitter but haven't received any responses yet. More details, hopefully, to come.

(Also, it was later discovered that the user "upd4t3" had accounts on Jaiku, which canceled the account, and Tumblr, which the user had already abandoned.)

Update on upd4t3, 3:27 ET: Nazario sent me a link to the Google cache of upd4t3's page: http://is.gd/2lbgf. Unfortunately he doesn't have access to the cached page displaying the followers. However a look at the first page shows more evidence of the uneven cultural tastes of our bot-herders. The individuals they follow include Eddie Izzard (excellent), Penn Jilette (eh, I'm not so much into Vegas-style magic-comedy), MC Hammer (or sorry, he just goes by "Hammer" now), and Bob Vila (and that's hysterical).

All of those accounts remain active.

Still no word from Twitter's PR people, and no postings about this on the Twitter blog.

Sara Peters is senior editor at Computer Security Institute. Special to Dark Reading. Sara Peters is Senior Editor at Dark Reading and formerly the editor-in-chief of Enterprise Efficiency. Prior that she was senior editor for the Computer Security Institute, writing and speaking about virtualization, identity management, cybersecurity law, and a myriad ... View Full Bio

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