In late 2011, security researcher HD Moore scanned a small but significant fraction of the Internet looking for addresses that responded to the specific protocol used by videoconferencing systems. Then he dialed those systems.
The scan of 3 percent of the Internet found 5,000 systems -- 150,000 systems when extrapolated Internet-wide -- that were set to automatically answer any call, potentially allowing any attacker to snoop on meetings and peer around conference rooms. The research, presented in early 2012 by Moore and Rapid7 CEO Mike Tuchen, set the tone for the year. Rapid7 went on to find an estimated 140,000 systems running PCAnywhere connected directly to the Internet, many of them likely point-of-sale servers. A computer-science doctoral student from Cambridge University used SHODAN, a database of archived port scans, to determine that thousands of industrial-control systems were connected to the Internet and likely vulnerable.
"The scary part about it, with all these private databases that people -- including attackers -- are building, they don't have to scan you, they already know what you have out there," says Moore, chief security officer for Rapid7.
Researchers are not the only ones doing the scanning. The more widely used remote-administration protocols, such as the remote desktop protocol (RDP) and the virtual network computing (VNC) protocol, were among the top-10 communication ports scanned regularly by attackers, according to the SANS Institute. Many times when security professionals analyze a compromised server that was being used by attackers, they will find files documenting the results of port scans, Moore says.
"You see attackers starting to take this approach, where they do lots of scanning to filter down the target set to more and more of what they are looking for," he says.
Most security professionals know that they cannot hide their systems in the crowded digital landscape of the Internet, but attackers are searching for -- and finding -- systems that have been misconfigured or have default settings intended to make configuration easier.
Nearly two-thirds of companies that suffered a breach in 2011 allowed hackers into their networks through poorly configured or vulnerable remote access software, according to Trustwave's 2012 Global Security Report. Verizon found a similar trend among its own cases: Attackers gained access to a victim's data by exploiting poorly configured remote access software in 88 percent of all breaches due to hacking.
"The restaurants and retailers and point-of-sale systems -- that is exactly how those things are found: There is a scanner that is scanning the Internet, and it's automatically programmed to try default passwords and gain entry," says Wade Baker, managing principal of Verizon's RISK team.
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The Sality botnet, a large peer-to-peer network of compromised PCs, did just that, according to researchers at the University of California at San Diego and the University of Napoli in Italy. The botnet scanned the entire IPv4 address space in February 2011, looking for voice-over-IP servers. The botnet likely used brute-force guessing to crack the servers' security, the researchers stated in a paper.
"There are a lot of badly configured applications and default passwords out there," says Johannes Ullrich, chief research officer for the SANS Institute.
It will get worse before it gets better. Currently, Moore is looking at the universal plug-and-play (UPnP) protocol, which allows devices to configure themselves to automatically work with other network devices. The results so far are grim, if unsurprising: Most devices are using old and vulnerable software.
"It's surprising to see what versions are out there -- companies are shipping embedded devices using libraries that are five and 10 years out of date," he says. "It's crazy, and it's almost the most popular service found on the Internet."
The problems are not likely to be fixed, but the move to IPv6 will large mitigate the security issues. Home users' networks will have, what will essentially amount to, randomized addresses in 128-bit address space -- so large, it will be infeasible to scan completely. SANS Institute has looked for signs that attackers may be scanning the space, but so far have not encountered any activity.
"The IPv6 switch is the big question mark," Ullrich says. "Servers may have fixed addresses in the space, but home routers will essentially have random addresses, and it will be impossible to scan."
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