Anonymous Leaves Clues In Failed Vatican Attack

Researchers at RSA detail a rare glimpse into the specific strategies, tools, and tactics used by Anonymous to infiltrate or take down websites.

Anonymous: 10 Facts About The Hacktivist Group
Anonymous: 10 Facts About The Hacktivist Group
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How do hacktivists launch attacks? A new report details an online assault launched in August by the hacktivist collective Anonymous that lasted for 25 days, and which was designed to disrupt a specific event.

The research, released Sunday by data security vendor Imperva on the eve of this week's RSA conference in San Francisco, offers a rare glimpse into the specific strategies, tools, and tactics used by Anonymous in its attempts to infiltrate or take down websites.

While officials at Imperva declined to identify the attacked organization, according to news reports, the attack was launched against a Vatican website. The Vatican likewise declined to confirm the attack, but according to news reports, a church official accidentally sent an email--intended for a colleague--to a journalist that read, "I do not think it is convenient to respond to journalists on real or potential attacks," and that "the more we are silent in this area the better."

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The Anonymous attack was launched under the banner of Operation Pharisee, which began with attacks in South America and Mexico. This particular attack, however, was designed to disrupt a planned visit by Pope Benedict XVI to Madrid as part of World Youth Day 2011. But the attempt to scuttle the Vatican's related website failed, despite the launch of a distributed-denial-of-service (DDoS) attack that saw traffic volumes spike to 34 times their normal level.

Researchers at Imperva had advance warning of the attack, meaning they were able to watch it closely as it unfolded. "The thing that distinguishes hacktivism from financially motivated attackers is that they're loud and they preannounce," said Amichai Shulman, CTO of Imperva, in a meeting at the RSA conference.

Here's how the attack proceeded: During the first phase, Anonymous conducted reconnaissance of the Vatican website, looking for any Web application vulnerabilities they could exploit to access servers and steal data. Attackers used a number of freely available tools, including an Iranian-built automated SQL injection scanner named Havij (literally "carrot" in Farsi, though it's also a common slang term for male genitalia), as well as Acunetix Scanner and Nikto Scanner, which search servers for signs of known vulnerabilities, including SQL injection and cross-site scripting bugs, as well as outdated server software.

Based on those tools requiring their operators to understand the intricacies of Web applications and related vulnerabilities, "the first part was carried out by a small group of professionals," said Shulman.

But the tools were failing to turn up any weaknesses in the Vatican website that attackers could exploit. Accordingly, the attack organizers began a recruitment campaign via Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, calling on people to join Anonymous in bringing down the World Youth Day website by using the Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC) DDoS tool. Anonymous also made use of a then-new mobile version of LOIC, which was a Web page with JavaScript that would execute a DDoS attack after the page was visited by a mobile device browser.

As noted, the attack lasted 25 days, but interestingly, most of that time was spent conducting reconnaissance or recruiting DDoS participants. "Days 19 to 25 were the actual attack phase, split between application attacks and then DDoS attacks," said Rob Rachwald, director of security strategy at Imperva, in a meeting at the RSA conference.

Shulman said one of the most interesting findings from Imperva's analysis of the attack was the insight into how Anonymous conducts reconnaissance, especially since the topic "is not usually discussed" by Anonymous members, at least in public forums. What was also notable was that the group only launched a DDoS attack after failing to find known Web application vulnerabilities to exploit. That, in turn, suggests that many Anonymous DDoS attacks are only launched after--and in cases when--the group fails to find known application weaknesses to exploit. "Our research ... shows that Anonymous will try to steal data first and, if that fails, attempt a DDoS attack," he said.

Another finding was that while an open call was made for people to join the Anonymous DDoS attack, the initial reconnaissance phase was conducted by a relatively small number of "sophisticated hackers," according to the Imperva report. That, in turn, squares with some analyses of Anonymous, which suggest that the core group is composed of a relatively small number of people.

"Anonymous is a handful of geniuses surrounded by a legion of idiots," Cole Stryker, an expert on the anything-goes 4chan message boards who's researched Anonymous, told the New York Times. "You have four or five guys who really know what they're doing and are able to pull off some of the more serious hacks, and then thousands of people spreading the word, or turning their computers over to participate in a DDoS attack."

The right forensic tools in the right hands are just a start. The new Digital Detectives issue of Dark Reading shows you how to better apply the lessons they teach. (Free registration required.)

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