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3/4/2010
05:59 PM
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Tool Automates Targeted Attacks On Social Network Users

Core Security Labs researcher releases code for spear phishing attacks on Twitter

SAN FRANCISCO -- RSA Conference 2010 -- A researcher here today released a free tool that impersonates a Twitter user's account in order to execute automated targeted attacks on the person's followers.

Pedro Varangot, a security researcher with Core Security Labs, says the group wrote the tool as a way to demonstrate and test for how social networks can be used for spear phishing. The initial version executes attacks on Twitter, but Varangot says it can be extended to work against Facebook and other social networks. The tool is based on Core's Exomind, an experimental Python-based framework written to test social network, search engines, and instant messaging attacks.

"We think spear phishing attacks are going to go [beyond] email because people aren't trusting email [as much] anymore," Varangot says. Social networks are already becoming a popular attack vector for spammers and worm attacks, and they make an attractive target for spear phishing, as well.

Varangot says the goal is to provide organizations with a tool for social networking security training, penetration testing, or just to show how these attacks could work. "The real value is making people think like attackers if they want to prevent real attacks. This lets you assess risk in a realistic way," he says. "A lot of people are talking about the problem of social networks and security, and we wanted to give them a solution."

He says he and his team at Core believe attackers eventually will build this type of tool as a way to leverage social networks for targeted attacks.

Varangot says the attack begins with the manual setup of a Twitter profile of a real person. "We're not doing fake identities -- that wouldn't do us any good [for spear phishing]," he notes. The profile then gets fed into the tool, which basically builds a cloned look and feel of the real user's Twitter page, including his last tweets.

"We can create a whole fake network," Varangot says. "We emulate someone and tell him to follow other people, and then tell the others we control to follow him."

The attack can easily lure a particular follower on the counterfeit Twitter account because it's purportedly from someone that person knows. That leaves the door open for tweeting malicious links, for example, aimed at a follower or group of followers.

Managing these impersonated Twitter accounts is much easier with the automated tool, Varangot says. "It's really hard to manage these by hand, but easy to do automatically," he says.

Like stolen email account details, pilfered social networking account credentials also are sold on the underground market, he says.

"Spear phishing on email is dangerous, but it's even more dangerous on social networks," he says. "We believe these attacks are a real threat now."

Core built the tool to work against Twitter users because it was the simplest one to develop due to Twitter's open APIs. But it would be relatively easy to add modules to support such attacks on other social networks, as well, he says.

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Discuss" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message. Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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