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Commentary

I Think We're All Botnets On This Bus

How many undercover researchers can fit under one cover?
Threat intelligence is such a thing these days that everyone is doing it. I talk to dozens of vendors who tell me about the sensors they have distributed across the Internet, the thousands of honeypots and honeyclients they're running, and the traffic they're capturing. They even tell me about their researchers monitoring IRC channels.

This pool is getting so crowded, it might just happen that they're all monitoring one another.

I'm imagining IRC channels full of moles, pretending to be Anonymi and taking notes on what everyone else says. (Are there language boot camps somewhere for 1337-speak?) I'm envisioning botnets that have willing participants, maybe significant percentages of them, belonging to researchers. And I'm sure there have been collisions already where one group from Tirebiter Labs was tracking some activity that turned out to come from the researchers at Spoilsport Security.

If the trend toward "offensive security" continues (or "active defense," or "hacking back," or whatever other terms you like), then even if these security researchers limit themselves to deception and disruption, it's likely that other "good guys" may end up getting deceived and disrupted. Sorting out the real threats from the fake ones could become a regular part of security research operations.

Malware is already showing up that uses SSL and authentication to communicate with the C&C servers, demonstrating that its authors are concerned with keeping white hats out of their botnets. As an escalating arms race, this is enough to keep everyone busy. But when you throw growing numbers of uncoordinated investigators into the mix, it could happen that we'll eventually see examples of "friendly fire."

So although there's a rich mine of information out there, both for monitoring and for research, I think it's only a matter of time before the water gets seriously muddied. It isn't just a case of what the government is allowed to monitor; it's also a question of who else, and how many of them, can do it without creating additional problems. This particular discussion should be happening soon.

Wendy Nather is Research Director of the Enterprise Security Practice at the independent analyst firm 451 Research. You can find her on Twitter as @451wendy.

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