The Botnet/zombie Army: Cyber-Terrorism

By Senior, W. A. | Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

The Botnet/zombie Army: Cyber-Terrorism


Senior, W. A., Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts


Computer Associates has warned of a coordinated malware attack (CMA) described as among the most sophisticated yet unleashed on the net. The attack involves three different Trojans--Glieder, Fantibag and Mitglieder--in a co-ordinated assault designed to establish a huge botnet under the control of hackers. CA reckons that access to the compromised PCs is for sale on a black market, at prices as low as five cents per PC. (Leyden)

A The previous citation reads like something out of a gibson novel, a 4

hip, facile hacker argot rife with its own verbal incunabula and compacted language. However, again reality eclipses fiction, the "what if" of science fiction in particular here, because the botnet, also called a zombie army, currently serves as perhaps the most malignant and subversive computer plague that we face.2 "Bots" are robots, slaved computers whose Internet connections and hard drives are used by "botherders" for various reasons from the simply mischievous to the internationally criminal, shades of Neuromancer or Count Zero. "Botnets are the workhorses of most online criminal enterprises today, allowing hackers to ply their trade anonymously--sending spam, sowing infected PCs with adware from companies that pay for each installation, or hosting fraudulent e-commerce and banking Web sites" (Krebs).

A botherder, as I understand it, can summon the capacity of the zombie army of computers to overwhelm a firewall system simply by the volume of attack. Someone who has enough of the slaved computers at his or her disposal can theoretically freeze a system and then crack into the data behind whatever ICE protects that system. And one seemingly insurmountable challenge to those protecting data involves the staggering number of computers infected: "consensus among scientists is that botnet programs are present on about 11 percent of the more than 650 million computers attached to the

Introduction

Internet" (Markoff A5). Another report pessimistically reveals the following escalation of attacks:

Trend [Trend Micro] identified more than 250,000 new bots each day for the two days after an exploit was developed for the Server Service hole, which Microsoft patched with Ms06-040. Typically the company might identify 250,000 new bots over the course of a month. (Roberts)

Most people don't even know they have the virus or worm in their operating systems; common symptoms include sluggishness of applications and delays in Internet connection and downloads. Because the intrusion is often so minimal, most people cannot even determine if their computers are infected. In fact, of the more than 150 students and colleagues I have informally surveyed, virtually none had ever heard of this plague and could not tell if their computers, at home or in the office, might be part of a botnet.

The plasticity of this system further defeats standard defenses or precautions. Let's say that a botherder physically located in ottumwa, Iowa, finds himself or herself under scrutiny or is attacked. Frequently, of course, there is no correspondence between real-world location and IP location in cyberspace so that governmental agencies or corporate watchdogs have no way of identifying and stopping the botherder. So when they are shut down, botherders can simply skip to another host computer or IP address and leisurely recommence their Internet mayhem. The whole idea is reminiscent of what Beauvoir tells Bobby about the machinations surrounding hot software in Count Zero; Bobby has just run a program given to him by a go-between named Two-a-Day that almost got him killed because he had no idea what he was doing, and Beauvoir explains how he was set up:

   So, in the way of things, what's Two-a-Day gonna do with it? Is he
   gonna slot it? No way at all. He just does the same thing the big
   boys did to him, 'cept he isn't even going to bother telling the
   guy he's going to do it to. … 

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