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Growth in Commercial Sinkholing Operations

Gunter Ollmann

The last couple of years have seen a growth in commercial sinkholing operations. What was once an academic method for studying botnets and other types of Internet-born threat, has more recently turned in to an increasingly profitable business for some organizations.

Yesterday I published a blog on the DarkReading site titled Sinkholing For Profit, and I wanted to expand upon some aspects of the sinkholing discussion (there's only so much you can fit in to 800-ish word limits).

In a nutshell, if you're sinkholing a botnet command and control (CnC) channel you gain a lot of visibility in to the status of the botnet victims. If you manage to sinkhole the data drop site of the botnet or other crimeware campaign, you potentially acquire copies of all the data that is being stolen from the victim's computer. If you're able to spin up a CnC console that's compatible with the crimeware installed upon the victim's computers, you're potentially able to "become" the botmaster.

The information gained from running sinkholes is inherently valuable. In academic circles, sinkholes provide insight in to the growth and demise of Internet threats — which is invaluable for modeling and system training. In the commercial world, depending upon the legal model of the country you're located, there are lots of organizations that are very keen on acquiring information about vulnerable machines around the world.

For example, as countries around the world flesh out their cyber-warfare capabilities and tactics, it's incredibly valuable to know what applications are installed on foreign computers (say in China or Iran), which are vulnerable to remote exploitation and which ones are currently infected with remotely-controllable botnet crimeware.

With the pace of public takedowns of some of the biggest botnets the last couple of years and the use of sinkholes for identifying victims (for the purpose of alerting them to the fact they are infected), there have been more questions concerning who else gets access to the data and (more importantly), once the botnet fades from the media, what happens to the botnet victims and their data? What level of accountability is there for those managing the sinkholes and handling the stolen data?

Obviously this is a concern to law enforcement — particularly those agencies that have participated in various botnet takedowns.

By Gunter Ollmann, CTO at NCC Group Domain Services. More blog posts from Gunter Ollmann can also be read here.

Related topics: Cyberattack, Cybercrime, Malware, Security

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