FBI Hijacks Botnet, With Court Order… Then Issues Kill Signal To Millions Of Computers

from the good-samirtan-hacking? dept

For years there’s been talk about the value of “good samaritan” viruses or botnets, that would go out and try to delete or kill of “bad” viruses or botnets. Lots of computing experts have, reasonably, warned that the unintended consequences of such an action could be large and dangerous. Apparently, the FBI figures, why not test it out anyway? In a rather surprising move, the FBI was able to get a court order that allowed it to effectively hijack a large botnet, involving millions of computers, and send a “stop” command to all of those PCs that would disable the malware (called Coreflood).

While there are obviously good intentions here, and it’s definitely a good thing to see a large malicious botnet go dark, there still are really serious concerns about this move, the legality of the move, and the risk of unintended consequences. Do we really want to set a precedent where the FBI can send commands remotely to millions of computers? And how confident are people that the FBI’s programming skills won’t cause problems, if not this time, at some point in the future? In the filing requesting the right to do this, the FBI even pointed out that a newer version of Coreflood had been released that morning “but that the FBI had tested the kill command against that variant and it had worked successfully.” Of course, testing in the lab and deploying to millions of machines in the real world is entirely different. There are also concerns that this is an ongoing effort, since Coreflood apparently reruns every time a machine is rebooted, meaning that the FBI will have to keep sending this kill signal. And while the FBI swears up and down “that this would cause no harm to computers,” how confident are you that this is really the case?

Again, I recognize the importance of trying to stop botnets and take them down. Additionally, there don’t appear to be any early reports of trouble or unintended consequences from this move. But… when dealing with something like this, where the FBI is sending execution commands to millions of PCs, you have to assume that sooner or later, something bad is going to happen. Does the FBI have a technical support helpdesk to help your grandparents when it kills their computer?

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Comments on “FBI Hijacks Botnet, With Court Order… Then Issues Kill Signal To Millions Of Computers”

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Skeptical Cynic (profile) says:

All I can say is Holy Crap!!!

I’m in IT and the thought of any government agency sending any command to any computer to do what it wants just freaks me out.
What right do they have to do that?

I hate bot-net infected computers because they cause all kinds of issues but anyway you look at it the FBI just made all those computers do what it wanted. It issued forced instructions to those computers that were executed.

Big Brother is all grown up and has just made it to college.

wvhillbilly (profile) says:

Re: Re: All I can say is Holy Crap!!!

What’s really needed is software that will detect such malware on a computer and notify the user of same and give instructions how to remove it. Seems to me like virus protection software would be the ideal medium for this, and could provide the means of both cleaning out the malware and protecting against re-installation/re-infection.

el_segfaulto (profile) says:

Re: All I can say is Holy Crap!!!

In fairness, the likeliest scenario is that the FBI simply sent a predefined kill signal to the infected PCs, probably mimicking a command and control server. It’s not as if they can arbitrarily send whatever commands they want to any workstation and take control (this isn’t Hollywood). If there isn’t software listening for that specific command on that specific port, the packet will simply rebound off into the aether.

senshikaze (profile) says:

Re: Re: All I can say is Holy Crap!!!

And what if the botnet program (the “virus”) has a buffer overflow bug? Bugless code is hard, especially when you have to work with the constraints that malware writers have to deal with. If the FBI had found a bug and sent a formed packet that could cause the buffer overflow, now, since the virus more than likely has kernel level access, you have a Gov’t agency with the ability to run arbitrary code on your machine. It isn’t Hollywood, it is how damn near every exploit and hack works. All Hollywood does is make it shiny it up and adds stupid terms noone uses.

But it’s cool, I use Linux. 🙂

el_segfaulto (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: All I can say is Holy Crap!!!

I use Linux too (Debian and CentOS lately) and I agree completely that we’re at the mercy of the agencies and that if they chose to take advantage of the same vulnerabilities that the original botnets used, we would have no recourse. In fairness though, even the Linux kernel has been shown to have vulnerabilities, though none at the level of Windows or OSX.

aldestrawk says:

Re: Re: All I can say is Holy Crap!!!

I don’t think it is likely that the botnet program is listening for a command that would terminate itself (i.e. terminate all the running processes associated with the botnet on that computer). A software update is one of the available commands to the botnet. The likeliest scenario is that the FBI would be sending an update to the botnet program. That update would either terminate the program directly or listen for a separate termination command.
If the FBI can update the botnet program then it can write updates that can do anything that is permissible for the owner of the botnet processes. That might well be full administrative permission. This botnet program already has a keylogger component. It is not clear to me if the botnet is sending collected data along with it’s beacons or there is simply a command for the C&C server to be send the collected data.
In the court filing, the FBI says they are not going to collect data from any of the infected computers other than the source IP address contained in the beacon packet.

RHOPKINS13 (profile) says:

Thinking about the consequences...

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m all for destroying botnets, but I don’t think this was thought out fully. First of all, it’s a temporary fix. I’m sure that many if not most of the computers that were infected get rebooted on a regular basis, and it’ll only be a small matter of time before they’re up and running Coreflood again.

Second, it sounds like this “stop” command was programmed in by the original writers. If that’s the case, the obvious reaction to this is for them to make an update that leaves out this “stop” command.

Not saying that there’s a correct way of stopping a botnet, but I don’t think this is it.

Jes Lookin says:

Is This A 'More Friendly' Problem

So… there are thousands of computers infected with malicious and annoying botnet software controlled by scum-bags. The FBI wants to see if they can stop it by sending out an application kill command. So what ? I’m surprised some teen hackers don’t do this regularly just to screw around. The only problem may be that infected systems crash, like all mismanaged or Microsoft system will anyway – there will just be someone that seems convenient to blame…

aldestrawk says:

Re: Is This A 'More Friendly' Problem

The following is what the FBI, along with ISC, needed to do:

-Allow a computer to be infected and the analyze the code via reverse engineering and by monitoring all the packets involved in communication.

-They apparently have actually seized, at least some of the C&C servers. This isn’t strictly necessary. They do need to take over the domain names used by the botnet client computers to communicate with the C&C servers. The FBI seized those domain names by court order and now are using them for their own purposes here.

A lone hacker could have done the first step but not the second. Without having access to a C&C server, a lone hacker cannot even find out the IP addresses of the other botnet clients. There is a remote possibility that a vulnerability in the C&C servers will allow code injection by a botnet client. Otherwise, that teen hacker has no hope.

umccullough (profile) says:

This did little to help the owners

Removed a piece of malware from a bunch of machines – wow… what good samaritans right?

Not likely. The machines are probably infected with multiple pieces of malware (such is generally the case with machines like this), and the owners have learned nothing from this exercise.

Notification and Education should be the proper solution – not “let us clean this up for you without your knowlege”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: This did little to help the owners

Read the original article – they didn’t remove the malware, they just issued an already built in command for the malware to stop running. It restarts at reboot. Microsoft added the malware to their malicious software removal tool and those who get it through windows updates will have the software removed.

Also, notification IS in the works. The ISC is recording IP addresses connecting to their new C&C servers and forwarding those lists onto ISPs, who can then notify their customers.

Skeptical Cynic (profile) says:

Re: Re: This did little to help the owners

Are you not freaked out that the FBI can issue a command to your computer to do what it wants? By whatever means or excuse? I am a die-hard US citizen but no way, no how, should the Gov get away with ever, for any reason, or under any law be able to do anything legally to your computer without a clear and defined legally approved purpose!!!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: This did little to help the owners

They can’t issue the command unless your computer is already infected with malware. In that instance the criminals are already controlling your infected machine.

This was a clear and defined legally approved purpose. They went to court and got a court order to carry this out. It specifically included provisions regarding personal information – they believe the action would not result in the transmission of any personal information and if it did, it would be destroyed upon recognition.

Mike42 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: This did little to help the owners

Dude, seriously. I can do it to these computers anytime I want. So can tons of hackers/crackers, white hat or black hat.

If these systems were secure, the malware wouldn’t have gotten there in the first place. Yes, you CAN harden your system and make it secure from these guys AND the feds. It’s just that these people didn’t.

Chill. Breathe. No one wants your files anyway.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 This did little to help the owners

Exactly. Find a rooted box, netstat it and check the IPs. Connect to the server, find the channel, have fun. Most of the time, the botnets have different triggers but same commandsets. Meaning once you find the trigger, you can manually shut down the botnet. It’s not that hard to figure out, even without a ‘reverse engineered’ source/code to work off.

harbingerofdoom (profile) says:

Re: Orrin Hatch

its unlikely that there were many actual pirates infected with this bot. the type of person that is savvy enough to fall into the category of pirate is usually savvy enough to not have bots roots bloatware crapware and the like.
its pretty much only affects the clueless general public.

not that your average politician would actually understand the ramifications of what i actually just said, but still….

JH says:

Re: Re:

Frankly, the kill command should DISABLE all infected computers, preferably with a boot-time blue screen telling the owner to call their IT dept or have the computer professionally virus-scanned and cleaned.

These people need a heads-up, not coddling and excuses.

Yeah…and when your car fails inspection the mechanic should pour sugar in the gas tank immediately.

Mike says:

Re: Re: Re:

If my car is off attacking pedestrians without my knowledge, yes, please disable it in any manner you need to.

The issue is not that their computers failed inspection, but that they have been hacked, owned, and are being remotely controlled to attack other people. This is indeed just cause to at the very least prevent them from booting, preferably in some manner that can be easily reversed by someone with the know-how.

Anonymous Coward says:

Hitting the self destruct button on a built botnet isn’t really the same as say, amazon deleteing things from your computer. Even if it caused problems for someone, guess what, they know there’s a problem now, when there was one all along, and it prevents them from far worse things such as maybe identity theft that these things are great for.

Anonymous Coward says:

We all want botnets and other assorted malware to get squashed, but this just doesn’t fly with me. FBI – set up your command servers, record the IP addresses of infected machines, then forward that info to the respective ISPs to deal with it in a phone call or letter to the individual subscriber.

If this sort of thing begins to take off, then how long will it be before some paid-for Senator decides to get P2P software classified as “malware” so the FBI can hack into your machine to shut it down?

Gryphonn says:

The Untested kill signal

One day a gung-ho FBI hack(er) will send out an untested kill command. Maybe that could be the day that the coreflood (or future bot) coder has written code to either kill the systems or spread further malware to other systems.
We should all hope this court order is a one off and not a precedent.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: The Untested kill signal

Especially now that the hackers know the FBI is involved with this sort of thing. If I was a vindictive malware author, I’d make sure all my future software had a very well-documented kill command that didn’t just kill the malware, but also wiped the bios of the machine it’s installed on.

Atkray (profile) says:

Re: Re:

You must not have any elderly around you.

I get calls from elderly neighbors weekly because of problems like this.

Most of them have multiple antivirus programs installed and expired.

The grand-kids click on whatever pops up on the screen.

Frequently they have already taken the computer in to a big box store and spent $250 to repair a $300 computer running Vista basic with insufficient memory.

All they want to do is email and facebook pictures of their family.

Somehow I don’t think your suggestion that they contact the author of the malware is a viable solution, especially since most of them don’t even know they have malware.

It is easy for those of us that have a little more knowledge of how computers work to say that computer users need to be more responsible, but the truth is as manufactures have made computers easier to use the minimum requirements to be able to use one have gotten pretty low.

The reality is many people will go through multiple computers without ever seeing a command prompt and will be glad they didn’t. Expecting them to do more than turn it on and off is probably an unreasonable expectation at this time.

senshikaze (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

you don’t work in IT.
Expecting them to be able to turn it off and on IS unreasonable. I have gotten more than one person, from 20 years old to over 60 who didn’t know how to turn off the damn machine they sit in front of for 40 hours a week.

I hate people…

(oh and your elderly neighbor, try Linux Mint. Might hit the spot.)

Anonymous Coward says:

It doesn't look like the FBI is doing any programming...

The FBI isn’t writing any new code/applications and distributing it to the infected hosts. With the ISC, they’re just issuing a ‘stop’ command – a command already preprogrammed into the malware running on the compromised systems. Any damage has already been done by the malware itself. Stopping it from running is really a low impact action.

The real action comes with the microsoft malicious software removal tool. This is distributed via windows update and has been for years.

I’d be a bit more wary if the FBI was taking some kind of active or invasive action on the compromised systems (e.g. distributing a new program to ‘fix’ the problem), but they’re just issuing a stop command. The ISC is logging the IP addresses of infected system and sending those lists onto ISPs so the owners can be informed. I’m all kinds of wary about the FBI interfering with private systems and concerned about unintended consequences, but this all seems really benign.

Bruce Ediger (profile) says:

Re: It doesn't look like the FBI is doing any programming...

Of course the FBI isn’t writing any software. Ever heard of the “Virtual Case File” fiasco? (http://spectrum.ieee.org/computing/software/who-killed-the-virtual-case-file)

The FBI has traditionally been an all-IBM shop, in particular, an all-mainframe shop. The FBI’s first website, way back when, was hosted ON A NASA MACHINE. That’s right, the FBI didn’t have anything that could run a web server in 1995 or so.

The internal FBI culture probably prevents them from having anyone tech-savvy enough to do this kind of thing.

Idobek (profile) says:

But.. but... cyber-warfare

Note to the FBI, the DOD, and others demanding more powers to combat cyber-terrorism and cyber-warfare:

a) The ability of foreign powers to shut down power plants and, other computer based infrastructure, over the internet is not real – and, therefore, this cause of action is safe but your demands for more power are based on lies.


b) Whoops – you accidentally disabled the control system of a nuclear power plant because it was infected with a botnet.

Justin says:

jumping to conclusions ....

I think some folks are jumping to conclusions here. Nothing says they are killing or targeting the computers, just the botnet. As long as that’s the case I’m all for it.

If it is a case of “targeting” the infected machine then we have a problem.

In other words if my IP gets wrongly targeted and has no code for the botnet and thats the code they are sending, then no harm. If they are sending something to my computer because they THINK the botnet is there, that’s an issue.

Michial Thompson (user link) says:

Hard Sale for stopping this activity

It does kinda suck that the FBI would do this, but your going to have a hard time selling the fact that they shouldn’t do it.

You have Millions of people screaming about SPAM, and malware, and bandwidth consumption etc… Lots are screaming at congress to do something about all this etc…

A legitimate and secure network and PC is at no risk of the FBI issuing THIS command to stop because you or your IT staff would have already removed the MalWare. So screaming about the FBI issuing this stop order on this malware isn’t going to get you far.

In the end, like it or not your likely to see more and more of this from the Government all in the name of “security.”
Personally I have mixed feelings about it. My GMail account’s spam filter has 2600+ emails in the SPAM box, that’s the highest I have seen it in several years and it’s only the past 30 days too. Obviously Google’s filter is doing well, but my corporate email server is still bombarded with all this same SPAM, and I cannot afford the $10k/yr that the SPAM Filter Companies want to extort from my company and they still don’t do anything to reduce the bandwidth I have to pay for for this crap to attempt to hit my servers.

It sucks that the FBI did this, but it’s obvious that the owners of the PCs in the Bot-Net don’t give a rats ass about the damage they are doing because they have done nothing to secure their computers.

Meek Barbarian (profile) says:

Re: Hard Sale for stopping this activity

It sucks that the FBI did this, but it’s obvious that the owners of the PCs in the Bot-Net don’t give a rats ass about the damage they are doing because they have done nothing to secure their computers.

I’d amend that a bit. I’m sure some (a lot?) of it is more along the lines of ignorant users (e.g., the computer illiterates) that don’t even know their PCs are causing damage. It’s not that they don’t care – they just don’t realize that the toy water gun they keep pointing at the internet has live ammo loaded in it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Hard Sale for stopping this activity

Honestly, nothing beats a good set of human eyes to see what’s going on. That’s the bigger problem here, IT workers want things so automatic they totally forget the value of a smart IT worker that has a pulse on what goes in and out of the network.

Bet you didn’t know that some of your mail is being routed thru DoD servers……

Griff (profile) says:

Re: Hard Sale for stopping this activity

So google goes a great spam filtering job but your corporate spam filter costs $10k.

Hmm. Why not send corporate email through google ?
Route it in, pop/IMAP it out. One google user each, free.
KISS as they say.

Or even go the whole hog and move to Google corporate email. Saves you running a mail server too.

Christopher (profile) says:

Ummm, wow.

We need to add voting buttons for “RTFA”, “Offtopic”, “Blundering dope”.

I’m happy the FBI hijacked — in the truest definition of the word — the botnets and killed the clients. Did it solve a minor issue? Yep. Is it an invasion? Nope. That conduit already existed. The FBI closed it. Thank them, for Pete’s sake.

Your fears are largely misplaced. Instead of blaming a system that allows shitbirds to run botnets with impunity, you blame a government entity for *possibly* inducing a side-effect to a largely beneficial act. that’s like blaming vaccines for the plague.


Anonymous Coward says:

Misleading headline

So basically you’ve turned a story that actually says “FBI uses the same somewhat risky techniques that have already been used on several occasions by security researchers, but with more oversight” and turned it into a headline that sounds far more like “Court allows FBI to remotely wipe millions of people’s computers”… Really?

W. Banchs (profile) says:

FBI - crosses ethical lines to cut un-ethical lines

I can understand the “greater good” mentality that prompted the FBI to seek and, let’s not forget from a judge, obtain court approval to commit this act of sanctioned government trespass on private computers.

Who’s to know what else was on the payload of the programming that FBI sent to each computer, even if it was to monitor the life of the bot programming it still would be an unlawful/uninivited seizure of that virtual property of the computer owners whouldn’t you think?

moe says:

A telling detail

I think it’s telling that the FBI/ISC didn’t use the same methodology used by the Dutch. When the Dutch did this, they also sent along a message to the computer (I’m guessing a pop-up/windows messaging service message) notifying the user that they were infected with malware.

Privacy and individual rights vary from country to country. If this was a legitimate use of law enforcement authority in the U.S., why didn’t the FBI/ISC pass along a message also? From a technical standpoint, there is no difference between sending this “kill” command to the malware and sending a message via the Windows Messaging Service (or some similar mechanism). The only difference between the two is that one is undetectable.

What does that tell you?

ServerMonkey (profile) says:


Ok guys… seriously? The FBI found a bot-net that was already in existence. They figured out the ports and ID schema to gain control of it. Rather than have the people “in charge of it” fry the OS’s or change the access… they simply shut it down using what was already available as a tool through the bot-net program. This was a safety measure, and nothing more. They didn’t hack the machines… they didn’t send codes to a computer that wasn’t already compromised in some way.

As someone who does this kind of thing for a living (CEH/CPTE), please learn more before you just fly off the handle and start spouting “big brother” comments. They used a tool someone else maliciously installed in a way that prevented further issues for the time being… if you see something wrong with that, then you have serious trust issues.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Really?

Have you learned nothing in the past 10 years. The problem is, they will take it too far. They always do.

Need I remind you that we went from Profiling at the airport to full on pat downs, all in the name of ‘good’.


Are we gonna wait until they go to far to put our foot down?

The next issue is, I think this is all dog and pony. I think the botnet dudes have just infiltrated and pulled off the biggest social engineering exploit ever.

Now the botnet dudes know EXACTLY how the government is set up on the inside.

Michael (profile) says:


“Malicious” software or not, who is the FBI to determine that software isn’t allowed to run on my computer.

Talk about unintended consequences – who determines that software is worthy of being killed by the FBI? What if I wanted Coreflood running on one of my machines because I was working on malware detection software?

If they are allowed to do this, how can we ensure they will not issue a kill command to any other software they deem “Malicious” – sometimes MS Office crashes my machine – are they allowed to kill it?

At the VERY LEAST, they should be contacting every user of every computer to determine if this is malicious software on the machine they intend to kill it on before being allowed to touch it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Users

Wow. You are really an idiot.

If the operators of the botnet had decided to shut it down, are you going to be equally upset?

If you are working on software to detect malicious software, then take it offline. The code is going to remain on your machine whether it is online or not.

They didn’t hack into your computer and run ‘pkill -9 coreflood’, they issued a command though the botnet to shut it down.

AndyD273 (profile) says:

FUD storm

It’s not like they are actually targeting these computers.
“Next computer: -kill. One down, three million to go.”

It’s likely just an untargeted broadcast, using the same way that the virus writers issue commands to it.
Which is worse, a federal agency sending a stop command to the malware on my computer, or a malicious group of thugs sending commands to my computer to do who knows what, possibly stealing private data.

Honestly, this is semi encouraging just because they went through proper legal channels to get the court order, instead of just doing it under their own authority, like all those wiretaps.

It’s just to bad they cant put a message up on the screen warning people they are infected and advising them to run windows update to fix the problem.

aldestrawk says:

Re: FUD storm

The C&C could possibly use multicast addressing for the control of a botnet. I am not aware this has ever been done. A problem is that not all ISPs support multicast routing. There really isn’t much of a problem having a single server control a large botnet using just unicast. I am sure the FBI is just using the same mechanism.

Elder-Geek (profile) says:

Its not your computer

At the point your computer is compromised by a botnet, it is not really your computer anymore. The botnet owns it and allows you as a patsy to continue to use it. This is about the same as someone making a copy of your car keys and borrowing your car every night to commit crimes and gases it back up and leaves it for you in the morning.

I am not sure how a compromised PC should be treated. But I do not think you have the same rights as with an uncompromised PC. If you don’t want the FBI poking around on your computer. Then you need to make sure it does not get infected. Because once it is infected, it is a threat and danger to the public and yourself. Spewing out spam, being used to crack passwords, serve up illegal porn and as a playground for stealing your online identity and accounts.

The minute your computer is compromised it is like going to a bad neighborhood and leaving an unlocked car with a pile of cash, a machine gun, ammo, and drugs laying around in the front seat. You have encouraged something bad to happen.

Should the FBI have just traced the IP address and filed suit against these individuals as spamers? Should they send you a letter telling you your computer is infected and you need to spend $200 or more taking it to someone who knows what their doing to backup your data and reinstall your OS and software?

I think sending the kill signal is the best thing they could have done. Otherwise there is a good chance some hacker would be able to re-acquire these machines.

Charles (profile) says:

probably already posted but my time online is short today:

I’m sure it has been mentioned already, but who is to say that one of the computers that was sent the kill command is not part of some system critical piece of machinery, say a control computer for a nuclear reactor, or a computer that checks to see if the engines on a nuclear missile are non-operating? I’m half sure that the FBI thought of this, but we have definitely seen other cases of the govt doing things that have consequences beyond what they thing is “possible.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: probably already posted but my time online is short today:

Just so I’m clear, you are perfectly happy that people running the botnet has their code on some critical piece of machinery and can do anything they want, but you are concerned about the govt shutting down said botnet?

Just how much testing and care do you think the botnet creators of done to ensure critical computer systems don’t fail in some horrific way because of their botnet?

aldestrawk says:

Re: probably already posted but my time online is short today:

The FBI could have made an attempt to clean the system of the malware completely. That can be risky since it may include system files and Registry entries for WIndows. Killing a process or processes is fairly safe considering they were designed to serve the purposes of a botnet.
I agree with anonymous coward better the FBI does this with a critical system than letting the botnet owners maintain control.

Anonymous Coward says:

What if it were your car

If a person’s car was leaving oil spills, lots of blue exhaust, and was unroadworthy, would you support the government ie. the police to get that dangerous car off the road? Would you really defend the car owner’s right to drive? How would you respond to the driver’s pleas that they need to get places in their car? Or can’t afford to, or know how to fix it?

David says:

From across the pond

Looking from my UK viewpoint; although I think that the sooner botnets are smashed, the better, I would certainly be uneasy about our “authorities” doing a similar thing. I’m glad to see that there was, at least, some sort of due process through a court, unlike (so I understand) the domain seizures carried out by your Homeland Security people but I still remain unconvinced that this is the best way of dismantling a botnet, in case there were unintended consequences. Perhaps there should be a specialised government department for such affairs, manned by REAL I.T. experts who know exactly what they are doing and, hopefully, can foresee any problems.

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