The Mixed Up World of Hola VPN

Have you heard about, or maybe you use, the “free” services of Hola VPN?

This is, of course, a VPN, in that it routes your traffic over a “protected” network, provides some level of privacy to users and can be used to skirt IP address focused restrictions, such as those imposed by streaming media systems and television suppliers. There are a ton of these out there, but Hola is interesting for another reason.

That other reason is that it turns the client machine into “exit nodes” for a paid service offering by the company:

In May 2015, Hola came under criticism from 8chan founder Frederick Brennan after the site was reportedly attacked by exploiting the Hola network, as confirmed by Hola founder Ofer Vilenski. After Brennan emailed the company, Hola modified its FAQ to include a notice that its users are acting as exit nodes for paid users of Hola’s sister service Luminati. “Adios, Hola!”, a website created by nine security researchers and promoted across 8chan, states: “Hola is harmful to the internet as a whole, and to its users in particular. You might know it as a free VPN or “unblocker”, but in reality it operates like a poorly secured botnet – with serious consequences.”[23]

In this case, you may be getting a whole lot more than you bargained for when you grab and use this “free” VPN client. As always, your paranoia should vary and you should carefully monitor any new software or tools you download – since they may not play nice, be what you thought, or be outright malicious. 

I point this whole debacle out, just to remind you, “free” does not always mean without a cost. If you don’t see a product, you are likely THE PRODUCT… Just something to keep in mind as you wander the web… 

Until next time, stay safe out there!

Fighting Second Stage Compromises

Right now, most organizations are fighting a losing battle against initial stage compromises. Malware, bots and client side attacks are eating many security programs alive. The security team is having a nearly impossible time keeping up with the onslaught and end-user systems are falling left and right in many organizations. Worse, security teams that are focused on traditional perimeter security postures and the idea of “keeping the bad guys outside the walls” are likely unaware that these threats are already active inside their networks.

There are a number of ways that second stage compromises occur. Usually, a compromised mobile device or system comes into the environment via remote access, VPN or by being hand carried in by an employee or consultant. These systems, along with systems that have been exploited by client-side vulnerabilities in the day to day network represent the initial stage compromise. The machines are already under attacker control and the data on these machines should already be considered as compromised.

However, attackers are not content with these machines and their data load. In most cases, they want to use the initial stage victims to compromise additional workstations and servers in whatever environment or environments they can ride those systems into. This threat is the “second stage compromise”. The attackers use the initial stage victims as “pivot points” or bots to attack other systems and networks that are visible from their initial victim.

Commonly, the attacker will install bot-net software capable of scanning other systems and exploiting a few key vulnerabilities and bad passwords. These flaws are all too common and are likely to get the attacker quite a bit of success. The attacker then commands the bot victim to scan on new connections or at designated times, thus spreading the attacker’s presence and leading to deeper and deeper compromise of systems and data.

This pattern can be combated in a number of ways. Obviously, organizations can fight the initial stage compromise. Headway has been made in many organizations, but the majority are still falling quite short when it comes to protecting against a growing diverse set of attack vectors that the bot herders and cyber-criminals use. Every day, the attackers get more and more sophisticated in their campaigns, targeting and approach. That said, what can we do if we can’t prevent such attacks? Perhaps, if we can’t prevent them easily, we can strengthen our defenses in other ways. Here are a couple if ideas:

One approach is to begin to embrace enclave computing. This is network and system trust segregation at the core. It is an approach whereby organizations build their trust models carefully, allowing for initial stage compromises and being focused on minimizing the damage that an attacker can do with a compromised workstation. While you can’t prevent compromise, the goal is to create enough defensive posture to give your team time to detect, isolate and respond to the attack. You can read more about this approach in our 80/20 rule of Information Security.

A second idea is to use HoneyPoint decoy hosts on network segments where exposures and initial stage compromise risks are high. These decoy hosts should be dropped where they can be easily scanned and probed by infected hosts. VPN segments, user segments, DMZs and other high exposure areas are likely candidates for the decoy placement. The idea is that the systems are designed to receive the scans. They offer up services that are fake and implemented just for this purpose. The decoy systems have no other use and purpose than to detect scans and probes, making any interaction with them suspicious or malicious. Decoy services, called HoneyPoints, can also be implemented on the servers and other systems present in these network segments. Each deployed HoneyPoint Agent ups the odds of catching bots and other tools deployed by the attacker in the initial stage compromise.

Both of these strategies can be combined and leveraged for even more defense in depth against initial stage compromises. If you would like to learn more about how these tools and techniques can help, drop us a line or give us a call. We would be happy to discuss them with you.

In the meantime, take a look at how your team is prepared to fight initial stage compromises. What you find may be interesting, especially if your team’s security focus has been on the firewall and other perimeter controls.

Interesting Bot News

In the last couple of days, there have been a couple of interesting pieces of bot-net news.

This one, discusses how a bot-net software war is brewing over control of your PC. Some bots are now including kill code for other bots. In this case, the new kid on the block is killing zeus code to make sure it has sole control over your fraud.
Then there was this one about ms10-015 where the bot authors have fixed their rootkit code to make the BSOD go away. They did this not as a favor to MS or anything, but to restore use of the PCs and their chain of fraud. They also wanted to cover up their own code to keep users from cleaning it.
Interesting stuff around the bot threat landscape….

More Chinese Scans for Web Bugs

This morning I was checking through my usual HoneyPoint deployments and it was a normal day. As usual, the last 24 hours brought a large number of web application bug scans from hosts in China. They are the normal PHP discovery probes, some basic malware dropper probes against known web vulnerabilities and a ton of web server fingerprinting probes from various Chinese hosts.

China has now surpassed the US as the source of most global probes and attacks, a least according to Arbor. Check out the China profile here.

One of my close friends, JK, claims that there is a massive initiative underway in China to map the Internet on a global scale and to have a fairly up to date global vulnerability matrix for the world’s systems. While this could be true, and is certainly possible, with a large enough set of bot-infected hosts that dropped data back to a centralized database, it is an interesting thought.

For sure, these probes and scans exist on a global basis. Our international HoneyPoints pick up much of the same Chinese traffic as our US ones. Perhaps a quick check of some of your logs will show the same. Much discussion of pro-active blocks against Chinese address space is underway in several organizations. Perhaps this is something we should all think about?

** Reminder ** – New Systems Should Be Patched Before Use

Please remind teens, kids and adults who might receive computers for the holidays this year to patch them before general use. They should ensure that software and network firewalls are in place before connecting them to ANY network.

They should also ensure that they have anti-malware software that is up to date for any and all operating systems (even Linux and OS X) and that they follow other general guidelines of safe computing.

Remember, fight the urge to save the safety speech for another time. If the system gets compromised while they are using it for a test drive – being safe later will likely not help them be protected against bots, identity theft and other illicit computing dangers. It only takes one moment of exposure to compromise the system on an irreparable scale.

Happy and safe holidays to everyone. Have a joyous, peaceful and wonderful holiday season!