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Monday, 02 March 2009 07:21

Conficker may bring commercial web sites to their knees

One of the most notorious pieces of recent malware is set to cause collateral damage to commercial web sites.

It's common for malware to connect to a control server to get fresh instructions. That might be as simple as a new template for a spam campaign, or to collect fresh code.

But what if the server gets taken down, as happened to McColo?

One trick is to arrange for the malware to look to a different domain if it is unable to contact its controller for a certain period.

If those backup domain names were hardcoded, it would be all too easy to block them, or have them taken down before any harm could be done.

So a bright spark came up with the idea of algorithmically-generated domain names. The domains could be registered just in time, and security specialists would be kept on the hop.

You could even arrange for the malware to 'phone home' to a different domain each day. And that's what Conficker does.

Well, the theory is that this would present a challenge to the anti-malware forces.

In practice, security researchers are able to analyse this function as easily as any other. And a coalition of ISPs and other players has been registering the domains Conficker will try to use before the worm's backers can get hold of them.

But Sophos has determined that a small number of the 7750 domain names that Conficker will try to use during March correspond to real and active web sites.

That's the problem with generating semi-random strings: every now and then you'll get a real word, a set of initials, or a made-up name.

Which companies are likely to suffer a Conficker collateral DDoS attack this month? See page 2.

On March 8, Conficker will try to access WN is the IATA code for Southwest Airlines. The airline presumably acquired the domain to prevent its use by someone with a grudge against the company ("WN Sucks").

The problem is that currently redirects to a page on Southwest's main site, and Sophos predicts that "millions of machines infected with Conficker will be contacting for further instructions."

That could potentially cause an effective - if accidental - distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack.

It should be easy for Southwest to turn into a black hole for one day. But that's not really an option for other organisations who actively use domain names that Conficker's about to collide with.

They include Discover Media Group's, and a dog breeder's site at

As Sophos points out, filtering out Conficker traffic before it reaches the servers is not an especially simple task, and will require a proxy with sufficient speed and bandwidth to cope with the load. It also requires that the site doesn't already use search URLs that are similar to Conficker's.

All this is just another sign - as if we needed reminding - that the people behind malware just don't care about the effect they have on the rest of us.

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Stephen Withers

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Stephen Withers is one of Australia¹s most experienced IT journalists, having begun his career in the days of 8-bit 'microcomputers'. He covers the gamut from gadgets to enterprise systems. In previous lives he has been an academic, a systems programmer, an IT support manager, and an online services manager. Stephen holds an honours degree in Management Sciences and a PhD in Industrial and Business Studies.

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