Weapons: The Perfect Storm


October 16, 2007: The most powerful Internet weapon on the planet is hiding in plain sight, and no one can do anything about it. At least not yet, or not that anyone is talking about. The weapon in question is the Storm botnet. This is the largest botnet ever seen, and it is acting like something out of a science fiction story. The Storm network is now believed capable to shutting down any military or commercial site on the planet. Or, Storm could cripple hundreds of related sites temporarily. Or, Storm could do some major damage in ways that have not yet been experienced. There's never been anything quite like Storm.

The Storm computer virus had been spreading since early in the year, grabbing control of PCs around the world. By now, Storm had infected nearly 5-10 million computers with a secret program that turned those PCs into unwilling slaves (or "zombies") of those controlling this network (or botnet) of computers. Many of you may have noticed a lot of recent spam directing you to look at an online greeting card, or accompanied by pdf files. That was Storm, the largest single spam campaign ever. When you try to look at the PDF file, Storm secretly takes over your computer. But Storm tries very hard to hide itself. All it wants to do is use your Internet connection to send spam, or other types of malicious data.

What makes Storm the perfect Internet weapon is how it has been designed to survive. The Storm zombie does no damage to the PCs it infects, and simply sits there, waiting for an order. Those orders come via a peer-to-peer system (similar to things like Kazaa or Bittorrent). A small percent age of the zombies spend short periods of time trying to spread themselves, then turn off. This makes it more difficult to locate infected PCs. Commands from the Storm operators are sent through several layers of zombie PCs, again making it very difficult to identify where those commands come from. Moreover, Storm operates as a horde of clusters, each of two or three dozen zombie PCs. No existing methods can shut down Storm. In fact, all that will work to kill Storm is to find the people running it, arrest them, and seize their access data. The programmers who put Storm together know their stuff, and police in dozens of country would like to get their hands on them.

To avoid the police (especially the U.S. FBI), many botherders (those who operate botnets) are usually in countries without an extradition treaty with the United States (where nearly half the zombie PCs are). Criminal gangs are increasingly active in producing things like Storm, and, in the case of China, so are government Cyber War operations. It's unclear who is controlling the millions of Storm zombies, but it's becoming clear what Storm is up to. It has been launching attacks at web sites involved in stopping or investigating Storm. This involves transmitting huge quantities of bogus messages ,that shut down targeted web sites (this is a DDOS, or distributed denial or service attack). The Storm botherders are also advertising their botnet as available for the usual illegal activities (various types of spam). It's believed that Storm is owned by a Russian criminal syndicate, but that's only a guess based on what is known about Storm so far.

But the most alarming aspect of all this is the sheer size of the Storm botnet. It's quite possible that it's not all one, huge, multimillion PC botnet. There may be several owners, who simply used variations of the basic Storm virus (which showed up last February, using as a lure the promise of news about the huge Winter storms then lashing Europe, and thus got its name.)

Police and Cyber War organizations are certainly trying to track down who controls Storm, mainly in self-defense. A botnet that large could shut down major sites, or large chunks of the Internet itself. The Storm is the Internet equivalent of a nuclear weapon, and no one is sure who controls it, or for what purposes.


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