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Google frets over Vietnam hacktivist botnet

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Hackers used malware to establish a botnet in Vietnam as part of an apparently politically motivated attack with loose ties to the Operation Aurora attacks that hit Google and many other blue chip firms late last year, according to new research from McAfee and Google.

Unknown miscreants used malware disguised as Vietnamese language support software to create a botnet. The malware masqueraded as a VPSKeys keyboard driver software and was discovered in computers inside a subset of the organisations hit by Aurora. Infected systems were controlled by command and control systems accessed predominantly from IP addresses inside Vietnam.

In a blog posting, Google said that the compromised machines were used in politically motivated attacks.

These infected machines have been used both to spy on their owners as well as participate in distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks against blogs containing messages of political dissent. Specifically, these attacks have tried to squelch opposition to bauxite mining efforts in Vietnam, an important and emotionally charged issue in the country.

Google draws parallels with the Vietnam botnet and operation Aurora attacks, which in part involved the attempted surveillance of Gmail accounts belonging to Chinese human rights activists. The targeted attacks associated with Aurora involved IE 6 exploits and were chiefly aimed at snaffling intellectual property from Google and others.

McAfee reckons efforts to create a botnet in Vietnam probably started in late 2009 at around the same time as the Operation Aurora attacks, but are otherwise unrelated to cyber-espionage attacks on Google and other high-tech firms. "While McAfee Labs identified the malware during our investigation into Operation Aurora, we believe the attacks are not related. The bot code is much less sophisticated than the Operation Aurora attacks," McAfee said.

"Attackers first compromised vps.org, the Web site of the Vietnamese Professionals Society (VPS), and replaced the legitimate keyboard driver with a Trojan horse.  The attackers then sent an e-mail to targeted individuals which pointed them back to the VPS Web site, where they downloaded the Trojan instead."

McAfee classifies the Trojan as Vulcanbot.

Systems infected by the Trojan "phone home" for instructions to a number of domains initially thought to be associated with Operation Aurora; subsequent research debunked this theory. "We have since come to believe that this malware is unrelated to Aurora and uses a different set of Command & Control servers," McAfee reports.

The botnet established by vulcanbot remains active and launching attacks.

McAfee reckons the perpetrators of the attacks are politically motivated and aligned to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (ie the government). ®

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