Web.com DNS hijack: How hacktivists went on a mass web joyride spree

Blushing domain-name giant vows to up its game in future

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Web.com has promised to beef up its security and hire more staff after hacktivists hijacked its DNS records and diverted visitors away from various websites.

The websites for freebie antivirus firms AVG and Avira, computer security toolkit Metasploit, and mobile messaging outfit WhatsApp were all successfully targeted by a pro-Palestine hacking gang on Tuesday. In effect, the wags were able to point web surfers at a server other than the one they were trying to access.

The KDMS Team successfully changed the DNS records of the aforementioned sites to redirect people to a website playing the Palestinian national anthem and displaying a political message under the title "You Got Pwned".

The hacktivists' web page is not thought to have been booby-trapped with malware to infect vulnerable computers stumbling by, all thanks to the restraint shown by the KDMS crew. Infiltrating the PCs of people looking for an antivirus product would have been particularly embarrassing for the software firms involved - even though they were let down by what turned out to be a basic security screw-up by their DNS services supplier.

Only a vigilant staffer was able to prevent antivirus firm Avast from suffering the same fate as its competitors. Other firms in the firing line included Alexa and hosting firm Leaseweb: netizens attempting to visit their sites were also sent to a wall of web graffiti instead of the legitimate sites - a surprise diversion that potentially dented any of the firms' reputations. KDMS boasted that its tactics allowed it to get their political message to 850,000 surfers.

In a statement, Web.com - which owns Network Solutions that manages the DNS for AVG and others - promised to hire new staff and improve its security practices:

We have been in contact with the limited number of affected customers and have since resolved the issue. We value every customer, appreciate the trust they place in us for their online needs and continue to work hard to eradicate the attacks that harm our customers and the web ecosystem.

The company has taken measures to address the persistent threat of cybercrime, including increasing personnel, implementing best-of-breed front-line and mitigation solutions, regularly engaging third party experts and partners and reviewing and enhancing critical systems.

While no business is immune to cybercrime in today’s web environment, our goal is to create a safe, secure and reliable environment for all of our customers.

The owners of the joyridden websites blamed Network Solutions and Web.com for basic security blunders that led to their collective pratfall. Specifically, it's claimed the hacktivists were able to exploit weak security procedures using social engineering tricks to pull off the hijack, rather than a sophisticated compromise of systems.

For example, HD Moore of the Rapid7 Metasploit project feared* metasploit.com was hijacked after the miscreants faxed a password-reset request to Web.com-owned Register.com, which manages the DNS for his website.

Having tricked Web.com's subsidiaries into handing over control of the targeted accounts, the domain joyriders were easily able to change the websites' DNS records to redirect anyone who attempted visiting these sites to a web server the hacktivists controlled instead.

Normality was restored in a matter of hours in all cases and no customer data was exposed, we're told, but the multiple hijackings, which could easily have been prevented, were hugely inconvenient for all concerned.

A statement by WhatsApp is typical of those from the owners of the targeted websites:

Our website was hijacked for a small period of time, during which attackers redirected our website to another IP address. We can confirm that no user data was lost or compromised. We are committed to user security and are working with our domain hosting vendor Network Solutions on further investigation of this incident.

AVG issued a similar statement on its blog. Meanwhile a blog post by Avira provides the most detailed explanation of how hackers pulled off the attack and its impact on victims:

It appears that several websites of Avira as well as other companies have been compromised by a group called KDMS. The websites of Avira have not been hacked, the attack happened at our Internet Service Provider “Network Solutions”.

The DNS records of various websites, including those of Avira, were changed to point to other domains that do not belong to Avira.

It appears that our account used to manage the DNS records registered at Network Solutions has received a fake password-reset request which was honored by the provider. Using the new credentials the cybercriminals have been able to change the entries to point to their DNS servers.

Our internal network has not been compromised in any way. As a measure of security we have shut down all exterior services until we have all DNS entries in our possession again.

Our products were not affected at any point, including the update servers for product and detection updates. These servers are not registered at Network Solutions.

We can assure all our partners and customers that no data of any kind (customer data, source code, etc.) has been stolen during this incident.

No malicious code was delivered to the visitors of the website either by direct download or by drive-by downloads.

Avast only evaded the same problem by the skin of its teeth, as an update on the antivirus firm's website explains:

“We ourselves received a notification from Network Solutions saying our email had been changed. We knew we had not requested that so we immediately took action and changed our passwords, which protected us,” said Vincent Steckler, Avast's chief exec.

DNS hijacks in general are rare but far from unprecedented. Security watchers and inconvenienced customers previously criticised Network Solutions for poor crisis management in the wake of a distributed denial-of-service attack in July.

The provider came in for even stronger criticism this week. We can only hope Web.com follows through on its commitment to bolster security before another similar domain joyriding spree. ®

Updated to add

* Security biz Rapid7, which develops Metasploit, has since clarified "we have heard from Register.com that the attacker did NOT use a spoofed change request fax".

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