The abstract concepts of "botnet" and "Trojan" just became a lot more concrete for me.
In less than an hour on Thursday, I was able to use programs readily available on the Internet underground for as little as $300 to infect several Windows clients and take complete control of them in a test environment.
In contrast to the real world, the McAfee Malware Experience event, which was akin to a Malware 101 class (or, in my case, Malware for Dummies), served up printed step-by-step instructions for us nonhacker journalists. But McAfee researchers said the programs used--real samples of malicious code from the wild--were not particularly sophisticated and any script kiddie could manage them easily.
First, I used a tool to infect a PC with a Sub Seven Trojan. With a few clicks it was on the client and I had remote access to everything on that machine via a so-called "back door." A management console provided an easy-to-use interface, including drop down menus with names like "Fun Manager."
Feeling mischievous I used the "flip screen" feature so that everything on the victim's PC was upside down and I changed the colors for the desktop and background to Hello Kitty hues of pink and orange. If I wanted to be nastier I could have directed the victim's browser to a URL of my choosing, turned on the client's Web cam, taken control of a chat session, printed out obscenities on the networked printer, or hidden the desktop or mouse from sight.
I tested out the keystroke logger and found it to be particularly empowering and scary. It was thrilling to have so much control at my fingertips. It felt a bit like the electronic equivalent to pranks we did as kids, such as shorting the sheets and drawing on someone while the victim was sleeping. But these digital shenanigans have much more dire consequences.
Next up was creating a botnet, which would give me control over multiple zombies to do things like shut Web sites down with a denial of service attack and blanket e-mail inboxes with spam. I infected the two clients with the bot software and then created a command-and-control center on an IRC room. I then ordered up the system information from the bots, scanned their ports, and downloaded a malicious file onto the computers, as well as a keystroke logger. As they say in hacker lingo, I "pwned" the machines.
Finally, I used a program called "Shark" (also known as "Backdoor-DKG") to create a Trojan and install it on the victim clients by sending it through a Microsoft Outlook e-mail. Using a spreadsheet interface, I was able to set the functions of the Trojan, activate a keystroke logger and could have disabled antivirus software or set it to shut the system down based on certain conditions.
Following the tutorial, McAfee provided some bleak statistics to put my actions into perspective. For instance, the company's Avert Labs sees more than 400,000 new zombies a day, 4,000 new pieces of malware a day and 1.5 million malicious sites a month. There were 1.5 million pieces of unique malware last year and McAfee predicts that number will rise to 2.4 million this year.
The numbers aren't all that surprising to me now that I've seen firsthand how easy the malware is to create and use. All in all, I'd say it was a very sobering experience.