Could evolved botnets destroy the Internet?
A huge army of “Zombie Computers” could destroy the Internet as we know it if left unchecked.
Unfortunately, this is not the tagline of an awful science fiction movie from the 1980’s. This phenomenon is instead, one of the gravest threats to the digital landscape in the 2010s.
A “Zombie Computer” is the end result of attackers remotely logging into computers’ servers and centrally rewriting their software. Once enslaved, these zombies will actively seek out other unsecured devices, swallowing up the vulnerable.
These armies of “zombie computers” are known as ‘botnets’ and if enough are assembled in one group, they can cause catastrophic disruption.
What Devices Are Vulnerable
Traditionally, hackers used to hijack individual computers with a concoction of spam, downloadable software and online malware advertisements. Whilst ill-prepared PCs are still targeted, in the last 24 months hackers have shifted focus to a more modern development.
The last two years has seen the number of Internet of Things (IoT) devices grow exponentially. Unfortunately, most of them are highly vulnerable due to manufacturers installing default passwords that can’t be remotely changed.
As more and more products like kettles, TVs and cameras are connecting to the Internet, hackers’ opportunities to assimilate these devices into malicious botnets have rapidly expanded.
What damage can botnets cause?
The botnet’s key weapon of choice is the “distributed denial of service” technique. A normal DoS involves bombarding a server with so much spam traffic that it is overwhelmed and crashes. Individual devices are pretty easy to stop as its incredibly rare that traffic from one computer can overpower another.
‘Distributed’ attacks involve commanding networks containing thousands of hacked devices to all converge on one server. This vastly increases the amount of traffic that can be honed in on a target.
If enough “Zombie Computers” can be amalgamated and left unchecked, even some of the most secure and protected servers can be affected. Past crashes have seen servers crash key services, disable Internet access and publicly reveal confidential or sensitive information.
The Autumn attacks
On October 21st, the most powerful botnet ever assembled managed to knock out Internet service to some of America’s most visited websites. The Dyn server which hosts sites like Amazon, Twitter and Spotify was completely drowned by a massive 1.2 Tbps attack launched by the ‘Mirai’ botnet.
These sites and more were completely inaccessible for the vast majority of the American East Coast for over 10 hours.
Two weeks later, ‘Mirai’ launched another strike upon the small West African nation of Liberia. It may only have a population the size of Johannesburg but one of its biggest mobile telecom providers was subject to crippling spam traffic from the maligned botnet.
Reports that Liberia’s entire Internet access was taken offline proved to be untrue. But it still represented a timely reminder that hackers are using botnet assaults as tests to see how damaging huge armies of “Zombie Computers” could be to large-scale populations.
The Mirai botnet has since fragmented since its main source code was discovered on the Internet. Its power has now become significantly weakened, demonstrated by the ease of which its attempted attack on US presidential candidates’ campaign websites was dealt with.
According to fresh statistics the number of amalgamated infected devices has decreased by almost 65% suggesting the immediate large scale threat has dissipated.
The Future Risks
Botnets are a much bigger problem than we can imagine. As the world becomes ever more digitally connected, the greater the impact and variety of targets for cyber criminals.
The IoT means healthcare processes, power plants and even cars can become victims for botnets as well as traditional targets such as banks.
Chancellor Phillip Hammond also recently announced that the UK was set to spend an extra £1.9bn on cyber security & defence. Companies and individuals must ensure their security protocols and software are regularly updated and performing at their optimum level.
If they are not, then 2017 might become even more of a breakthrough year for specialist botnet hackers.
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