This Fox News article about infected computers was brought to my attention:
Hundreds of thousands may lose Internet in July
Hey, their URLs look like my URLs. Wonder if they’re using WordPress.
But I digress. I was asked if this is a hoax. I really had to puzzle over it for awhile. It smells like a hoax. I didn’t find any independent confirmation on the isc.org web site, where I get my BIND source files from. I didn’t see a blog post from Paul Vixie mentioning this incident.
And the comments. Oh my word the comments. Every conspiracy theorist is eating this up, gorging on it. The misinformation is appalling. There is actually no single comment as of this writing (100+ comments so far) that lends any technical insight into the saga.
Let’s do a reset and start from a reasonable person basis, not political ideology.
To recount, apparently hundreds of thousands of computers got hacked in a novel way. They had their DNS servers replaced with DNS servers owned by hackers. in Windows you can see your DNS servers with
> ipconfig /all
in a CMD window.
Look for the line that reads
These DNS servers could redirect users to web sites that encouraged users to fill out surveys which generated profit for the hackers.
It’s a lot easier to control a few servers than it is to fix hundreds of thousands of desktops. So the FBI got permission through the courts to get control of the IP addresses of the DNS servers involved and decided to run clean DNS servers. This would keep the infected users working, and they would no longer be prompted to fill out surveys. In fact they would probably feel that everything was great again. But this solution costs money to maintain. Is the FBI running these DNS servers? I highly, highly doubt it. I’ll bet they worked with ISC (isc.org) who are the real subject matter experts and quietly outsourced that delicate task to them.
So in July, apparently, (I can’t find independent confirmation of the date) they are going to pull the plug on their FBI DNS servers.
On that day some 80,000 users in the US alone will not be able to browse Internet sites as a result of this action, and hundreds of thousands outside of the US.
If the FBI works with some DNS experts – and Paul Vixie is the best out there and they are apparently already working with him – they could be helpful and redirect all DNS requests to a web site that explains the problem and suggests methods for fixing it. It’s not clear at this point whether or not they will do this.
That’s it. No conspiracy. The FBI was trying to do the right thing – ease the users off the troubled DNS services to somewhat minimize service disruption. I would do the same if I were working for the FBI.
Unfortunately, feeding fodder to the the conspiracists is the fact that the mentioned web site, dcwg.org, is not currently available. The provenance of that web site is also hard to scrutinize as it’s registered to an individual, which looks fishy. But upon digging deeper I have to say that probably the site is just overwhelmed right now. It was first registered in November – around the time this hack came to light. It stands for DNS Changer Working Group.
Comparitech provides more technical details in this very well-written article: DNS changer malware.
Another link on their site that discusses this topic: check-to-see-if-your-computer-is-using-rogue-DNS
Specific DNS Servers
I want to be a good Netizen and not scan all the address ranges mentioned in the FBI document. So I took an educated guess as to where the DNS servers might actually reside. I found three right off the bat:
Knowing actual IPs of actual DNS servers makes this whole thing a lot more real from a technical point-of-view. Because they are indeed unusual in their behaviour. They are fully resolving DNS servers, which is a rarity on the Internet but would be called for by the problem at hand. Traceroute to them all shows the same path, which appears to be somewhere in NYC. A DNS query takes about 17 msec from Amazon’s northeast data center which is in Virginia. So the similarity of the path seems to suggest that they got hold of the routing for these subnets and are directing them to the same set of clean DNS servers.
Let’s see what else we can figure out.
Look up 188.8.131.52 on arin.net Whois. More confirmation that this is real and subject to a court order. In the comments section it says:
In accordance with a Court Order in connection with a criminal investigation, this registration record has been locked and during the period from November 8, 2011 through March 22, 2012, any changes to this registration record are subject to that Court Order.
I thought we could gain even more insight looking up 184.108.40.206 which is normally address range outside of North America, but I can’t figure out too much about it. You can look it up in the RIPE database (ripe.net). You will in fact see it is registered to Prolite Ltd in Russia. No mention of a court order. So we can speculate that unlike arin.net, RIPE did not bother to update their registration record after the FBI got control. So Prolite Ltd may either have been an active player in the hack, or merely had some of their servers hacked and used for the DNSchanger DNS server service.
Of course we don’t know what the original route looked like, but I bet it didn’t end in new York City, although that can’t be ruled out. But now it does. I wonder how the FBI got control of that subnet and if it involved international cooperation.
The news reports re-piqued my interest in this story. I doubled back and re-checked those three public DNS servers I had identified above. 220.127.116.11, etc. Sure enough, they no longer respond to DNS queries! The query comes back like this:
$ dig ns com @18.104.22.168
; <<>> DiG 9.7.3-P3-RedHat-9.7.3-8.P3.el6_2.2 <<>> ns com @22.214.171.124 ;; global options: +cmd ;; connection timed out; no servers could be reached
As a DNS and Internet expert I have some greater insight into this particular news item than the average commentator. Interested in DNS? Here’s another article I wrote about DNS: Google’s DNS Servers Rock!
References and related
Here’s a much more thorough write-up of the DNS Changer situation: http://comparitech.net/dnschangerprotection