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Did FBI Ignore Code Red Warning?
From: InfoSec News <isn () c4i org>
Date: Wed, 5 Sep 2001 01:15:19 -0500 (CDT)
Kim Zetter, PCWorld.com
Tuesday, September 04, 2001
The Code Red threat seems to have finally halted its malicious crawl,
but the security company that discovered the vulnerability that Code
Red exploits says the swift-moving Internet worm might have been
immobilized much sooner if not for federal agencies' caution about
publicizing security threats.
The worm hit more than 700,000 computers in July and August 2001,
depositing a Trojan horse program on infected machines, which then
simultaneously attacked a specific Internet Protocol address
(initially, the White House Web site). The volume of messages slowed
Internet traffic in general.
Now, details about an earlier Code Red-like worm that hit systems back
in February 2001 are raising questions about the Federal Bureau of
Investigation's handling of computer virus outbreaks.
PCWorld.com has confirmed that a worm similar to Code Red appeared in
February, March, and May 2001 on systems belonging to Sandia National
Laboratories, a U.S. Department of Energy security research lab based
in Livermore, California and Albuquerque, New Mexico. The worm
affected a buffer overflow vulnerability in the .htr files of
Microsoft IIS 4 servers; Code Red exploited a similar vulnerability in
the .ida files of Microsoft IIS 5. The earlier worm propagated in a
manner similar to Code Red, and it also targeted the White House Web
"When we saw Code Red come around five months later, we realized it
was different in the sense that it was going after IIS 5 servers and
using a different overflow, but Code Red was obviously written by the
same person as it was attacking the exact same addresses as the .htr
worm attacked," says Jim Toole, a network security administrator at
Toole and Sandia colleague Jim Hutchins say the .htr worm they spotted
in February failed to propagate successfully. It disappeared, but
returned in March. They say they notified the Department of Energy's
Computer Incident Advisory Capability and the FBI, and gave them
complete logs of the worm's activity as well as a copy of the
"Each time it happened we gave a heads-up to CIAC and the FBI," Toole
says. "We never heard anything back. We just make the reports; what
they do with the info after that is up to them."
Toole says the worm hit the same IP addresses at Sandia in all three
of its attacks. Sandia's computer system, however, is set up to trick
malicious code into thinking it is propagating on the network, but it
is safely contained and cannot propagate or infect other machines.
"But at the same time, the 'network' allows the worm to expose itself
by letting it do what it's supposed to do," Toole adds. In other
words, the intruder still releases its "exploit," or malicious code.
Watching the Worm
Toole and Hutchins captured the exploit that the worm carried and
released it on a test machine to see what would happen.
"As soon as we ran the exploit it started doing all of these Web
requests to a very specific address--ww1.whitehouse.gov. Then it
stopped after a while. Then it started doing more Web requests to
random IP addresses that it was trying to reinfect," Toole says. Two
servers handle requests to the White House Web site:
ww1.whitehouse.gov and ww2.whitehouse.gov, he adds. "The .htr worm
exploit was directed to a specific server."
Toole says the March attack came from the same five computers running
Microsoft IIS 4 servers that attacked them in February; the machines
also run Windows 2000. The .htr vulnerability the worm was trying to
exploit was an old IIS 4 security hole announced by Microsoft back in
June 1999. The vendor released a patch in July 1999.
The worm's methods later proved similar to Code Red. Once the earlier
worm had infected a random list of IP addresses, the worm re-set
itself to attack the same machines again.
Code Red Goes Public
When Code Red struck in July 2001, the Sandia system was among the
first to be attacked.
"We saw it hitting our systems again on Thursday morning [July 12],
before anyone else was noticing it," Toole says. He and his colleagues
were monitoring the activity remotely from the DefCon security
conference they were attending in Las Vegas. By Friday morning, the
e-mail security lists Toole subscribes to were full of discussions
about the strange activity that network administrators were seeing on
That same day security company eEye Digital posted an announcement
identifying the activity as a successful attempt to exploit an .ida
vulnerability in IIS 5 that the company had discovered in June 2001.
"By then, we had already seen the worm about four times and we knew
which five IP addresses it was going to go after first," Toole adds.
"By Sunday morning we were seeing 3200 attacks an hour from machines
trying to run the exploit on our box. That's a lot of attacks."
His staff first assumed that it was the same author and the same code
adapted for a different vulnerability. Why would the worm's writer
switch target systems? "Simple. A new vulnerability came out," Toole
says. "The number of IIS 4 servers out there is a lot less than the
number of IIS 5 servers. So when the IIS 5 vulnerability was
announced, it made sense for the author to adapt his worm for that.
People assumed it was a new exploit and it was not."
His suspicion of the earlier .htr worm: "It looked like someone was
testing out a framework for spreading the worm."
Did the FBI and CIAC drag their feet, ignoring a warning that could
have stopped the Code Red worm sooner?
Marc Maiffret, "chief hacking officer" at eEye Digital, says the
National Infrastructure Protection Center's slow response allowed the
worm to affect more systems.
The NIPC, an arm of the FBI, received reports of the .htr worm in
April 2001. But its staff decided not to release an advisory about it
because the Computer Emergency Response Team at Carnegie Mellon
University had posted an advisory for the .htr vulnerability when it
was first discovered back in June 1999, says Bob Gerber, chief of
analysis and warning at NIPC.
"If it's important enough and credible enough to consider an
investigation, then we take the appropriate investigative avenues,"
Gerber says. "We look at whether some sort of advisory is necessary.
Given that the .htr vulnerability had already been 'advised' by CERT
on three separate occasions before April, [we] decided that the NIPC
would not do another warning."
Additional CERT advisories described the exploit for the .htr
vulnerability in July 2000, October 2000, and January 2001, says
Gerber. "We wondered what additional value to the public there was in
adding our voice to [that]," he says.
Gerber notes that the NIPC receives hundreds of reports each week and
can't respond to each one or predict which reports will escalate into
larger problems. Some six to twelve new viruses and worms appear
daily, many of them variants of earlier viruses, and many of them
unsuccessful at propagating.
"Hindsight is always an easier prospect than warning. I would not do
anything different than was done in April," Gerber says. The NIPC
issued its first Code Red warning on July 19, after version 2 came
out. A second NIPC advisory appeared on July 29.
"The .htr worm never reached the level of infection that we saw with
the .ida Code Red," says Gerber. He says that the NIPC had no way of
knowing that so many IIS 5 systems were vulnerable. It assumed that
most systems would be secure against the attack because Microsoft had
issued a patch for the vulnerability on June 18. When the NIPC saw the
worm's infection rate rise, it released a warning on July 19 urging
network administrators to fix their systems.
"It's a daily judgment on our part as to when we increase the
shrillness of our warnings to serve the public interest," sys Gerber.
Code Red and the .htr worm that Sandia found clearly have some
similarities, he says.
"They are certainly related in terms of the vulnerability that they
exploit and the way they exploit them," Gerber says. But, pending an
FBI investigation, he's reluctant to speculate that they were written
by the same person.
EEye Digital Security's Maiffret has no such doubts. Had the FBI been
more vigilant, Code Red warnings would have spread sooner and faster,
"If we'd known about the first instance of Code Red back in April,
then people would have recognized that Code Red was a worm and would
have had a better understanding of it sooner," he says.
Watch for the Next Worm
"The technique in [the .htr worm that Sandia identified] was actually
the technique that was used for Code Red," he says. "There was a span
of about five or six days from when people first noticed the [activity
of] Code Red and were trying to figure out what it was doing."
Had the NIPC identified the .htr worm as a test worm, or an epidemic
waiting to spread, the organization could have responded sooner with
its Code Red warnings, Maiffret says.
"I'm sure it's the case that if there had been some national
announcement that came out as soon as we observed [the worm] again,
the number of machines getting hit might have been reduced," says
Sandia's Toole. But prior to Code Red, he notes, the .htr worm "wasn't
hitting a whole lot of machines. Looking back, it's an easy call to
say that if that information was out, [NIPC] might have moved faster."
Now, Toole is more worried about the next worm.
Code Red was probably designed to attack the White House site because
its originator wanted to get attention. But that wasn't its greatest
significance, Toole says. He believes it's more important that Code
Red could give a cracker total access to an infected network.
He also notes that a month passed between discovery of the .ida
vulnerability and the appearance of the Code Red worm that exploits
it. Code Red got significant media attention, and writers of malicious
code often crave such anonymous notoriety. When the next vulnerability
is discovered, it may take only days for a virus exploiting it to
appear, Toole says. System administrators will have to patch their
systems more quickly, he adds. And the NIPC may need to sound a
"Code Red means there's a framework for a worm out there right now
that has proven its effectiveness to spread," Toole says. "All [virus
writers] need is a new vulnerability."
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- Did FBI Ignore Code Red Warning? InfoSec News (Sep 05)