McAfee: Hackers learning from open-source code

Botnet creators are adopting many of the same techniques used by popular open-source software products, says antivirus vendor McAfee

Hackers are taking a page from the open-source playbook, using the same techniques that made Linux and Apache successes to improve their malicious software, according to McAfee.

Nowhere is this more apparent than within the growing families of “bot” software, which allow hackers to remotely control infected computers. Unlike viruses of the past, bots tend to be written by a group of authors who often collaborate, by using the same tools and techniques as open-source developers, says Dave Marcus, security research and communications manager with McAfee’s Avert Labs.

“Over the last year and a half, we’ve noticed how bot development, in particular, has latched on to open-source tools and the open-source development model,” he says.

The current generation of bot software has grown to the point where open-source software development tools make a natural fit. With hundreds of source files now being managed, developers of the Agobot family of malware, for example, are using the open-source Concurrent Versions System (CVS) software to manage their project.

McAfee researchers have described this use of open-source techniques in a new marketing magazine called Sage. The publication features a cover story entitled, “Paying a price for the open-source advantage” in its inaugural issue. McAfee plans to publish Sage every six months, Marcus says.

Marcus says his company is drawing attention to the open-source trend in order to educate users, and not as an attempt to discredit open-source alternatives to its own proprietary software products.

“We think [open-source antivirus products] are fine. They’ve never been something that was really in the same class as ours, but we’ve always been big supporters of open-source antivirus,” he says.

However, Marcus does take issue with security researchers who distribute samples of malicious software, a practice known as full disclosure.

“We’re not taking aim at the open-source movement; we’re talking about the full-disclosure model and how that effectively serves malware development,” he says.

Marcus’s opinion was not well-received by one security professional.

Full disclosure serves legitimate researchers and helps users by making vendors more responsive, says Stefano Zanero, chief technology officer with Secure Network SRL.

“Research works on disclosure, not on secrets,” Zanero says.

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