August 9, 2009

The Cyxymu Lesson: Forwarding Emails is E-Sin!

I have many friends who keep in touch only by forwarding emails. There are people from whom I receive forwarded emails on a day to day basis. Many of them do it very innocently, I know, knowing little that they are possibly making themselves and the receiver vulnerable to potential internet misuse by hackers and spammers.

We have a live example in front of us: Twitter. It is quiet possible that when you click on this link you get an error message and the site does not load as Twitter is under a Denial of Service Attack. I am told that the Denial of Service attack on Twitter has increased ten times on the second day of the attack. I am not going into the 'geopolitical nature' of the attack. I am not going to make assumptions about who did this. I am not so much worried about if the Russian Government did it or some Criminal Outfit is behind this attack. That is Twitter's job to find out and tell the world. I am more bothered about how this could happen!

How could this happen? Wikipedia tells me that a Denial of Service Attack happens when the number of requests for a particular site increases beyond the capacity of the servers on which a site is hosted. They also call it Distributed Denial of Service Attack. Hackers target popular sites and prevent them from functioning through a Denial of Service Attack. And this is what happened to Twitter.

DoS on Twitter seems to have happened as an individual or an organization was targeting a blogger named Cyxymu. When repeated requests for his page on Twitter, LiveJournal et al happened on August 6, 2009, the servers where the sites are hosted could not handle it and as a result the whole Twitter Site stopped functioning.

People have different opinion about how it happened. Some say that Russian Hackers hacked Cyxymu's Gmail Account and started sending links to his accounts to people. And when people started clicking on these links to know what exactly it was, DoS began! I don't think so because an attack of this sort cannot survive on email links alone, though it is true that a Joe Job Email Campaign happened from Cyxymu's Gmail Account.

There is another theory, which is more plausible. Experts say that the attack was managed using botnets. Botnets are, in simple words a network of computers which runs software robots. The hackes who drowned Twitter seem to have a huge network of computers they could use to send repeated requests for the site. Where did they get all these computers from, because you need millions of computers to organize an attack at this level of ferocity?

Probably they got all these computers linked up through emails. People send you hundreds of forwarded emails. Have you ever wondered where they come from? Who would take such struggles to create information and send it to you for free? Who made the original message?

I have no idea who sends them. But I know one thing. The original messages are sent using automated services available online. There are sites that let you send bulk emails for free and keep a track of them. [I am not giving you a link to an example site for an obvious reason - I don't want to be a party to the prorogation of such sites] Usually these emails, though they may sound very innocent, contain malware that plant robots in your system. They link up with each other and create a network after they are in your system. This way hackers get to use your system even without your knowledge.

I think we should stop forwarding emails and opening emails that are forwarded. Forwarded emails compromise the security of personal information as well as personal computers. Forwarding E-mails should be considered as E-sin. Why?

  1. Forwarded emails are an easy way for hackers to spread their bots on systems across the world. 
  2. Forwarded emails may contain viruses that are harmful to your system.
  3. Because there are systems that can easily track forwarded mails, you should know that your are compromising the email addresses of the friends to whom you send the email. Hackers who keep track of the mails add the new addresses to their mailing list and harvest.
  4. Forwarding E-mails is a waste of other people's time. They may not be interested in the mail you have forwarded. 

After Thought: I also have another doubt. There are many companies today that allow you to use Remote PC Support for free. They permit you to use software that allows you to access and use computers from anywhere. Have you ever thought why they do it for free? If I can use that software to control computers in my network remotely, they companies who give them to me can do it too. And what if these companies used the computers that use their Remote PC Support Software and turn them into a botnet? I am told that there are companies who sell such networks to third parties for campaigns and other internet related activities. There are people who sell botnets and make good money out of it. What if the attackers bought one such botnet to attack Twitter?

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