ICT Security

Anatomy of An Intrusion
Miguel Sánchez-López

2006, Miguel Sánchez-López, under "Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5" License, <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.5/> This paper was first published, in Spanish, by Novática (issue no. 178, Nov.-Dec. 2005, pp. 69–73). Novática, <http://www.ati.es/ novatica>, a founding member of UP UPENET, is a bimonthly journal published, in Spanish, by the Spanish CEPIS society ATI (Asociación de Técnicos de Informática – Association of Computer Professionals). This paper was a finalist of the I Novática Award for the best article published in 2005.

This article describes vividly what happened when the author detected his computer at a university network had been broken into. From detection to tracking the intruders down there was a long and winding path that included reporting the incident to the authorities and, later, the prosecution of those responsible.

Keywords: Computer Networks, Intrusion, Secure Communications, Security Policies, Vulnerabilities.

1 The Environment of The Incident
The Computer Engineering Department (DISCA) of the Polytechnic University of Valencia, Spain, is one of the largest of that university with around one hundred faculty members. Our campus network is one of the most populated campus networks in Spain, with more than 24,000 personal computers, using mostly one flavour or another of Microsoft Windows. Fewer people use any of a number GNU/Linux distributions (Debian/ Ubuntu, SuSE, Fedora, Mandrake are the most popular). The Computer Centre runs a variety of Unix and Windows servers (HP, Sun and others). We also have some Apple fans running either OS9 or OSX on their white computers. Campus network infrastructure has been evolving since the early days when we had just a single Ethernet segment. From an almost flat network there is a massive use of subnetting, but some segments with several thou66

sand computers still remain. Each building connects to the backbone using either Fast Ethernet or Gigabit Ethernet, though for some time FDDI rings and ATM links were also used. Our campus network is connected to three other nodes of the national research network infrastructure (Red IRIS) by means of 2.5Gbps links. A fourth node is connected at 622 Mbps. RedIRIS network provides Internet access to universities and other research institutions. Each computer set-up and administration depends on location and ownership. Common services like university web servers and databases are run by the Computer Centre (ASIC) and so are most of the computers the uniAuthor

versity staff uses. Some departments may have their own system admins too. My department, as a Computer Engineering unit, does most of the administration of departmental servers and personal computers. Services like print servers, email server, departmental database and web servers are managed by our own technicians. Most faculty members manage their own personal computer but help is available should any of them request it. Each faculty member is also responsible for keeping the required software licenses for the software they use, save for Microsoft products for which there is a special campus-wide agreement. Lecturers are free to use whatever software they like.

Miguel Sánchez-López holds a PhD in Computer Science from the Universitat Politècnica de Valencia (UPV), Spain, where he got his BSc and Master degrees too. He joined the Faculty of the Computer Engineering department in 1988 and he has been teaching different topics dealing with Computer Networks ever since. He was a visiting researcher at the Wireless Network Lab at the School of Electrical Engineering at Cornell University, USA, in 1999 as well as at the International Computer Science Institute at Berkeley, USA, from 2000 to 2001. He consults for some companies and has written six books. His research focuses around ad-hoc networking and sensor networks for energy conscious applications. <misan@upvnet.upv.es>

UPGRADE Vol. VII, No. 4, August 2006


2 The Circle of Trust
My computing environment at the university has been changing over the years; from the early days when I started using DOS 3.0, to a clean sweep of Windows 3.1, 3.11, 95, 98, and eventually Windows 2000. Then, after a research stay at Cornell University where I started using Solaris, I came back to using RedHat and then SuSE Linux (as the latter was being installed in several of our labs). At the end of the last century my department bought a new email server equipped with some email server software by SuSE to power our email requirements, offering users the possibility of using encrypted Secure Socket Layer connections to the server, so our mail traffic and user credentials would not be easy to eavesdrop. Meanwhile, the university email servers that only allow regular (plain text) connections that were easy to eavesdrop, were considered at the time to be a security problem that could lead to unauthorised access to our mail messages. That server worked flawlessly for several years, with minor hiccups whenever a user’s disk quota was exceeded. In fact, it worked so well that software updates were almost forgotten and because nobody experienced any problem we were not aware that we were at risk. I am not a security expert, but as a Computer Networks lecturer I was aware of some of the risks involved when you use a LAN. I always use a SSH (Secure Shell) application to connect to the various computer systems I use either at home or on campus. I use this same application for file transfers too. Over the years I have been using the same password for a set of systems I considered ‘safe’ So my office computer and other accounts I had on several (but not all) campus computers had the same user credentials. Whenever I thought a given system was not reliable I used a different password. may be time to take some immediate corrective action. That was the case on April 30, 2004 when after returning from my Easter holidays I discovered some connections on my ssh logs dated April 5 that I had not made. I knew something fishy was going on because of the IP address the connections were coming from: it was from (rootshell.be), <http://www. rootshell.be>, and I had never heard of that before. After checking on their web site I learned that Rootshell.be was a company offering free shells over the Internet. Whoever was using that server to access my office computer was doing so to hide their real identity. from one system to another, always using my user credentials. To make things worse they had been quite tidy about removing any clues of what they had done on each system.

5 More Victims on Board
So, as I was putting all the logs together and making a time diagram of all the accesses (which was not easy as one server had its clock out by an unknown amount of time) I realized the first access to any of my accounts came from our departmental email server. This was a surprising discovery as it signalled the beginning of the intrusion on my personal computer. Once again I had to ask system admin to pull my user account data from the logs and this revealed even worse news: there were some users that admin was not previously aware of. When you factor in the fact that you need to have admin privileges to create new user accounts it was clear that intruders had obtained root access to the university email server. The server was immediately disconnected from the network and several people started to dig for more details. It turned out that intruders had installed software to sniff the network and they had been collecting data to huge files hidden in the file system. Some of the accesses of those previously unknown users were coming from another local cable-ISP called ONO. It was now clear that intruders had broken into the university mail server and then, by sniffing on that system, they had been able to obtain user passwords. So it was no longer just my problem.

4 Panic Attack
OK, so somebody did it: my computer had been wide open for some time but logs showed that somehow the intruder knew my password. The easy part was to change the password to prevent future intruder accesses, but at the same time I started wondering how intruders had obtained my password and who they were. I needed to check if the intruder had installed any type of rootkit on my system and whether they had gained access to any of my other accounts on other systems. Also, my problem might be symptomatic of a bigger problem, so I had to inform my colleagues of the situation so they could also check their computers and servers. When I checked my home computer and several of the accounts on campus servers I realized several illegal connections had been made from <http://www.rootshell.be> as well as from another unknown IP address. Unfortunately, this second IP address was not leaking any details about its owner, as it happened to belong to the address pool of the Spanish ISP "Telefónica Transmisión de Datos" So it was a computer of one of their clients, but they had more than one hundred thousand! I did not have admin privileges on some of the affected servers, so I needed to ask for the logs from those systems’ admins. When I got the information back I realized that the intruders had been very busy, jumping

6 Let The Quest Begin
So now we know that the intruders gained access to our department’s email server first. And once they had access they used a local exploit to escalate privileges. Unfortunately, the poor maintenance of the system made this process quite easy. Intruders did try some exploits on all the other systems they access to my account but they failed; in several cases the exploits code did not even match the version of the running kernel.

3 Regular Checks
As even the best security may fail sometimes, it is always advisable to perform a check on your system’s logs. Hopefully nothing will show up, but if you catch any unexpected pattern it

UPGRADE Vol. VII, No. 4, August 2006 67

As soon as I learned about the break-in (none too quickly I might say, as we had two weeks of Easter holidays) I contacted abuse@rootshell.be telling them about the problem that was indeed contrary to their own acceptable use policy. Throughout the process, help from their sysadmin was crucial for discovering who was responsible. When I sent the first abuse report to rootshell.be I informed them about my IP address and the date and time of the illegal ssh connections. On the basis of this information, Rootshell’s sysadmin learned what user account the intruders were using and the account was closed immediately. We were also provided with some of the information that the intruders provided when opening the account "userEve1 ", such as the Hotmail account mail_ Eve@hotmail.com and, more importantly, the IP addresses they established the last connections from. Unfortunately these addresses belong to open machines that are ... on campus! These computers can be accessed by any student and although users have to provide a valid user account, the intruders were using a stolen account and not their own. What is now clear is that the intruders are on campus, so they are likely to be students, maybe even one of my students. As my department gives lectures for several courses it is not easy to narrow down the list of possible candidates. ing spied on, all department members were informed and passwords were changed. However, there was an election going on at the university at that moment and this incident did not seem to be a priority. Even though unauthorized access to electronic email is a crime in Spain our lawyers decided not to report the incident to the police. tration process requires users to confirm the email account by clicking on a special link mailed to their email account. So even though I do not know who the intruder is, it seems I can email her (please note I am deliberately avoiding the use of the term hacker). Clues point to her being one of our thirty thousand students. Looking for mail_Eve@hotmail.com provides no entries. But, once again, Altavista leads us to a forum on www.hackhispano. com where there is a user with the same alias mail_Eve who has 34 postings about her activities of the last two years. I can believe it: that person has been creating chaos on several computer rooms first in high school and now at the university. And, interestingly enough, the last two questions seem to be related to our case and within the right timeframe: brute forcing ssh and where the ssh logs are stored in GNU/ Linux systems. Maybe she is starting to think she might be leaking some info and she wants to learn how to cover her tracks. When checking this user personal information on the forum we learn that she has 'obscured' her email by removing the last character so it appears as mail_Eve@hotmail.co (instead of .com) and, voilà, there is an ICQ number too. Now we go to ICQ website to pull that user’s personal info, where she appears as "Eve Simp", 19 years old (which fits our profile), living in a zip code of a small town near Valencia. So she is a freshman with a penchant for breaking into computer systems and causing chaos while staying under cover. A few telephone calls to people in the area with the same last name returns no further information. To get this moving, something else needs to be done. For security reasons we disconnect our corporate email server over the weekend, so the intruders have no way of accessing any of the accounts they had before, not even the Rootshell’s one. So I send an email to Eve’s hotmail account telling her the game is up, warning her that the incident has been reported, and asking her to meet us next Monday at our office.

8 The MUST
As I mentioned before, the intruders used an IP address belonging to an ADSL line of a Spanish ISP. The address returned no hits on a Google search but two hits were found on Altavista, leading to two postings on two forums. From that I got a not very common name, and hey, I even have a student with that same unusual name, but after a number of telephone calls I was talking to the owner of the name (who was not my student) and I asked him what type of network access he had at home but, unfortunately, it is not from that ISP. But wait ... there is another voice in the background. The student tells me he is with the network admin of his school, so I ask him to put me through and then, bingo! the IP address belongs to that school. The Mediterranean University of Science and Technology (or MUST) which is situated on the same campus as us and quite close to the location of the other open systems we tracked down. It seems that the pieces of our puzzle are starting to fit together. I ask the person on the phone for a meeting with him and his boss and off I go to meet them. I bring along a list of my logs with times and dates of the offending accesses. I find them very helpful but powerless as they cannot give me a list of names because they keep no record of lab attendance. Also, they have around forty computers connected to the same ADSL line and they have no traffic record so they cannot help me now (but we will be able to remedy this in the future).

7 Paperwork
From the very beginning I told the Computer Centre people about the incident in an attempt to get them involved as they have more tools and reach than I do Unfortunately, they have had other cases in the past and they know it is difficult and time consuming to catch these people. I also reported the incident to my department head. As soon as we learned that the email server was be-

9 Looking for Eve

Information about the intruder is not provided to protect their identities. Unlike them, I do think other people’s rights should be respected.

When opening the account at rootshell.be the intruder (or intruders) provided an email account that they had to have access to, since the regis-


UPGRADE Vol. VII, No. 4, August 2006

Ten minutes later I get an answer from somebody who has no objection to me calling her Eve and asks me if this is some kind of joke. I note down the IP address the message was answered from and I am able to trace it back to an ADSL operator of another area of Spain (La Rioja). It seems than even now Eve is taking care not to reveal her real location. I reply to her right away informing her that I am not joking and telling her to talk to Rootshell’s sysadmin if she is in any doubt. Nobody shows up on Monday, which is a pity because we still do not know who that person is. I send a message to the ADSL line ISP asking them to keep the log of that IP in case the police need to see it in a few days or weeks time. What we know now is that the hotmail account is still alive and that Eve is still controlling it. Two days later some of the personal information (such as the zip code) is removed from Eve’s ICQ personal data. So it seems she is worried about any information that can help us track her down. So now we know her real zip code. On Sunday there is a connection attempt (through Rootshell) to the email server (which is switched off) from an IP belonging to the cable ISP ONO. The same IP has been appearing consistently in several of our logs. The other accesses to Trudy’s Rootshell account are made from the MUST network. It seems that Trudy’s home IP may well be this one. It is time to start monitoring the MUST network. Eve’s last name is not Simp but Simpson and she is a he. His address, phone number and zip code does appear in this assignment, and of course the zip code matches the one we already knew. I talk to the professor responsible for that subject and he explains to me that Eve is not one of his students but the brother of one of his students. However, it seems that Eve was so proud of his programming skills that he turned his assignment in to be published in December 2003. However, the program was not posted on the subject’s website till May 2004. Eve is a first-year Telecom student, and when I contacted the Telecom school administrator he told me that Eve had a long list of similar incidents. The Computer Centre person in charge of network security is informed about my findings. The next day he calls me back, surprised, as he has caught the same person up to no good at the University Library. Eve was caught while using a stolen account with administrator privileges. This time Eve was caught red-handed by security and was asked to produce a photo ID so now he will have a hard time trying to get away with it.

11 Fishing in The MUST
While the head of the MUST faculty is willing to help in the case, they have no monitoring equipment in place, so around forty computers are freely sharing a single ADSL line. So we deploy a simple network monitor that will record all the incoming and outgoing traffic over the ADSL line, including the Ethernet MAC addresses. We use Ethereal software. A few days later, our trap is set and nothing has happened, but on Friday I get a call from MUST telling me they have caught Trudy red-handed and, what’s more, she is not aware of it. MUST sysadmin is analysing Trudy’s computer and has discovered multiple connections to Rootshell and to a couple of ONO’s IP addresses, one of them matching the one we mentioned earlier.

10 Desperately Seeking Trudy
Over the weekend our server has been disconnected. The fake accounts that the intruders created were cancelled and all user passwords were changed But we are still closely monitoring the system, so before shutting the system down for the weekend we realize that a new access attempt has been made from Rootshell’s server. It seems they are up to their old tricks once again. I contact Rootshell’s sysadmin again to tell him the news, but this time I ask him not to cancel the account but to monitor what they do. Of course they are using another free account and this time the name is "userTrudy" and the email is mail_Trudy@terra.es. As Trudy detects that she cannot login to our server but the server is alive she realizes that something has changed, so she starts deleting some files on her Rootshell account: files with names like k3ys.txt, users.txt and several users .known_hosts files. It seems Trudy is doing a clean-up job but this time we are watching carefully.

13 Following The Trail
While I was still going through the our mail server logs I realized that one teacher was connecting on March 22 from the same open systems lab that the intruders were sometimes connecting to Rootshell from. I contacted this colleague right away as I needed him to confirm or deny whether it was really him accessing from that location, and it turns out he had never been at that lab, so I have finally detected the first step the intruders made to get into our server. It turns out that Eve was one of my colleague’s students and at the time of the intrusion he was using the class computer which had Windows 98 installed to access his office computer. Windows 98 stores a user password encrypted in a .pwl file. There are several programs that can easily decrypt these password files. My colleague was using the same password for his email account and ssh daemon

12 Unexpected Events
Knowing that the trail is fading fast and given that the university was not interested in filing a police report, I decided to do so off my own bat, partly because I did not know what those people had been doing with my system and I did not want to be prosecuted later for a crime I did not do. A special team of police travelled from Madrid to Valencia to gather the evidence and on the same trip they also received an unrelated report of another break-in at a computer at MUST. One of the police team members suggests that I search for mail_ Eve@hotmail.com on Google again. It seems they have done their homework and yes, this time there is an entry on Google for that email that belongs to programming work a student turned in at my university.

UPGRADE Vol. VII, No. 4, August 2006 69

was enabled on the email server, so that is how they got in. Once they successfully escalated privileges on the server and installed the sniffer software they could learn the passwords of all the other professors. They have an easy way to get the large files containing capture data by using a USB hard disk (or USB flash dongle) as the campus network is quite fast for moving files around in When the operation was detected there was a 200MB capture file containing thousands of private files. I should remind the reader at this point that this intrusion was possible because users (including myself) were using the same password for several systems. our email server and to transfer all the accounts to the main university-wide email server (that now allows SSL connections too). Some of the changes we have made I have already mention that our departmental email server has been replaced by moving the accounts to a larger and (hopefully) better maintained university-wide email server. It is ironic that the server we are now doing away with was put in place because in the late nineties the university server was not considered secure at the time. It surprises me how a few years later this same server was the vehicle of an intrusion. I had to talk to a great many people during this research and it amazes me that many of them are of the opinion that "I’m not worried because I have no valuable information on my computer" Apparently some users are not worried about other people spying on them or using their computer as a vehicle for conducting illicit actions such as breaking into other computers or storing illegal contents. This incident has brought to light the weaknesses of our systems and our total lack of any security policy. This is a shortcoming that, two years on, we have yet to remedy. We all tend to use insecure short cuts too often and scarcely give a thought to the fact that we might be targeted. I have decided the time for using passwords has passed and I have changed to public key authentication for all my accounts. man-hours are consumed in the process of putting things right. Some literature suggests that detected intrusions may amount to around 4% of the total number of intrusions. (This is a tricky concept since in order to give a percentage you need to know the total number it is a percentage of, which in this case is impossible). If your organization has no security policy then it is quite likely that your computer systems are not properly protected and that any intruders you may have will not be prosecuted effectively. A Legal Postscript One month after the police report was filed the university received a court order to hand over the hard drives of the compromised servers. Several IPSs were required by the judge to provide the connection logs of several IP addresses belonging to their clients. And both Microsoft Hotmail and Terra Networks were asked to provide the details of the owners of the accounts mail_Eve@hotmail.com and mail_Trudy@terra.es. As a result, the identities of the intruders were revealed and the judge ordered the homes of these people to be searched by the police. The intruders were arrested and all their computing equipment was confiscated. After being questioned in court they were released with charges. A year and a half later there was a trial. Trudy hired a famous (and expensive) lawyer. The two intruders were found guilty of the break-in but the judge let them off on a technicality. However, the prosecutor appealed and they were later sentenced to a fine of 3,600 euros each. Translation by the author

14 Regaining Trust
Most of my colleagues using Microsoft Windows were not able to check whether or not their computers had been broken into as auditing functions were not enabled. Other people using GNU/Linux did not detect any connection attempts from the email server. I had evidence of some failed connection attempts to a second computer I had in my office that had a database of student grades on it (and a different password). What the purpose of the break-in is still a mystery to me, but it is interesting that intruders were so fond of my accounts on various computers. My second office computer web server had been bombarded with a number of exploits for a time period matching the break-in. As this computer was only accessible from within the campus network, attackers used more than thirty different computers they had compromised before. A couple of these computers were from my department too. Attackers failed completely in this attack, but they kept on trying for a couple of weeks. People in my department were warned about the break-in from the beginning and they were all asked to keep an eye on any bank account they may have electronic access to. Up until now it seems that no crime of this nature has been detected. As a result of these events, our department board decided to close down

15 Conclusions
Campus networks seem to have several interesting features many intruders crave: � High-speed Internet access. � Thousands of computers linked together by a fast LAN. � Academic information, such as exams and students’ grades. All these features, together with the scant interest that the average user tends to have in security issues affecting his or her own personal computer, make these networks an easy target for intruders. Whenever a break-in is detected the worst is yet to come. A great many

UPGRADE Vol. VII, No. 4, August 2006


Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful