Andy Greenberg, Wired
Hackers have long used malware to enslave armies of unwitting PCs, but security researchers Rob Ragan and Oscar Salazar had a different thought:
Why steal computing resources from innocent victims when there’s so much free processing power out there for the taking?
At the Black Hat conference in Las Vegas next month Ragan and Salazar plan to reveal how they built a botnet using only free trials and freemium accounts on online application-hosting services—the kind coders use for development and testing to avoid having to buy their own servers and storage. The hacker duo used an automated process to generate unique email addresses and sign up for those free accounts en masse, assembling a cloud-based botnet of around a thousand computers.
That online zombie horde was capable of launching coordinated cyberattacks, cracking passwords, or mining hundreds of dollars a day worth of cryptocurrency. And by assembling that botnet from cloud accounts rather than hijacked computers, Ragan and Salazar believe their creation may have even been legal.
“We essentially built a supercomputer for free,” says Ragan, who along with Salazar works as a researcher for the security consultancy Bishop Fox. “We’re definitely going to see more malicious activity coming out of these services.”
Companies like Google, Heroku, Cloud Foundry, CloudBees, and many more offer developers the ability to host their applications on servers in faraway data centers, often reselling computing resources owned by companies like Amazon and Rackspace. Ragan and Salazar tested the account creation process for more than 150 of those services. Only a third of them required any credentials beyond an email address—additional information like a credit card, phone number, or filling out a captcha. Choosing among the easy two-thirds, they targeted about 15 services that let them sign up for a free account or a free trial. The researchers won’t name those vulnerable services, to avoid helping malicious hackers follow in their footsteps. “A lot of these companies are startups trying to get as many users as quickly as possible,” says Salazar. “They’re not really thinking about defending against these kinds of attacks.”