Comments on the hack attack on the Etisalat Website
Written by Cherif Sleiman, General Manager, Middle East at Infoblox
The Etisalat website was hacked into on Thursday, 18th December and persons visting the domain name Etisalat.ae were redirected to a Chinese site. Etisalat’s payment service – e4me.ae – was showing an error message– “Gateway Timeout.
What we know for sure is that Etisalat’s Doman Name System (DNS) was compromised. Since Etisalat is the incumbent UAE operator that owns the Etisalat.ae domain, it was definitely an attack on Etisalat’s DNS and not another hub. They have been victimized by a DNS Cache poisoning exploit that basically involves inserting a false address record for an Internet domain into the DNS query. If the DNS server accepts the record, subsequent requests for the address of the domain are answered with the address of a server controlled by the attacker. For as long as the false entry is cached, incoming web requests and emails will go to the attacker’s address. There are many ways to accomplish this. New cache poisoning attacks such as the “birthday paradox” use brute force, flooding DNS responses and queries at the same time hoping to get a match on one of the responses and poison the cache.
Cache poisoning is one of 14 attack vectors on DNS infrastructure and perhaps the most dangerous DNS exploit today is the DNS Tunneling and this is a killer exploit as it allows attackers to bypass all security mechanisms an organization has put in place. DNS tunnelling involves tunneling another protocol through DNS port 53 – which is allowed if the firewall is configured to carry non-DNS traffic – for the purposes of data exfiltration. A free ISC-licensed tunneling application for forwarding IPv4 traffic through DNS servers is widely used in the kind of attack. Iodine is one of the most popular tools that is easily available and widely used for this attack. Some of our Service Provider customers have seen this being used to evade billing systems.
Motivations behind attacks like this
There are 2 possible motivations behind these attacks. The first is the pure joy of proving that a high profile organization (in this case Etisalat) is vulnerable and their systems can be compromised. And the second is malicious intent for financial gain. People logging onto a website that has been hacked are redirected to a malicious site that instantaneously downloads malicious code via the browser session in the form of botnets, advanced persistent threats (APTs) and malware into unsuspecting users’ devices – mobile phones, PCs and laptops and steals their data including sensitive information like user names and passwords through techniques like keyboard logging which tracks the keys struck on the keyboard secretly while the user is making an online banking transaction for example.
The code that is downloaded is perfectly legitimate code (with malicious intent) and as such will pass through through all the security measures that have been put in place, undetected. This can be likened to a person (with malicious intent) travelling with a legitimate passport and visa through airport immigration and then causing disruption once he enters the country. There could be no screening at the airport that could have detected the malicious intention.
How do organizations prevent attacks like this?
Yes, attacks like the one on Etisalat could definitely have been prevented. In the past 15 years, we have seen attack vectors move from the Desktop to Network and to the Application layer. In the past 18 months, DNS has become the latest target where DNS has become the second highest attack vector on the Internet slightly behind HTTP attacks. In fact DNS is projected to surpass HTTP to become the number one attack vector within the next 12 months. In the past year alone, DNS attacks have increased by more than 200 percent. In the same way that today companies cannot build networks without firewalls and intrusion prevention systems, we have entered an era where organizations can no longer build networks without DNS security.
There is currently only ONE effective way to address these DNS threats – directly from within the DNS servers themselves. DNS attacks cannot be handled by any of the traditional security technologies including Firewalls, intrusion technologies, etc. Only purpose-built products that provide Advanced DNS Protection (ADP), similar to what Infoblox provides can address such attacks.