Rise of the ‘Hivenet’: Botnets That Think for Themselves

These intelligent botnet clusters swarm compromised devices to identify and assault different attack vectors all at once.

Over the past few years, a new development has occurred: predictive software systems are being programmed using artificial intelligence techniques. The latest advances in these kinds of tools use swarm technology to leverage massive databases of expert knowledge comprised of billions of constantly updated bits of data in order to make accurate predictions.

Now the bad news: this technology has not gone unnoticed by cybercriminals. Recent findings from Fortinet threat researchers reveal that intelligent botnets have repeatedly attacked the Apache Struts framework vulnerability responsible for the Equifax hack. Attackers use automation and intelligent decision trees to exploit proven vulnerabilities.

Worse, what bodes ill for the future is that botnets will evolve into hivenets, a type of attack that is able to leverage peer-based self-learning to target vulnerable systems with minimal supervision. Hivenets are intelligent clusters of compromised devices built around swarm technology to create more-effective attack vectors. Whereas traditional botnets wait for commands from the bot herder, hivenets are able to make decisions independently.

Hivenets will be able to use swarms of compromised devices to identify and assault different attack vectors all at once. As it identifies and compromises more devices, a hivenet would be able to grow exponentially, widening its ability to simultaneously attack multiple victims.

A Recurring Infection
Researchers have also discovered that many organizations experience the same botnet infection multiple times, though it is not entirely clear why this is the case; it could be either that the company did not thoroughly understand the scope of the breach and the botnet went dormant, only to return again after business operations went back to normal, or the company never found the root cause. This allows the botnet to return through the same vulnerability.

Security Best Practices
Organizations using cloud services for online transactions can reduce their risk of exposure to hivenets or botnets by following these basic practices:

  • Inventory authorized/unauthorized devices. This should include the cataloging of authorized and unauthorized assets within your environment, including consumer devices like cellphones and laptops. You have to know what you’re protecting.
  • Limit user privileges: Not everyone needs administrator privileges.
  • Limit applications in your environment: Use only those with a business need, and keep those applications and systems up to date and fully patched. Using unnecessary applications expands the attack surface and increases the complexity of protecting the environment. Larger enterprises would do well to follow these recommendations, too.
  • Good cyber hygiene: In addition to remaining vigilant about new threats and vulnerabilities in the wild, make sure you don’t lose sight of what’s happening within your own environment. Network hygiene and device hygiene are perhaps the most neglected elements of security today. Continually removing unnecessary services, stamping out vulnerabilities, and maintaining good order isn’t the most fun part of security, but it is a critically important part.

This byline originally appeared in Dark Reading.

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