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Vigilante Justice on the Digital Frontier

In the face of slow government action, Wild West-style justice has moved to the digital realm, and private organizations risk being caught in the crossfire.

This is a story about Microsoft and a company called Vitalwerks, but first lets go through a fictional scenario.

Let's say you own a number of office buildings. Unbeknownst to you, some of your tenants are engaged in criminal activity. In particular, a crime ring operating out of some of these offices steals cars and uses them to rob banks. One day, you start getting angry calls from your tenants (the ones involved in legitimate businesses), because they are all locked out of their offices. You come to discover that General Motors, upset that its products are being stolen and used in bank robberies, has managed to identify the crime ring. However, rather than contacting you (the landlord), so that you can evict the offenders, or getting law enforcement involved to apprehend the criminals, the company spent months applying for a court order allowing it to seize the crime ring's offices on its own.

Unfortunately for you and your legitimate tenants, instead of locking down the individual offices used by the criminals, General Motors seized and locked down your entire office buildings.

This scenario seems absurd on so many levels. Why allow the criminals to operate with impunity for months instead of taking immediate action? Why not contact the landlord or law enforcement for help, instead of resorting to a secret seizure order? Why seize entire buildings, rather than the individual offices used by the suspects? Why is a third-party like General Motors even involved to this degree? How could a court ever agree that any of this was a good idea and issue an order allowing it? Despite the court order, the whole things reeks of vigilante justice.

As absurd as this all seems, it actually happened on June 30, only it was all online. The criminals were distributing malware. The landlord was a hosting company called Vitalwerks. The targets of the seizure were Vitalwerks' Internet domain names, and the company doing the seizing was Microsoft.

Vitalwerks' domains were handed over to Microsoft as a result of a court order. This transfer is done by domain registrars who actually control the Internet's domain name resolution infrastructure. It does not require any notifications to or actions on the part of the target. In theory, Microsoft's goal was to use its control of the domains to "sinkhole" the subdomains used by the malware (redirecting them to a system that doesn't distribute malware). However, because what Microsoft is calling a small technical error, it actually interrupted service for millions of Vitalwerks' legitimate customers. It took days before service was completely restored.

The seizure does seem to have affected criminal operations. Kaspersky reports that 25% of the APT groups it was tracking have been affected. This raises the question of whether the end justifies the means. In this case, the means was a tricky technical maneuver that went awry and affected millions of hosts for days in an industry where providers strive to have as many nines in their uptime as possible.

This isn't the only instance of this phenomenon, either. The tactic of hijacking domains to interrupt malware traffic has been used for a few years and is quickly becoming a favorite for Microsoft's Digital Crimes Unit. Of course, given some of the tactics used by law enforcement agencies (such as taking hundreds of unrelated servers from co-location facilities in raids), the seizure of a few domains might actually be the lesser of two evils.

Unlike some of the "bulletproof hosting" providers operating out of Eastern Europe, where a forced takeover may be the only way to block malicious traffic, Vitalwerks is based in the US, where the law doesn't look too kindly on organizations that intentionally harbor hackers. In this case, Vitalwerks says it was unaware of the malware that was utilizing its service, and that it would have immediately blocked the offending accounts if it had known about them. The company says it has actually worked with Microsoft to block malicious accounts in the past, so it isn't sure why anyone would go through the time and effort to get a court order (allowing the malware to operate the whole time) when it could have acted immediately.

On the other side of the argument, the type of hosting service provided by Vitalwerks is easily abused (though these services do have legitimate purposes). Microsoft's Digital Crimes Unit contends that Vitalwerks was not doing enough on its own to prevent abuse.

It seems that we are dealing with the age-old consequences of frontier justice moved from the Wild West to the digital realm. Private organizations are taking law enforcement into their own hands, because the government hasn't been able to keep up. Innocent bystanders are being hurt in the process. Companies that rely on their Internet presence to do business may want to be careful about the providers they choose. They risk getting caught in the crossfire if criminals happen to be in the vicinity.

Christopher Camejo is an integral part of the Consulting leadership team for NTT Com Security, one of the largest security consulting organizations in the world. He directs NTT Com Security's assessment services including ethical hacking and compliance assessments. Mr. Camejo ... View Full Bio
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