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How DDoS Threat Landscape Has Evolved Over Time
Through the years, distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) – a form of cyberattack originating from multiple systems and overwhelming one specific service or website using malicious data or requests – has evolved and grown stronger and more prevalent.
Evolution of the DDoS Threat Landscape
The Morris Worm
DDoS threat has been around ever since humanity decided to interconnect computers. The malicious software dubbed as “Morris worm”, which was unleashed prior to the invention of the World Wide Web, is considered by some as the first DDoS attack.
Morris worm replicated a copy of itself and propagated itself at a remarkable speed to computers belonging to a number of the prestigious colleges and public and private research centers that made up the ARPANET – an early prototype for the internet. On November 2, 1988, in just 24 hours, the Morris worm affected an estimated 6,000 of the approximately 60,000 computers that were then connected to ARPANET.
The unleashing of the Morris worm resulted in slowing to a crawl vital military and university functions and delayed emails for days. The creator of the Morris worm, then 23-year-old Cornell University graduate student Robert Tappan Morris unleashed out the worm by exploiting security vulnerabilities in a specific version of the Unix operating system. The worm was also unleashed by attempting to break into user accounts on an infected machine using brute force attacks, that is, guessing weak passwords similar to modern-day brute force attacks.
MafiaBoy DDoS Attack
While not the first DDoS attack in the World Wide Web era, the DDoS attacks carried out by MafiaBoy, then 15-year old Michael Calce from Montreal, Canada, were notable as this teenager launched a series of high-profile DDoS attacks in February 2000 against large commercial websites, including eBay, Amazon and E*Trade. In carrying out his DDoS attacks, Calce modified the code written by another hacker. Calce compromised nearly 200 university networks and brought this under his control to launch DDoS attacks against specific targets.
In the book "Mafiaboy: A Portrait of the Hacker as a Young Man", Calce wrote that he scanned the internet for university-owned servers withsecurity weaknesses that he could exploit. "Once I found at least one, I ran a program I had found called Hunter to hijack that computer's connection."
In the age of Internet of Things (IoT), the DDoS attacks carried out Mirai stand out. Mirai is a malicious software (malware) that compromises poorly secured IoT devices such as wireless routers and security cameras into a botnet to conduct large-scale DDoS attacks. A botnet refers to a network of compromised computers coordinating as one to carry out instructions at the direction of their master – a malicious threat actor.
On September 30, 2016, Mirai source code was leaked online by one of its authors, Paras Jha. The Mirai source code was later used by different malicious actors in launching DDoS attacks.
Mirai exploits the habit of IoT users of not changing the default login details. At its height, nearly 400,000 IoT devices were hijacked by Mirai for DDoS attacks.
One notable DDoS attack utilizing the Mirai source code was the DDoS attack on internet infrastructure services provider Dyn DNS (now Oracle DYN) in October 2016. The DDoS attack on this internet infrastructure, which enslaved 100,000 devices including IP cameras and printers, disrupted the services of major websites such as Amazon, Netflix, Reddit, Spotify and Twitter.
Memcached-Based DDoS Attacks
In February 2018, DDoS attackers used a new attack method that exploited a lesser number of devices but produced a bigger punch. GitHub reported on February 28, 2018 that GitHub.com was unavailable from 17:21 to 17:26 UTC and intermittently unavailable from 17:26 to 17:30 UTC due to a DDoS attack. The DDoS attack on GitHub peaked at 1.35 Tbps – then setting the record of the largest DDoS attack.
In analyzing the DDoS attack on GitHub, Cloudflare reported that the attack on GitHub exploited 5,729 memcached servers that were inadvertently made accessible on the internet. Memcached is an open-source distributed memory caching system for speeding up applications.
"Launching such an attack [by exploiting Memcached] is easy," Cloudflare said. "First the attacker implants a large payload on an exposed memcached server. Then, the attacker spoofs the 'get' request message with target Source IP. In practice, we've seen a 15 byte request result in a 750kB response (that's a 51,200x amplification)."
With nearly 100,000 Memcached servers exposed to the internet, Cloudflare said at that time that it's expecting to see much larger attacks in the future.
Days after the GitHub attack, NetScout reported an even larger DDoS attack, victimizing a US-based service provider. This time peaking at 1.7Tbps. "The attack utilized a Memcached ... Reflection & Amplification vector to accomplish such a massive attack," NetScout said.
CLDAP-Based DDoS Attack
In the 1st quarter of 2020, Amazon reported that in February of this year, it detected and mitigated a DDoS attack targeting an AWS customer. The DDoS attack, Amazon said, peaked at 2.3 Tbps and caused three days of “elevated threat".
According to Amazon, the DDoS attack on one of its AWS customers exploited Connection-less Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (CLDAP) web servers. CLDAP is used to connect, search, and modify internet-shared directories. DDoS attackers have made CLDAPexploitation as part of their arsenal since 2016.
Imperva's 2019 Global DDoS Threat Landscape Report found that large-scale DDoS attacks were outside of the norm. "Overall, we saw attacks that were smaller, shorter, and more persistent," Imperva said. "While this trend may be indicative of attackers’ attempts to wreak havoc before a mitigation service kicks in, it’s no match for Imperva, where time to mitigation is near zero."
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Steve E. Driz, I.S.P., ITCP