Honeynet Project tackles USB-carried malware like Flame

A nonprofit security research group is building technology to trap malware spread from PC to PC via USB storage drives, the method used to infect computers with the Flame cyber-espionage malware.

The Honeynet Project launched the effort Thursday, saying it was necessary to combat increasing use of portable drives in spreading malicious programs. Malcontents or criminals within an organization often use such methods to compromise closed networks that are not accessible through the Internet.

In the case of Flame, the malware created a folder that could not be seen by a Windows PC, hiding the application and its payload of stolen documents from the user, experts say. This opened up the possibility that people unknowingly carried Flame from PC to PC.

Discovered in May by Moscow-based Kaspersky Lab, Flame, a so-called super Trojan aimed at Middle Eastern governments, is believed to be the most sophisticated malware to date

Malware-carrying USB drives are effective in closed networks holding highly sensitive documents, because portable storage drives are typically used to transfer data between computers on separate networks. The need for better security in such scenarios sparked the Ghost-USB-Honeypot project, organizers said.

The project is based on research done by Sebastian Poeplau, a student at Bonn University's Institute of Computer Science. What Poeplau and other researchers did was develop a virtual drive that runs in a USB device to trap malware.

"Basically, the honeypot emulates a USB storage device," the project website says. "If your machine is infected by malware that uses such devices for propagation, the honeypot will trick it into infecting the emulated device."

Poeplau introduced the Ghost drive in March at the Honeynet Project conference in San Francisco. The drive is an early stage of development, so only supports Windows XP 32 bit. The Ghost code was made available Thursday through the project's website.

Marcus Carey, a security researcher at Rapid7, looked at the source code and said it had "really good potential."

"It's a pretty good approach," he said.

Carey said he believes the software would be most effective in capturing existing malware, since hackers would eventually code future applications to detect the trap. "In the future, this will have to have some type of stealth requirements to throw the malware off," he said.

Honeynet, which has taken over the Ghost project, collects and analyzes malware using open source tools. The organization sets up computers called honeypots to lure hackers' malware in order to study the applications.

The security risks posed by USB drives are well known. In a 2010 article in the magazine Foreign Affairs, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn III wrote that a malware-carrying USB drive was used two years earlier to infect a laptop at a military base in the Middle East.

The malicious code spread to classified and unclassified computer systems before it was discovered. Because of the incident, the Department of Defense suspended the use of USB drives and other external media by service personnel.

Read more about malware/cybercrime in CSOonline's Malware/Cybercrime section.

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