How Hackers Use Botnets to Break Your Favorite Websites

How Hackers Use Botnets to Break Your Favorite Websites


The power of botnets is increasing. A sufficiently organized and globalized botnet will take down portions of the internet, not just single sites, such is the power they wield. Despite their huge power, the largest DDoS attack didn’t use a traditional botnet structure.

Let’s look at how a botnet’s power expands


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and how the next enormous DDoS you hear about


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will be the bigger than the last.

How Do Botnets Grow?

The SearchSecurity botnet definition states that “a botnet is a collection of internet-connected devices, which may include PCs, servers, mobile devices and internet of things devices that are infected and controlled by a common type of malware. Users are often unaware of a botnet infecting their system.”

Botnets are different from other malware types in that it is a collection of coordinated infected machines. Botnets use malware to extend the network to other systems, predominantly using spam emails with an infected attachment. They also have a few primary functions, such as sending spam, data harvesting, click fraud, and DDoS attacks.

The Rapidly Expanding Attack Power of Botnets

Until recently, botnets had a few common structures familiar to security researchers. But in late 2016, things changed. A series of enormous DDoS attacks


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made researchers sit up and take note.

  1. September 2016. The newly discovered Mirai botnet attacks security journalist Brian Krebs’ website with 620Gbps, massively disrupting his website but ultimately failing due to Akamai DDoS protection.
  2. September 2016. The Mirai botnet attacks French web host OVH, strengthening to around 1Tbps.
  3. October 2016. An enormous attack took down most internet services on the U.S. Eastern seaboard. The attack was aimed at DNS provider, Dyn, with the company’s services receiving an estimated 1.2Tbps in traffic, temporarily shutting down websites including Airbnb, Amazon, Fox News, GitHub, Netflix, PayPal, Twitter, Visa, and Xbox Live.
  4. November 2016. Mirai strikes ISPs and mobile service providers in Liberia, bringing down most communication channels throughout the country.
  5. March 2018. GitHub is hit with the largest recorded DDoS, registering some 1.35Tbps in sustained traffic.
  6. March 2018. Network security company Arbor Networks claims its ATLAS global traffic and DDoS monitoring system registers 1.7Tbps.

These attacks escalate in power over time. But prior to this, the largest ever DDoS was the 500Gbps attack on pro-democracy sites during the Hong Kong Occupy Central protests.

Part of the reason for this continual rise in power is an altogether different DDoS technique that doesn’t require hundreds of thousands of malware-infected devices.

Memcached DDoS

The new DDoS technique exploits the memcached service. Of those six attacks, the GitHub and ATLAS attacks use memcached to amplify network traffic to new heights. What is memcached, though?

Memcached DDoS

Well, memcached is a legitimate service running on many Linux systems. It caches data and eases the strain on data storage, like disks and databases, reducing the number of times a data source must be read. It is typically found in server environments, rather than your Linux desktop


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. Furthermore, systems running memcached shouldn’t have a direct internet connection (you’ll see why).

Memcached communicates using the User Data Protocol (UDP), allowing communication without authentication. In turn, this means basically anyone that can access an internet connected machine using the memcached service can communicate directly with it, as well as request data from it (that’s why it shouldn’t connect to the internet!).

The unfortunate downside to this functionality is that an attacker can spoof the internet address of a machine making a request. So, the attacker spoofs the address of the site or service to DDoS and sends a request to as many memcached servers as possible. The memcached servers combined response becomes the DDoS and overwhelms the site.

Memcached DDoS reflection attack trends and botnets

This unintended functionality is bad enough on its own. But memcached has another unique “ability.” Memcached can massively amplify a small amount of network traffic into something stupendously large. Certain commands to the UDP protocol result in responses much larger than the original request.

The resulting amplification is known as the Bandwidth Amplification Factor, with attack amplification ranges between 10,000 to 52,000 times the original request. (Akami believe memcached attacks can “have an amplification factor over 500,000!)

What’s the Difference?

You see, then, that the major difference between a regular botnet DDoS, and a memcached DDoS, lies in their infrastructure. Memcached DDoS attacks don’t need an enormous network of compromised systems, relying instead on insecure Linux systems.

High-Value Targets

Now that the potential of extremely powerful memcached DDoS attacks is in the wild, expect to see more attacks of this nature. But the memcached attacks that have taken place already—not on the same scale as the GitHub attack—have thrown up something different to the norm.

Security firm Cybereason closely tracks the evolution of memcached attacks. During their analysis, they spotted the memcached attack in use as a ransom delivery tool. Attackers embed a tiny ransom note requesting payment in Monero


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(a cryptocurrency), then place that file onto a memcached server. When the DDoS starts, the attacker requests the ransom note file, causing the target to receive the note over and over again.

Staying Safe?

Actually, there is nothing you can do to stop a memcached attack. In fact, you won’t know about it until it finishes. Or, at least until your favorite services and websites are unavailable. That is unless you have access to a Linux system or database running memcached. Then you should really go and check your network security.

For regular users, the focus really remains on regular botnets spread via malware. That means

Staying safe isn’t a chore—it just requires a little vigilance


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Image Credit: BeeBright/Depositphotos


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As Online Privacy Deteriorates, What Is the Future of VPNs?

As Online Privacy Deteriorates, What Is the Future of VPNs?


Recently, there has been speculation that VPNs might be reaching the end of their natural lifecycle.

Some people have even suggested they might die out entirely in less than two years


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. The argument claims that issues surrounding data logging, ISP restrictions, encryption, and geo-blocking are all eroding consumer confidence the product.

But VPNs were never designed to be either privacy or geo tools in the first place, they’ve just morphed into those roles over time.

So, what does the future hold for VPNs? Are there any technologies that the VPN providers can embrace to keep their product relevant? What can they do to ensure customers retain their subscriptions?

Join us as we peer into the crystal ball. Here’s a look at the future of VPNs.

VPNs Are Adapting to Mobile

Like all web-based businesses, VPN providers are quickly wising up to the fact that the online world is becoming increasingly mobile-centric.

Of course, most VPN companies are more than happy to tout the availability of their service on mobile


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. Both the Android and iOS operating systems provide a way for you to enter your VPN credentials and use your network.

That’s all well-and-good, but behind the scenes, mobile VPNs are a different beast. The technology required to operate a mobile VPN is very different to that required for a desktop VPN.

When used on mobile, the VPN needs to reduce the amount of memory it uses, process data over shorter timeframes, and use data compression techniques to improve performance and increase throughput.

As such, we’re going to see more and more companies adopting the FIPS 140-2 standard. The standard—which was published by the National Institute of Standards and Technology—demands that VPNs must offer secure and persistent wireless access using a mobile-optimized TLS protocol.

Four mobile VPN technologies are adhering to the FIPS 140-2 standard. They are IPsec VPNs, SSL VPNs, IKEv2 VPNs, and MobileIP VPN, though SSL and IPSec were designed for desktop use.

We’ll probably see more and more VPN companies adopting one of the four technologies over the coming years. Even more likely, we’ll see a new VPN protocol arise that’s specifically designed for mobile usage and which eradicates the flaws of the current crop of protocols.

The Rise of Network Access Control

Although most people think of VPNs as a way to access Netflix US and prevent ad companies from tracking them


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around the web, they’re also an essential tool for businesses.

VPNs allow employees to log into a company’s network and access the data within it. This enables them to perform business-critical tasks while working from home or when on the road.

But the practice also introduces an element of risk. How can the company be confident that the device you’re using to log into the network is safe? Is it virus free? Is it running the latest version of the operating system? And is it free of apps that could steal the company’s data? Ultimately, VPNs are one of the most vulnerable access points in a business’s entire network.

And that’s where Network Access Control (NAC) comes into play. In broad terms, a robust NAC system will not grant access to any device unless it meets predefined criteria. The criteria could be anything from anti-virus protection to system settings.

The increased usage of “Bring Your Own Device”


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(BYOD) policies and the shift towards mobile gadgets have made NAC policies harder to implement.

As such, many experts speculate that VPN providers will start offering NAC solutions as standard. A VPN could assess the device and establish if it was in the correct state to connect before a user even enters their credentials.

It would also allow an employee to try and log into the business network from any public computer, even if it wasn’t verified by the company’s IT department. On paper, this should remove obstacles that hinder employees from doing their jobs and thus help to increase their productivity.

Cloud Storage as Standard

Many companies are starting to use cloud-based solutions instead of VPNs. For a start-up or SME, which might not have a dedicated IT specialist, the cloud offers a more straightforward way of sharing and accessing the company’s business-critical data.

Google, Microsoft, and even Amazon are now targeting the enterprise sector in a big way. Businesses are loving it; the agility offered by cloud solutions combined with the pay-as-you-grow nature of the subscription plans is enticing for cash-poor corporations.

VPN providers are slowly starting to respond. Some have started to offer integrated public cloud services that run in tandem with the VPN itself. The providers’ aim is to offer a secure, single service solution for both cloud storage and a VPN.

Smart Routing

Also referred to as AI-based routing, smart routing is set to become more common over the next few years.

The VPN will be intelligent enough to route each individual request to the VPN server closest to the destination server. For example, if you visit a site based in Brazil, your traffic will be sent to one of the VPN’s servers in Rio. If you then visit a website hosted in France in another tab, your traffic will be routed to a server in Paris.

Smart routing has three main benefits. Firstly, your traffic will remain inside the VPN network for as long as possible. Secondly, you’ll experience the lowest possible latencies. Thirdly (and perhaps most impressively), it means every single website you visit will see a different IP address. It would make it much harder for companies to track you around the web.

Protocol Obfuscation

Recent years have seen many websites and services deny access to traffic that’s originating from a VPN


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. The most notable are Netflix and BBC iPlayer.

Similarly, some ISPs have also been caught blocking traffic from VPNs. ISPs are aware that many people use VPNs to download torrents and other illegal content, and so decide to take a blanket approach. There are even reports of college dorms and apartment blocks restricting access.

In all these situations, the solution is to obfuscate the VPN protocol. The aim is to change the characteristics of network traffic so that sites cannot identify it as originating from a VPN.

There are already workarounds for achieving this goal. For example, it’s possible to use a command line proxy tool called Shapeshifter Dispatcher. It uses pluggable transports to bypass Deep Packet Inspection filtering. However, the tool is complicated to set up and not suitable for beginners.

Luckily, protocol obfuscation technology will become more common in consumer VPNs. It will remove the need for sophisticated third-party tools and help to return VPNs to the status they had a few years ago.

Service Fragmentation Among VPN Providers

It wasn’t so long ago that commercial VPNs were all much of a muchness. They promised stronger privacy and a way to circumnavigate geographic restrictions, but not much else.

But we can already see the market starting to fragment. The sector’s biggest names—such as ExpressVPN and Private Internet Access—are trying to offer a generic VPN solution that covers almost any use case you can think of on any platform. At the same time, many free services are trying to find a niche for themselves by offering something the big players don’t.

This trend is expected to continue. With the growth of censorship in countries like China, Russia, and Iran, it’s predicted that an increasing number of small VPN providers will pop up in a bid to capture the highly censored markets.

Need a reputable VPN? Get started with 3 free months of ExpressVPN, the VPN provider we trust most. Free VPNs are riddled with privacy and usability issues, so always use a paid VPN!


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How to Stay Safe Online Without the Latest Security Patches

How to Stay Safe Online Without the Latest Security Patches


Another day, another security exploit hits the wild, and another patch goes out to our devices—well, to our newer ones at least. Some are running older operating systems that are no longer supported with patches.

In those cases, the best option is to switch to a newer operating system that does receive updates and patches.

But what about devices whose operating systems, for whatever reasons, you cannot replace or upgrade? Well, your device will be less secure, and there’s no way around that. Fortunately, there are some steps you can still take to stay relatively safe.

Install Security Software

If you’re running an up-to-date operating system and have developed responsible computing habits, you’re somewhat safe even if you don’t install any extra security software. But on an older machine, it’s good to take precautions.

People who deploy malicious software like to go for easy targets, and your old device makes the list. Why spend so much time trying to find a way into phones with the latest patch updates when there are millions of devices that are still vulnerable to older exploits? On the positive side, these may also be the same exploits that security software knows to check for.

Check out our comprehensive list of the best security software


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. If you’re running Linux, we have a separate list to consider


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, though many of the browser plugins are still applicable. Then there are tools for your old smartphone or tablet


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Go Online Only When Necessary

Most threats to your device come from the internet. If you’re not connected, there’s little chance of you getting compromised unless someone sticks a USB stick with malicious software directly into your system or some other less conventional approach


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On mobile devices, including laptops, only enable Wi-Fi or cellular data when you want to do something online. This prevents someone from accessing your device while it’s merely sitting on the table or in your pocket.

Say your computer is compromised and you don’t know it. Without a connection to the internet, the worst that can happen is a degraded computer experience. Maybe your machine will be slow; maybe it will crash and stop working entirely.

As bad as these outcomes are, at least your photos, financial data, and browsing habits aren’t in someone else’s hands. Your hardware isn’t secretly part of a massive botnet.

Only Connect to Networks You Trust

Quite a few tricks involve fooling devices that are searching for available networks. Someone with malicious intent can throw up a fake Wi-Fi hotspot and steal data from connected devices.

The ability to do this doesn’t even require much technical knowledge.

Unencrypted public networks in general are full of risks, as someone could be lurking on the network watching what everyone does online


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. Do yourself a favor and only connect to networks that you or someone you trust can vouch for.

While you’re at it, you may want to use a virtual private network


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. VPNs offer your additional security and privacy by obscuring your internet usage from prying eyes. But, just like your Wi-Fi network, you also need to be able to trust your VPN


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Keep Your Apps Up-to-Date

You may not be able to upgrade your operating system, but you can update most of the programs you depend on. Many exploits don’t depend on your operating system. Instead they take advantages of weaknesses in your browser, PDF viewer, or office suite.

Keeping these programs updates can keep you safe from those types of intrusions on hardware that’s a bit behind the times. Updates are often free, but if not, or if newer versions have higher system requirements, you may be able to trade the program you’re using for a free alternative


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Don’t Go Near Sketchy Sites

I can’t tell you what parameters make something a sketchy site. This is something you only learn after time spend learning and navigating the web. There’s a certain number of flashy banner ads, pop-up notifications, and animated images that a site with any self respect wouldn’t dare add.

Porn sites are a particular risky breed. If you’re paying for adult videos, you’re probably fine. You’re engaging with someone with a business reputation to uphold. But many free sites distribute infected video files or dangerous ads that compromise machines by the thousands.

Approach links on social networks and in emails with the same skepticism. Phishing is one of the more common ways people find their accounts or machines compromised these days


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Avoid Free Versions of Paid Products

You may be able to find anything on the web for free, but that doesn’t mean you should. if a game, music album, or movie typically costs money but you can find it on some website without paying, you’re taking a big risk.

You’re also stealing.

This is one prominent way viruses, malware, and botnets spread. People attach dangerous code to goodies that they know thousands of people will want, enabling them to infect the widest number of machines


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There’s also a strong chance that the site you’re getting this free version from would qualify as sketchy. Reread the section above and count the number of popups you had to click through before beginning the download.

Only Download From Vetted Sources

On smartphones and tablets, this means getting your software from an app store. It doesn’t have to be the one pre-installed. While the Play Store is pretty safe on Android, so is the Amazon Appstore and some alternatives such as F-Droid.

That said, don’t download any app just because you’re getting it from a relatively safe space. Some malicious software has managed to slip through Google’s filters in the past


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. The same is true for Apple.

Downloading a program on an old PC? Again, avoid those spammy sites. If you’re unsure which website is the safest way to download a program, try reading a review from a major source and follow the link they provide.

You Don’t Have to Replace Your Device Right Away

Security is one big reason to keep up with the latest devices.

But that also means you’re never free from the endless cycle of hardware purchases and upgrades


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. If companies know they can withhold security updates in order to get you to buy more of their products, that’s what they’re incentivized to do.

Holding on to older hardware for as long as possible is good for your budget and a less wasteful way to manage what we buy. Unfortunately, doing so does come with risk. Still, by taking these precautions and acting responsibly, you need not replace your devices just yet.


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