Friday, December 18, 2009

Twitter Hack and the Iranian Cyber Army

(See continuing updates to this story below.)

Earlier this morning a DNS hack took control of traffic and redirected to a website with a splash page proclaiming, "THIS SITE HAS BEEN HACKED BY IRANIAN CYBER ARMY." This hack has a lot in common with the Dr.Hiad website defacement I reported on two weeks ago.

New information
The so-called Iranian Cyber Army has defaced websites in the same manner as Dr.Hiad. At this moment (7:35AM Eastern Time) there is a website displaying the exact image that Twitter users saw earlier today during the Twitter hack event. A screenshot of that web page is shown below. The webpage contains an email link to the Iranian Cyber Army's Gmail account.

It is likely that the Twitter DNS attackers simply pointed "" to the IP address of a defaced website like the one below. It would not make sense for them to point Twitter traffic to their own web server: that would allow them to be traced and possibly caught.

When the Twitter attackers realized they could take over Twitter's DNS, they had to decide where to point the traffic. Redirect it to Or how about a defaced webpage bearing the image of the Iranian Cyber Army?

There is some chance the Twitter attackers executed both the website defacement and the DNS takeover.

Screenshot of Iranian Cyber Army Website Defacement

DNS is Fundamental
DNS is the Internet service that kicks in when we type a website name into our browser or click a link on a web page. Type "" into your browser and DNS will lookup the IP address of the Twitter web server so your browser can connect and download all those tweets. As fundamental as DNS is to our Internet experience, it has virtually no security, particularly on our home computers and Internet connections. Also, the DNS servers "up in the cloud" are rife with vulnerabilities that enable attackers to gain control and carry out pranks like the Twitter redirection this morning.


December 18, 2009 8:20AM - Update
The defaced website that Twitter users were directed to, shown in the screenshot above, is an online forum for the Green Freedom Wave, an Iranian reform movement.

December 18, 2009 9:08AM - Update
The Green Freedom Wave website was hosted at Netfirms, a managed web server company that is well-known to website defacers who exploit weaknesses in web and database servers. These web hosting companies offer lots of functionality, including web sites, databases and online shops, at very reasonable prices. However, these features also can make them vulnerable to compromise.

The website defacement is the minor part of this story. The DNS takeover is extremely serious, especially since it happened at, which receives over 20 million visitors per month. If the site had been redirected to a web page containing malware, a huge chunk of the Internet population would be infected. Perhaps I should say a "huger" chunk: 35 million computers infected per month with one type of malware.

December 18, 2009 10:35AM - Update
The Green Freedom Wave website was probably hacked using SQL Injection, Remote File Inclusion, or similar techniques that are well-documented on the web. Note the signature line of Dr.Hiad from my earlier post. Remote File Inclusion allows an attacker to exploit a script on the target website to replace the home page of the website.

December 19, 2009 7:49AM - Update
Busy day yesterday speaking to reporters and colleagues about the Twitter DNS compromise. Here are a couple of stories:

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Securing the Cloud

I will be a speaker at a free cloud security webinar sponsored by Enterprise Florida on Thursday, December 10 and 2PM Eastern Time. Cloud computing is a topic generating both hype and anti-hype right now. The anti-hype comes mostly from the security community warning that the benefits of fast, easy development and hosting are just what we do not need right now.

Also presenting will be Chris Day, Chief Security Architect at Terremark, and Alex Eckelberry, CEO of Sunbelt Software. The event is moderated by Esther Schindler, author and industry expert.

See you there!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Dr.HiaD: Islamic Terrorist or Teenager Having Fun?

Click image for expanded view

Let me steal my own thunder and go with Teen Having Fun.

Earlier today the campaign website of Bill Connor, candidate for Lieutenant Governer in South Carolina, was defaced with a graffiti-like image in the typical fashion of juvenile hackers.

Screenshot of the Bill Connor Website Defacement
Source: FITSNews Political Blog (not verified)

Click image for expanded view

The hacked page included a small amount of Arabic text, which got the attention of the candidate and former US Army officer, who served in Afghanistan. A statement on his campaign's Facebook page said, "I do hope this serves as a wakeup call to the continuing danger we face in South Carolina from the threat of radical Islam and shari’a law."

"I do hope this serves as a wakeup call to the continuing danger we face in South Carolina from the threat of radical Islam and shari’a law."

Bill Connor

Was this a political act by Isamic extremists? Examining the facts makes it hard to draw that conclusion. There are many valid threats to our safety on the Internet today, but it is important to isolate the facts and not rush to judgement when it comes to identifying and prosecuting true crime online.

"Hi ADmin your security = 0" Thus reads the graphic that displaced the candidate's home page. That statement is a poke in the eye at the web hosting company that operates the web server (not the candidate) and is typical of widespread pranks conducted by computer savvy kids who enjoy exercising their technical skills to penetrate weak server configurations from far across the Internet and leave their mark.

"Dr.HiaD" in this case is the online nickname used by the hacker. Dr.HiaD has taken credit for over one hundred such website defacements. I have seen lists of URLs of over 4,000 web pages with his signature on them. Other pranksters have perpetrated many more thousands of website hacks and even keep track of their scores. See below a screenshot of one such scorecard showing recent defacements by Dr.HiaD. The score for all "players" on this website is a staggering 43,000 on December 1, 2009 alone.

Website defacement scoresheet of Dr.HiaD
Source: Ray Dickenson

Click image for expanded view

I have blocked out the website names in order to prevent readers from attempting to visit these sites, which may now host malware that can infect PCs. But you can see Dr.HiaD is a prolific defacement artist.

Another site Dr.HiaD hacked, that also contained a short snippet of Arabic script, was the website of a Chinese baby products company. Again, I will withhold the name of the site, but share the graphic that was posted there.

One of many other websites defaced by Dr.HiaD
Source: Ray Dickenson

Click image for expanded view

Who is Dr.HiaD? He appears on an Arabic hacker website with the below signature. Now, when it comes to teenage hackers, it is difficult to believe everything we read. Is Dr.HiaD really 15-years-old? Is Dr.HiaD from Morocco? Hard to say for sure, but I believe he (or she) is. These pranksters must balance two competing goals: (1) not getting caught and (2) claiming and receiving credit for their exploits. For young hackers, recognition normally trumps caution. On the score-keeping website mentioned above, there are hackers from Singapore, Russia, India, Switzerland, Germany and many more countries around the world. So Dr.HiaD really could be from anywhere.

Dr.HiaD Signature on Hacker Website
Source: Ray Dickenson

Click image for expanded view

One last point about the colors used in Bill Connor's website defacement. Some of the English letters appeared in white, green and red with black background. It is true that these are Islamic colors. But they are also the simplest colors to use in web pages. The RGB color codes for these colors are: FF0000, 00FF00, 000000, FFFFFF. Extremely simple for kids making web pages who do not want to be bothered with shades like 0CF1E2, CECE28. They are also stark and strong. Perfect for a prankster.

Let's close with a comment about the first screenshot above (source: Ray Dickenson). That one came from the website of an auto accessories company in China that was hacked by Dr.HiaD. Is this a photo of the real Dr.HiaD? Probably not. But it does convey something about the Dr's personality and the artistic flair of his or her pranks. Many teenagers who crave technical accomplishment and get into trouble pursuing recognition for their talents grow up to be valuable contributors in the computer field. Ask Michael "MafiaBoy" Calce or Kevin Mitnick.

December 2, 2009 - Update
I spoke with Susanne Schafer of the Associated Press about this story, and she wrote an article that appeared here.

December 3, 2009 - Update
The dramatic image in the first screenshot above comes from an Italian photographer, posted here on Flickr: Amegliocchi. One interesting connection is that a large number of Italian language websites were defaced by Dr.Hiad.

Connection to Dr.Hiad splash screen courtesy of TinEye, a pretty effective reverse image search engine. Want to find photos of you on the web? Try TinEye. If you dare :)