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Microsoft's "monkeys" find first zero-day exploit
Robert Lemos, SecurityFocus 2005-08-08

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Where the Honeynet Project focuses on fake servers to lure in attackers, client-side honeypots, what Microsoft has called honeymonkeys, are important as well, Spitzner said.

"As the bad guys continue to adapt and change, so too must we," he said.

In the first month, Microsoft's legion of honeymonkeys found 752 different addresses at 287 Web sites that exploited various vulnerabilities in Windows XP, according to a paper published last week. The researchers determine whether each monkey's system has been compromised by using another ongoing project, the Strider Flight Data Recorder, which detects changes to system files and registries. The Monkey Controller kills the infected virtual machine and restarts a new one that picks up scanning the original monkey's list. Another monkey program, running a different patch level of Windows, tries the original Internet address to detect the strength of the exploit.

In early July 2005, the project discovered its first exploit for a vulnerability that had not been publicly disclosed, the researchers said in the paper. The attack used the JView profiler vulnerability that Microsoft announced later in July. Known as "zero-day" exploits, such attack methods could be especially pernicious if widely used before Microsoft updated its user base with protections. In fact, the network of Web sites that use such attacks, which researcher Wang has dubbed the Exploit-Net, seem to share exploits. Within 2 weeks of the initial discovery, 40 of the 752 Web sites adopted the exploit.

Microsoft believes that the sites could act as canaries in a coal mine, alerting the company to dangerous zero-day exploits, before the attacks gained widespread usage.

"Our conjecture is that these Web sites are the popular ones, because we could find them in one month, and so, if we kept monitoring the sites, we could catch new exploits very fast, because any new exploit would quickly be picked up by these sites," said Wang.

Microsoft's Security Response Center, the group that acts on vulnerability information, will used the honeymonkey system to keep it apprised of future zero-day attacks, said Stephen Toulouse, program manager for the MSRC.

"It is not just important for us to know that... but for customers to know that it is being exploited, so they can get patches quickly," Toulouse said.

Among the researchers other findings is that even a partially patched version of Windows XP Service Pack 2 blocks the lion's share of attacks, cutting the number of sites that could successfully compromise a system from 287 for an unpatched system to 10 for a partially patched Windows XP SP2 system. A fully patched Windows XP SP2 systems could not be compromised by any Web sites, according to the group's May-June data. (The zero-day exploit of javaprxy.dll happened after this data set.)

Microsoft plans to continue the honeymonkey research to collect new information on threats. In the end, such research could help put the source of such attack behind bars. After investigating sites that use exploits to compromise systems, Microsoft plans to forward the information to law enforcement, said Scott Stein, an attorney with Microsoft's Internet Safety Enforcement Team and former U.S. Department of Justice prosecutor.

"Our mission is to keep the Internet safe--for that mission, this is a great lead generation tool," Stein said.


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