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ZombieCoin 2.0: managing next-generation botnets using Bitcoin

Abstract

Botnets are the preeminent source of online crime and arguably one of the greatest threats to the Internet infrastructure. In this paper, we present ZombieCoin, a botnet command-and-control (C&C) mechanism that leverages the Bitcoin network. ZombieCoin offers considerable advantages over existing C&C techniques, most notably the fact that Bitcoin is designed to resist the very same takedown campaigns and regulatory processes that are the most often-used methods to combat botnets today. Furthermore, we describe how the Bitcoin network enables novel C&C techniques, which dramatically expand the scope of this threat, including the possibilities of flexible rendezvous scheduling, efficient botnet partitioning, and fine-grained control over bots. We validate our claims by implementing ZombieCoin bots which we then deploy and successfully control over the Bitcoin network. Our findings lead us to believe that Bitcoin-based C&C mechanisms are a highly desirable option that botmasters will pursue in the near future. We hope our study provides a useful first step towards devising effective countermeasures for this threat.

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Notes

  1. Bitcoin prices are prone to fluctuation. All figures quoted in this paper date to September, 2014.

  2. Interested parties are requested to contact the authors via email.

  3. Bitcoin technically provides pseudonymity, a weaker form of anonymity, in that Bitcoin addresses are not tied to identity and it is trivial to generate new addresses.

  4. C&C servers belonging to the Zeus botnet were discovered to maintain a similar MySQL database with a web-based administrative GUI for botmasters [47].

  5. The C&C transactions pertaining to our experiment can be identified in the blockchain by transaction input 1LujiuygToEddPEmRGMQUGXbsMGmup1Wrs. The initial ‘ping’ command is recorded in Block 319998 (transaction ID: b26b3ea0d8065d3288a5142580a5f0e372445d27bb51b45a491d2e5f20238c5e). The final ‘screenshot’ command occurs in Block 320153 (transaction ID: 326e06b6c187c5d97ad783fc4d7bd67cf9c80894cd9837d5e83b04ce0f0f4068). Commands can be decoded by setting the offset for each ASCII character to −125.

  6. The Namecoin lead developer was interviewed in 2014 on the possibility of Namecoin being used to empower botnets. His response, “Is there a real benefit for the zombie computer to use this instead of connecting to an IRC channel or else? Updatable IP? It may be less complex to get IP from hacked computers all over the world or to build a P2P botnet. As each thing that provides power to its user, it can be used in a bad or good way (as knives, secure communication software, etc).” [52].

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Acknowledgements

This paper is an extended version of work that was first presented in February, 2015 at the 2nd Workshop on Bitcoin Research (Bitcoin15) co-located with Financial Cryptography (FC) [53]. The authors thank Hassaan Bashir, Mike Hearn, Pawel Widera, and Siamak Shahandashti for invaluable assistance with experiments and helpful comments.

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Correspondence to Syed Taha Ali.

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This work is supported by the European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant (No. 306994).

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Ali, S.T., McCorry, P., Lee, P.HJ. et al. ZombieCoin 2.0: managing next-generation botnets using Bitcoin. Int. J. Inf. Secur. 17, 411–422 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10207-017-0379-8

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Keywords

  • Botnets
  • Bitcoin
  • Cryptocurrencies
  • C&C