US cyber security researchers have developed a technique that fights the ‘Heartbleed’ virus, and detects and entraps hackers who might be using it to steal sensitive data. The Heartbleed bug, which became public last week, has set alarm bells ringing across the globe, including in India, for fear of exposing millions of passwords, credit card numbers and other sensitive information to hackers.
Researchers at The University of Texas at Dallas created the sophisticated technique, dubbed Red Herring, which automates the process of creating decoy servers, making hackers believe they have gained access to confidential, secure information, when in fact their deeds are being monitored, analysed and traced back to the sources.
“Our automated honeypot creates a fixed Web server that looks and acts exactly like the original — but it’s a trap,” said Dr. Kevin Hamlen, an associate professor of computer science in the Erik Jonsson School of Computer Science and Engineering, who led the team which created the technique.
“The attackers think they are winning, but Red Herring basically keeps them on the hook longer so the server owner can track them and their activities. This is a way to discover what these nefarious individuals are trying to do, instead of just blocking what they are doing,” Dr. Hamlen, a member of the UT Dallas Cyber Security Research and Education Institute (CSI).
The Heartbleed bug affects about two-thirds of websites previously believed to be secure. These are websites that use the computer code library called OpenSSL to encrypt supposedly secure Internet connections that are used for sensitive purposes such as online banking and purchasing, sending and receiving emails, and remotely accessing work networks.
Even though Heartbleed is now in the process of being fixed, victims face the challenge of not knowing who may already be exploiting it to steal the information, and what information they may be going after, researchers said.
The Red Herring algorithm created by Dr. Hamlen automatically converts a patch-code widely used to fix new vulnerabilities like Heartbleed — into a honeypot that can catch the attacker at the same time.
“When Heartbleed came out, this was the perfect test of our prototype,” Dr. Hamlen said.
Red Herring does not stop at being a decoy and blocker; it can also lead to catching the attacker. As the attacker thinks he or she is stealing data, an analyst is tracking the attack to find out what information the attacker is after, how the malicious code works and who is sending the code. “In their original disclosure, security firm Codenomicon urged experts to start manually building honeypots for Heartbleed,” Dr. Hamlen said.
“Since we already had created algorithms to automate this process, we had a solution within hours,” Dr. Hamlen said.