Security Experts:

Microsoft Names Reputed Head of Kelihos Botnet

Microsoft is not just taking down botnets; it is taking them down and naming names.

In an amended complaint filed Monday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Microsoft named Andrey N. Sabelnikov of St. Petersburg, Russia, as the alleged head of the notorious Kelihos botnet.

Kelihos botnet. “In today’s complaint, Microsoft presented evidence to the court that Mr. Sabelnikov wrote the code for and either created, or participated in creating, the Kelihos malware,” blogged Richard Domingues Boscovich, senior attorney of the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit. “Further, the complaint alleges that he used the malware to control, operate, maintain and grow the Kelihos botnet. These allegations are based on evidence Microsoft investigators uncovered while analyzing the Kelihos malware. Microsoft also alleges that Mr. Sabelnikov registered more than 3,700 “cz.cc” subdomains from Mr. Piatti and dotFREE Group SRO, and misused those subdomains to operate and control the Kelihos botnet.”

Naming names can be a risky business. Previously, Microsoft alleged Dominique Alexander Piatti, dotFREE Group SRO and several unnamed “John Does” owned a domain cz.cc and used cz.cc to register other subdomains used to operate and control the Kelihos botnet. However, the company later absolved Piatti of responsibility when investigators found neither he nor his business was controlling the subdomains used to host Kelihos.

Just recently, Facebook and security researchers identified five people as members of the notorious Koobface gang, which – though it has not resulted in any criminal charges – was enough to apparently send the men deeper into the digital underground. Soon after the men were named, Sophos, which published a voluminous report on their investigation of the group, said the command and control servers used by the gang stopped responding, and that the individuals identified began deleting their profiles from social networks.

“Although social networking accounts have been wiped, security researchers and law enforcement agencies have archives of the vast amount of material already published by Koobface gang members, including photographs, movies, and locations as they checked into sites such as FourSquare,” blogged Sophos Senior Technology Consultant Graham Cluley. “That data can be used in a variety of ways. For instance, FourSquare logins can be displayed on Google Earth, allowing researchers to replay how individuals have moved from place to place at certain times.”

Whether naming Sabelnikov – who according to Krebs on Security, once worked as a senior system developer and project manager for Russian antivirus vendor Agnitum, will have the same effect as naming the Koobface gang remains to be seen. Though Kelihos has remained defunct since the takedown last year, the malware is still on thousands of computers, according to Boscovich.

“We also remain committed to taking what we learn from takedown operations such as these to help better arm the ‘good guys’ in protecting people from the threat…Our objective is to effectively put information and tools into the hands of those that can help protect innocent computer users,” he blogged.