Several years ago, some suspected cyber criminals on the Internet wrote a family of malware dubbed DNSChanger. About a year ago, law enforcement tracked down the suspected cyber criminals behind this malware, arrested them, and took over the servers they were using to redirect customers to rogue sites.
As a result of a court order, the Internet Systems Consortium (ISC) under the direction of the FBI, has continued to run the DNS servers used by the malware for the last year. However, the court order will soon expire and those servers are scheduled to be shut down on July 9, 2012. When that happens, hundreds of thousands of Internet users whose systems are still infected and/or affected could lose access to the web, email, and anything else that depends on DNS. This is the story of how two Internet infrastructure startups — CloudFlare and OpenDNS — are playing a small part to help solve the problem.
A Bit of DNS Background
Up front, in order to understand this story, you need to understand there are two types of DNS servers: recursive and authoritative. Everyone who uses the Internet needs a recursive DNS server. Your ISP usually provides these types of services or you can use a provider like OpenDNS, Google, DNSAdvantage, other public resolvers, or even run a server yourself to handle your recursive DNS queries.
On the other hand, every domain needs at least one authoritative DNS server. Authoritative servers are where a particular domain's records are hosted and published. Many domain registrars provide authoritative DNS servers, or you can use a service like CloudFlare and we provide authoritative DNS. When an Internet user types a Universal Resource Identifier (URI) aka Universal Resource Locator (URL) into their browser, clicks on a link, or sends an email, their computer queries their recursive DNS provider. If the recursive DNS provider has the answer cached then it responds. If it doesn't have the answer cached, or if the answer it has is stale, then the recursive DNS server queries the authoritative DNS server.
As mentioned above, OpenDNS provides recursive DNS. Their customers are web surfers and they provide a terrific service that helps speed up Internet browsing and protect people on the web from malware. CloudFlare provides authoritative DNS. Our customers are websites and we make those sites faster and protect sites from attacks directed at them. While we're often asked if OpenDNS and CloudFlare are competitive, in reality both services are complementary just using different parts of DNS (recursive and authoritative) to achieve a similar mission: a faster, safer, better Internet.
How Suspected Cyber Criminals Use DNS to Do Bad Things
The DNSChanger malware family was designed to change the recursive DNS server that Internet users' computers queries. Instead of directing DNS queries at the recursive server you or your ISP configured, the malware modified computer settings to route queries to recursive DNS servers controlled by the suspected cyber criminals.
The job of DNS is to translate a domain name such as dcwg.org, which humans prefer, into an IP address, like 126.96.36.199, which servers and routers can use. If you are a cyber criminal and you can gain control over someone's recursive DNS then you can direct traffic to certain sites to a fake version of the site. Once DNSChanger had web surfers querying rogue recursive DNS servers, all requests for legitimate websites could be directed to a fake website. For example, even if you typed your bank's domain name into your browser, if the suspected cyber criminals control recursive DNS then they can send you to a malicious site and steal your information.
Over the years DNSChanger operated unchecked, more than a million computers and home routers had their DNS configurations modified. Thankfully, law enforcement was able to track down the suspected cyber criminals behind the malware, arrest them, and seize control of the rogue recursive DNS servers. Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of computers are still using the formerly rogue recursive DNS servers. On July 9, 2012 the court order directing ISC to operate the servers expires and those servers are scheduled to be shut down. On that date, all systems which still have their DNS settings modified by DNSChanger will effectively be cut off from the Internet.
Getting the Word Out
The DNSChanger Working Group (DCWG), a loosely affiliated organization comprised of some of the world's largest and most competent ISPs, search engines vendors, software vendors, security companies, and others, has been working to get the word out about the problem and reduce the impact of the shutdown of the DNSChanger recursive servers. The DCWG launched a website (dcwg.org) to provide information about the malware, let people test whether they are infected, and provide recommendations on how to fix their systems. CloudFlare first became involved when the folks at dcwg.org reached out to us because their site was under heavy load after attention from major media outlets. CloudFlare helped keep the dcwg.org website online under the load caused by media attention over the last 10 days. We offloaded more than 95% of the traffic to the site, ensuring the site ran fast and stable even when it was being featured on the front page of cnn.com.
Unfortunately, one of the challenges in trying to address situations like DNSChanger is that you only know to go to the dcwg.org website if you already know about it. What you needed was something akin to an emergency broadcast system that would inform people who were infected that they had a problem as they surfed the web. In the process of working with the DCWG, we realized we might be able to help.
What Should People Notified of This Infection Do?
The Power of the DNS
This incident illustrates to me the importance and power of the DNS system that underpins the Internet. The suspected cyber criminals were able to modify DNS settings to steal advertising revenue and perform other illegal activities. CloudFlare uses authoritative DNS in order to provision powerful tools to make sites faster and even help create a sort of emergency warning system for the Internet. OpenDNS provides high performance recursive DNS caching services for their customers. Combined, we hope to help the DCWG get the word out so the hundreds of thousands of Internet users still impacted by the DNSChanger malware will be able to take steps to ensure they'll be able to use the Internet on July 10, 2012 and beyond.