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10.2. Background

Blended attacks began in November 1988, with the introduction of the Morris worm8. The Morris worm exploited flaws in standard applications of BSD systems:

  • The worm attempted to use a buffer overflow attack against VAX-based systems running a vulnerable version of fingerd. (More details on this attack come later.) This resulted in the automatic execution of the worm on a remote VAX system. The worm was able to execute this attack from either VAX or Sun systems, but the attack was only successful against targeted VAX systems. The code was not in place to identify the remote OS version, so the same attack was used against the fingerd program of Suns running BSD. This resulted in a core dump (crash) of fingerd on targeted Sun systems.

  • The Morris worm also utilized the DEBUG command of the sendmail application. This command was only available in early implementations of sendmail. The DEBUG command made it possible to execute commands on a remote system by sending an SMTP (simple mail transfer protocol) message. This command was a potential mistake in functionality and was removed in later versions of sendmail. When the DEBUG command was sent to sendmail, someone could execute commands as the recipient of the message.

  • Finally, the worm tried to utilize remote shell commands to attack new machines by using rsh from various directories. It demonstrated the possibility of cracking password files. The worm attempted to crack passwords to get into new systems. This attack was feasible because the password file was accessible and readable by everyone. Although the password file was encrypted, someone could encrypt test passwords and then compare them with the encrypted ones. The worm used a small dictionary of passwords that its author believed to be common or weak. Looking at the list of passwords in the author's dictionary, I have the impression that this was not the most successful of the worm's attacks. Indeed, this is used only as a last resort, when the other attacks had failed.

The Morris worm was not without bugs. Although the worm was not deliberately destructive, it overloaded and slowed down machines so much that it was very noticeable after repeated infections.

Thirteen years later, in July 2001, CodeRed repeated a very similar set of attacks against vulnerable versions of Microsoft Internet Information Server (IIS) systems. Using a well-crafted buffer overflow technique, the worm executed copies of itself (depending on its version) on Windows 2000 systems running vulnerable versions of Microsoft IIS. The slowdown effect was similar to that of the Morris worm.

Further information on the buffer overflow attacks is made available in this chapter (without any working attack code).

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