In a rare feat, French police have hijacked and neutralized a massive cryptocurrency mining botnet controlling close to a million infected computers.
The notorious Retadup malware infects computers and starts mining cryptocurrency by sapping power from a computer’s processor. Although the malware was used to generate money, the malware operators easily could have run other malicious code, like spyware or ransomware. The malware also has wormable properties, allowing it to spread from computer to computer.
Since its first appearance, the cryptocurrency mining malware has spread across the world, including the U.S., Russia, and Central and South America.
According to a blog post announcing the bust, security firm Avast confirmed the operation was successful.
The security firm got involved after it discovered a design flaw in the malware’s command and control server. That flaw, if properly exploited, would have “allowed us to remove the malware from its victims’ computers” without pushing any code to victims’ computers, the researchers said.
The exploit would have dismantled the operation, but the researchers lacked the legal authority to push ahead. Because most of the malware’s infrastructure was located in France, Avast contacted French police. After receiving the go-ahead from prosecutors in July, the police went ahead with the operation to take control of the server and disinfect affected computers.
The French police called the botnet “one of the largest networks” of hijacked computers in the world.
The operation worked by secretly obtaining a snapshot of the malware’s command and control server with cooperation from its web host. The researchers said they had to work carefully as to not be noticed by the malware operators, fearing the malware operators could retaliate.
“The malware authors were mostly distributing cryptocurrency miners, making for a very good passive income,” the security company said. “But if they realized that we were about to take down Retadup in its entirety, they might’ve pushed ransomware to hundreds of thousands of computers while trying to milk their malware for some last profits.”
With a copy of the malicious command and control server in hand, the researchers built their own replica, which disinfected victim computers instead of causing infections.
“[The police] replaced the malicious [command and control] server with a prepared disinfection server that made connected instances of Retadup self-destruct,” said Avast in a blog post. “In the very first second of its activity, several thousand bots connected to it in order to fetch commands from the server. The disinfection server responded to them and disinfected them, abusing the protocol design flaw.”
In doing so, the company was able to stop the malware from operating and remove the malicious code to over 850,000 infected computers.
Jean-Dominique Nollet, head of the French police’s cyber unit, said the malware operators generated several million euros worth of cryptocurrency.
Remotely shutting down a malware botnet is a rare achievement — but difficult to carry out.
Several years ago the U.S. government revoked Rule 41, which now allows judges to issue search and seizure warrants outside of their jurisdiction. Many saw the move as an effort by the FBI to conduct remote hacking operations without being hindered by the locality of a judge’s jurisdiction. Critics argued it would set a dangerous precedent to hack into countless number of computers on a single warrant from a friendly judge.
Since then the amended rule has been used to dismantle at least one major malware operation, the so-called Joanap botnet, linked to hackers working for the North Korean regime.