Monday, July 9, 2007

The reason behind the "We're sorry..." message

Some of you might have seen this message while searching on Google, and wondered what the reason behind it might be. Instead of search results, Google displays the "We're sorry" message when we detect anomalous queries from your network. As a regular user, it is possible to answer a CAPTCHA - a reverse Turing test meant to establish that we are talking to a human user - and to continue searching. However, automated processes such as worms would have a much harder time solving the CAPTCHA. Several things can trigger the sorry message. Often it's due to infected computers or DSL routers that proxy search traffic through your network - this may be at home or even at a workplace where one or more computers might be infected. Overly aggressive SEO ranking tools may trigger this message, too. In other cases, we have seen self-propagating worms that use Google search to identify vulnerable web servers on the Internet and then exploit them. The exploited systems in turn then search Google for more vulnerable web servers and so on.  This can lead to a noticeable increase in search queries and sorry is one of our mechanisms to deal with this.

At ACM WORM 2006, we published a paper on Search Worms [PDF] that takes a much closer look at this phenomenon. Santy, one of the search worms we analyzed, looks for remote-execution vulnerabilities in the popular phpBB2 web application. In addition to exhibiting worm like propagation patterns, Santy also installs a botnet client as a payload that connects the compromised web server to an IRC channel. Adversaries can then remotely control the compromised web servers and use them for DDoS attacks, spam or phishing. Over time, the adversaries have realized that even though a botnet consisting of web servers provides a lot of aggregate bandwidth, they can increase leverage by changing the content on the compromised web servers to infect visitors and in turn join the computers of compromised visitors into much larger botnets. This fundamental change from remote attack to client based download of malware formed the basis of the research presented in our first post. In retrospect, it is interesting to see how two seemingly unrelated problems are tightly connected.

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