Microsoft has taken the wraps off a new security programme that uses automated "HoneyMonkeys" to patrol the web, seeking out sites that automatically install malicious code on Windows XP systems.
In its first month the Strider HoneyMonkey research project located 752 web addresses linking to 287 sites that could automatically infect unpatched machines, Microsoft said. The project also discovered an attack that could penetrate a fully up-to-date Windows XP Service Pack 2 system using a previously unknown vulnerability.
The project is relatively limited in scope - it only looks for code that can be installed with no user interaction, leaving out the more sophisticated, and increasingly successful attacks relying on social engineering - attacks such as phishing.
However, Microsoft believes the automated approach could become a valuable tool for detecting new types of attacks before they become widespread. Attackers appear to share new exploits among themselves, quickly spreading to numerous sites, according to Yi-Min Wang, manager of Microsoft's Cybersecurity and Systems Management Research Group, author of the paper.
"Although (manual analyses) often provide very useful and detailed information about which vulnerabilities are exploited and which malware programs are installed, such analysis efforts are not scalable and do not provide a comprehensive picture of the problem," said Wang in the paper.
For example, Microsoft's HoneyMonkeys came across a Windows XP SP2 exploit at the beginning of July, before many other sites were using it. Two weeks later, 40 of the 287 sites were using the exploit, Microsoft said.
That exploit used a previously undiscovered bug in the JView Profiler COM object (javaprxy.dll), and was patched at the end of July
The system uses a chain of HoneyMonkeys, the name being derived from "honeypots", passive security research server systems set up to wait for attacks. Each HoneyMonkey is a Windows XP system with a different level of patching, running in a virtual machine. An initial wave of unpatched HoneyMonkeys scours the web seeking potentially malicious sites. When a site is found that installs potentially malicious code, the virtual machine is scrapped and another takes its place.
The target URL is then passed to a virtual machine with a greater level of patching, to see which systems are vulnerable to the site's exploit. At the end of the chain is a fully patched Windows XP system, Microsoft said.
The system builds up a topology graph based on traffic redirection, which has led to the identification of a few major players who are responsible for a large number of exploit pages, said Wang in the paper.
The HoneyMonkey systems run a variety of tools to monitor the dastardly work the malicious sites are carrying out, including Strider GhostBuster, Microsoft's rootkit detection and removal program.
Microsoft said it plans to eventually deploy several geographically distributed networks of hundreds of HoneyMonkeys, and to patrol popular sites as well as the obscure recesses of criminality.