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New FritzFrog P2P Botnet Targets SSH Servers of Banks, Educational Institutions, and Medical Centers

A new peer-to-peer (P2P) botnet has been discovered that is targeting SSH servers found in IoT devices and routers which accept connections from remote computers. The botnet, named FritzFrog, spreads like a computer worm by brute forcing credentials.

The botnet was analyzed by security researchers at Guardicore Labs and was found to have successfully breached more than 500 servers, with that number growing rapidly. FritzFrog is modular, multi-threaded, and fileless, and leaves no trace on the machines it infects. FritzFrog assembles and executes malicious payloads entirely in the memory, making infections hard to detect.

When a machine is infected, a backdoor is created in the form of an SSH public key, which provides the attackers with persistent access to the device. Additional payloads can then be downloaded, such as a cryptocurrency miner. Once a machine is compromised, the self-replicating process starts to execute the malware throughout the host server. The machine is added to the P2P network, can receive and execute commands sent from the P2P network, and is used to propagate the malware to new SSH servers. The botnet has been active since at least January 2020 and has been used to target government, healthcare, education, and the finance sectors.

“Nodes in the FritzFrog network keep in close contact with each other. They constantly ping each other to verify connectivity, exchange peers and targets and keep each other synced,” explained the researchers. “The nodes participate in a clever vote-casting process, which appears to affect the distribution of brute-force targets across the network. Guardicore Labs observed that targets are evenly distributed, such that no two nodes in the network attempt to “crack” the same target machine.”

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In contrast to other forms of botnet, FritzFrog has greater resiliency, as control of the botnet is decentralized among different nodes, so there is no single command and control (C2) server, which means there can be no single point of failure. According to Guardicore Labs, FritzFrog has been written in Golang from scratch, with the P2P protocol completely proprietary, with almost everything about the botnet unique and not shared with other P2P botnets.

To analyze how FritzFrog worked and to explore its capabilities, Guardicore Labs’ researchers developed an interceptor in Golang which allowed them to participate in the malware’s key-exchange process and receive and send commands. “This program, which we named frogger, allowed us to investigate the nature and scope of the network. Using frogger, we were also able to join the network by ‘injecting’ our own nodes and participating in the ongoing P2P traffic.” Via frogger, the researchers determined that FritzFrog had succeeded in brute-forcing millions of SSH IP addresses at medical centers, banks, educational institutions, government organizations, and telecom companies.

The malware communicates over port 1234, but not directly. Traffic over port 1234 is easy to identify, so the malware uses a netcat utility program, which is usually used to monitor network traffic. “Any command sent over SSH will be used as netcat’s input, thus transmitted to the malware,” explained the researchers. FritzFrog also communicates over an encrypted channel and is capable of executing over 30 commands, which include creating a backdoor, connecting to other infected nodes and servers in the FritzFrog network, and monitoring resources such as CPU use.

While the botnet is currently being used to plant cryptocurrency mining malware (XMRig) on victims’ devices to mine Monero, the botnet could easily be repurposed to deliver other forms of malware and could be used for several other purposes. Ophir Harpaz, security researcher at Guardicore Labs, does not believe cryptocurrency mining is the main purpose of the botnet, due to the amount of code dedicated to mining Monero. Harpaz believes it is access to organizations’ networks which is the main aim, which can be extremely valuable. Access to breached servers could be sold or used in much more profitable attacks.

It is unclear who created the botnet or where they are located. It has spread globally, but the geographic origin of the initial attacks is not known. FritzFrog is also under active development, with the researchers identifying more than 20 versions of the FritzFrog binary.

The botnet relies on network security solutions that enforce traffic only by port and protocol, so process-based segmentation rules are required. Infection takes advantage of weak passwords that are susceptible to brute force attempts, so it is important for strong passwords to be set and to use public key authentication. The botnet targets IoT devices and routers with exposed SSH keys, so organizations can protect themselves by changing their SSH port or disabling access to SSH when the service is not in use. The researchers also point out that “it is crucial to remove FritzFrog’s public key from the authorized_keys file, preventing the attackers from accessing the machine.”

Guardicore Labs has published a script on GitHub that can be run to identify FritzFrog infections, along with known IoCs.

Author: Steve Alder is the editor-in-chief of HIPAA Journal. Steve is responsible for editorial policy regarding the topics covered on HIPAA Journal. He is a specialist on healthcare industry legal and regulatory affairs, and has several years of experience writing about HIPAA and other related legal topics. Steve has developed a deep understanding of regulatory issues surrounding the use of information technology in the healthcare industry and has written hundreds of articles on HIPAA-related topics.