Antispam Firm Blue Security Says Was Victim of Attack

The CEO of an antispam firm whose service was knocked offline by a spammer claimed his company was the victim of a sophisticated attack carried out, in part, with the help of someone at a top-tier Internet Service Provider (ISP).

Eran Reshef, CEO of Blue Security, an Israeli antispam firm, said that his company was attacked by a major spammer named PharmaMaster who used a combination of methods to knock out the company's Web site and the servers hosting its services. He also hit back at criticism that the response by Blue Security to the attacks caused widespread problems to others.

Blue Security operates an antispam service designed to deter junk-mailers by spamming them back. Blue Security's Do Not Intrude program allows individuals to register their email addresses with the company and essentially flood spammers who send them email with automated opt-out requests.

The attacks that crippled Blue Service were preceded by PharmaMaster sending out threatening emails to subscribers of the Do Not Intrude Registry, warning them of even more spam if they did not withdraw their subscriptions.

PharmaMaster then appears to have gotten someone at a major ISP to block Blue Security's IP address on the Internet's backbone routers, most probably via a process called black-holing, Reshef claimed. With black-holing, an ISP essentially removes the advertised path to a particular Web site or IP address -- making it completely inaccessible to the outside world. According to Reshef, PharmaMaster informed Blue Security that he had gotten an ISP to agree to blackhole the company before the attacks started.

"Immediately, we started seeing our IP address getting blacklisted by other ISPs," Reshef said. As a result, traffic to the company's main Web site dropping from the usual 100 hits per minute to about two per minute in less than an hour -- and nothing at all from outside of Israel. At almost the same time, massive distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks were launched against the dedicated servers that provide Blue Security's antispam service. The servers, located at five separate hosting provider sites, were bombarded with up to 2GB of traffic per second, rendering them inaccessible.

In what Reshef said was a bid to tell subscribers what was happening, Blue Security pointed the company's corporate Web server URL to its blog, which is hosted by Six Apart in San Francisco. PharmaMaster then launched a DDoS attack against the server hosting Blue Security's blog. That resulted in thousands of other blogs hosted by Six Apart to be knocked offline.

The DDoS attacks against the company's dedicated servers meanwhile resulted in service disruptions to five hosting providers and major DNS service provider Tucows, he said.

Pointing the company's main URL to the Blue Security blog site on Six Apart when it was under attack may not have been the best idea, Reshef said. But at the time, the company had little idea that the attacker would launch a separate denial of service attack on the blog site as well.

Todd Underwood, chief operations and security officer at Renesys, an Internet monitoring company, said that based on traffic analysis, Blue Security's main Web site appears to have been under a DDoS attack for at least two days before it redirected its URL to the blog.

"I do think if you are under attack it is your duty not to redirect it against someone else," Underwood said. "It is not a fair or an ethical decision," he said, adding that it is hard to imagine that Blue Security didn't know it was being hit with a DDoS attack when it pointed its URL to the blog site.

Underwood also said that it was unlikely that a spammer would have been able to get an individual at a major ISP to install a "no route" to Blue Security, as Reshef claimed. "These are not the kind of networks where people can sneak in and make routing configuration changes" without logging that change or discussing it with others, he said. "The suggestion that some Russian spammer could bribe someone to install a no-route" is hard to believe, he said.

John Levine, chairman of the Internet Anti-Spam Research Group, said that other antispam efforts have been similarly targeted as well. But they did not involve an ISP. And neither did those who were attacked respond like Blue Security did, he said. "If you know you are under a DoS attack, pointing your DNS at other parties is irresponsible," he said.

Copyright 2006, IDG Communications New Zealand Limited.

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