IOT botnet – VPNFilter infected 500,000 devices+

More than 500,000 devices in 52 countries are said to be infected with this malware

 Researchers at Cisco Talos published a report documenting a giant-sized IoT botnet known as VPNFilter. More than 500,000 devices around the world are said to be infected with this malware – most of them are consumer internet routers from a range of different vendors, with some consumer NAS (network attached storage) devices known to have been hit as well.

As a member of the Cyber Threat Alliance (CTA), Sophos has featured the warning about the malware in this Naked Security blog post: VPNFilter – is a malware timebomb lurking on your router?

Paul Ducklin, senior technologist at Sophos, recommends conducting a router health check, even if you believe the router is already up-to-date and don’t think devices are infected. Please find an additional comment from Paul that explains what this malware does, and what to do about it:

“It’s time for a router healthcheck,” said Paul Ducklin, Senior Technologist at Sophos. “Home devices like routers are popular targets for cybercrooks these days, yet they’re often neglected from a cybersecurity point of view. Start with the basics. Check for a firmware update with your router vendor – do it today! And pick proper passwords – the crooks know every default password that ever left the factory, so why make it easy for them?”

Symantec’s honeypots and sensors indicate that unlike other IoT threats such as Mirai, it does not appear to be scanning and indiscriminately attempting to infect every vulnerable device globally.

VPNFilter has a range of capabilities including spying on traffic being routed through the device. Its creators appear to have a particular interest in SCADA industrial control systems, creating a module which specifically intercepts Modbus SCADA communications.

Hackers possibly working for an advanced nation have infected more than 500,000 home and small-office routers around the world with malware that can be used to collect communications, launch attacks on others, and permanently destroy the devices with a single command, researchers at Cisco warned.

There’s little doubt that whoever developed VPNFilter is an advanced group. Stage 1 infects devices running Busybox- and Linux-based firmware and is compiled for several CPU architectures. The primary purpose is to locate an attacker-controlled server on the Internet to receive a more fully featured second stage. Stage 1 locates the server by downloading an image from and extracting an IP address from six integer values used for GPS latitude and longitude stored in the EXIF field. In the event the Photobucket download fails, stage 1 will try to download the image from toknowall[.]com.

If that fails, stage 1 opens a “listener” that waits for a specific trigger packet from the attackers. The listener checks its public IP from api.ipify[.]org and stores it for later use. This is the stage that persists even after the infected device is restarted.

Cisco researchers described stage 2 as a “workhorse intelligence-collection platform” that performs file collection, command execution, data exfiltration, and device management. Some versions of stage 2 also possess a self-destruct capability that works by overwriting a critical portion of the device firmware and then rebooting, a process that renders the device unusable. Cisco researchers believe that, even without the built-in kill command, the attackers can use stage 2 to manually destroy devices.

Stage 3 contains at least two plugin modules. One is a packet sniffer for collecting traffic that passes through the device. Intercepted traffic includes website credentials and Modbus SCADA protocols. A second module allows stage 2 to communicate over the Tor privacy service. Wednesday’s report said Cisco researchers believe stage 3 contains other plugins that have yet to be discovered.

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What devices are known to be affected by VPNFilter?

A: To date, VPNFilter is known to be capable of infecting enterprise and small office/home office routers from Linksys, MikroTik, Netgear, and TP-Link, as well as QNAP network-attached storage (NAS) devices. These include:

  • Linksys E1200
  • Linksys E2500
  • Linksys WRVS4400N
  • Mikrotik RouterOS for Cloud Core Routers: Versions 1016, 1036, and 1072
  • Netgear DGN2200
  • Netgear R6400
  • Netgear R7000
  • Netgear R8000
  • Netgear WNR1000
  • Netgear WNR2000
  • QNAP TS251
  • QNAP TS439 Pro
  • Other QNAP NAS devices running QTS software
  • TP-Link R600VPN

How does VPNFilter infect affected devices?

Most of the devices targeted are known to use default credentials and/or have known exploits, particularly for older versions. There is no indication at present that the exploit of zero-day vulnerabilities is involved in spreading the threat.

What does VPNFilter do to an infected device?

VPNFilter is a multi-staged piece of malware. Stage 1 is installed first and is used to maintain a persistent presence on the infected device and will contact a command and control (C&C) server to download further modules.

Stage 2 contains the main payload and is capable of file collection, command execution, data exfiltration, and device management. It also has a destructive capability and can effectively “brick” the device if it receives a command from the attackers. It does this by overwriting a section of the device’s firmware and rebooting, rendering it unusable.

There are several known Stage 3 modules, which act as plugins for Stage 2. These include a packet sniffer for spying on traffic that is routed through the device, including theft of website credentials and monitoring of Modbus SCADA protocols. Another Stage 3 module allows Stage 2 to communicate using Tor.

If I own an affected device, what should I do?

Users of affected devices are advised to reboot them immediately. If the device is infected with VPNFilter, rebooting will remove Stage 2 and any Stage 3 elements present on the device. This will (temporarily at least) remove the destructive component of VPNFilter. However, if infected, the continuing presence of Stage 1 means that Stages 2 and 3 can be reinstalled by the attackers.

You should then apply the latest available patches to affected devices and ensure that none use default credentials.

If Stage 1 of VPNFilter persists even after a reboot, is there any way of removing it?

Yes. Performing a hard reset of the device, which restores factory settings, should wipe it clean and remove Stage 1. With most devices this can be done by pressing and holding a small reset switch when power cycling the device. However, bear in mind that any configuration details or credentials stored on the router should be backed up as these will be wiped by a hard reset.

What do the attackers intend to do with VPNFilter’s destructive capability?

This is currently unknown. One possibility is using it for disruptive purposes, by bricking a large number of infected devices. Another possibility is more selective use to cover up evidence of attacks.


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