Warning: 'Clpwn' cavorting on unguarded sites

"Hacker" crew talks big, but are they dangerous?

A self-proclaimed hacker crew calling itself "clpwn" -- as in "clown" -- that's been bragging about how it's defaced sites such as CNN and Playboy Casino isn't doing anything earth-shattering, said a security researcher Wednesday. But the group is a reminder of how things once were, when true hackers plied their trade for notoriety rather than profit.

"There are still people out there who are only looking for fame," said Zulfikar Ramzan, senior principal researcher at Symantec Wednesday. "You don't see a lot of that anymore, but I get the feeling they're just trying to get noticed."

Part of Ramzan's take on clpwn comes from the self-aggrandizement that pervades the crew's Web site. One entry, where the group brags about compromising a Raleigh, N.C. television station's site, starts out: "The notorious Web hackers TEAM CLPWN have struck yet another major mainstream news portal...." In another entry that touts a hack of the CNN International site, the gang writes: "At the time of writing the leaders of this group have not responded to any contacts from the media and no information is available on their targets or methods of attack."

Not exactly true. "There are no new insights from what they're doing," said Ramzan, "but they are using some of the latest research -- latest meaning the last couple of years, not the last week -- and demonstrating that it can be applied in a real-world setting."

Most of their efforts have utilized cross-site scripting attacks, Ramzan noted, a venerable technique easily carried out against carelessly maintained Web sites. But some of clpwn's work goes beyond that. Recently, the group has added a Flash-based port scanner to at least one page on their own site that scans Windows' localhost. "If you can do a host-based scan like this on, say, a home network, you can log in to a router that hasn't had its default password changed, and alter the DNS settings, all remotely," said Ramzan. Called 'drive-by pharming,' the practice allows attackers to redirect the user from legitimate sites entered in the browser to phony, possibly malicious, URLs.

"Once they're able to do host-based scanning, I think malicious damage is only a matter of time," Ramzan added.

Others aren't so sure. Gunter Ollmann, the director of IBM Internet Security Systems' X-Force research lab, was less impressed with clpwn's capabilities. "Not that any of the techniques are new, in fact I publicly did the same kind of thing back in March 2002," said Ollmann. He also leaned towards the hacking-as-entertainment opinion of the group. "It looks like quite a few 'whitehats' are taking it all a bit too seriously, which promotes even more amusement on the site," he said.

Symantec, though, recommended that users steer clear of clpwn's Web site. "Given the nature of the current exploit, and the ease with which this group can add payload updates, this domain should be considered malicious," warned a notice sent to customers of the security company's DeepSight threat network. "Customers are advised to browse with caution and block access to the 'clpwn.com' domain."

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