Collaboration Fuels Rapid Growth of Citadel Trojan

Late last month I wrote about Citadel, an “open source” version of the ZeuS Trojan whose defining feature is a social networking platform where users can report and fix programming bugs, suggest and vote on new features, and generally guide future development of the botnet malware. Since then, I’ve been given a peek inside that community, and the view so far suggests that Citadel’s collaborative approach is fueling rapid growth of this new malware strain.

The CRM page shows democracy in action among Citadel botnet users.

A customer who bought a license to the Citadel Trojan extended an invitation to drop in on that community of hackers. Those who have purchased the software can interact with the developers and other buyers via comments submitted to the Citadel Store, a front-end interface that is made available after users successfully navigate through a two-step authentication process.

Upon logging into the Citadel Store, users see the main “customer resource management” page, which shows the latest breakdown of votes cast by all users regarding the desirability of proposed new features in the botnet code.

In the screen shot to the right, we can see democracy in action among miscreants: The image shows the outcome of voting on several newly proposed modules for Citadel, including a plugin that searches for specific files on the victim’s PC, and a “mini-antivirus” program that can clean up a variety of malware, adware and other parasites already on the victim’s computer that may prevent Citadel from operating cleanly or stealthily. Currently, there are nine separate modules that can be voted and commented on by the Citadel community.

Drilling down into the details page for each suggested botnet plugin reveals comments from various users about the suggested feature (screenshot below). Overall, users seem enthusiastic about most suggested new features, although several customers used the comments section to warn about potential pitfalls in implementing the proposed changes.

Citadel users discuss the merits of including a module to remove other parasites from host PCs.

The customer resource management page also reveals that although the principal authors of the Citadel Trojan treat this as their day job, they try their best to have a life on the weekends. A notice prominetly posted to the Citadel CRM homepage reads:

Please note regarding the Help Desk in the Jabber chat & CRM page:

Daily from 10.00 to 00.30
Sat, Sun – closed, you can write us offline.
All requests and questions will be processed on Monday.

The collegial atmosphere being cultivated by the Citadel authors appears to have hastened the malware’s maturity, according to researchers at Seculert. In a blog post published Wednesday, researchers there said that they’d observed at least five new versions of Citadel since first spotting the malware on Dec. 17, 2011.

Seculert’s Aviv Raff said that means the miscreants behind Citadel are pushing out a new version of the Trojan about once a week.

“The only similar Trojan who got close to this pace was the so called ‘SpyZeus’ Trojan,” Raff said. “Others, including ZeuS itself, took between a month to several months to release a new version.”

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