Recently, reports surfaced that a large number of Elasticsearch servers fell victim to potential ransomware attacks. Ransomware is the type of malware a company doesn’t want on its systems or network. It takes systems hostage, most commonly by encrypting or stealing data, and exposes the owners to blackmail attempts. According to a report by the Herjavec Group, the cost of damages from ransomware was projected to reach $1 billion by the end of 2016.
A new wave of ransom attacks observed over the last several weeks targets unsecured MongoDB databases. Security researchers Victor Gevers and Niall Merrigan call these attacks a “ransack,” and Merrigan estimates that more than 40,000 databases were impacted in the first two weeks alone.
Now research shows that Elasticsearch servers, which are configured to be insecure so they can be accessed over the public internet, are being subjected to similar ransom attacks. Victor Gevers tweeted that within the first three days, 2,515 Elasticsearch servers were eradicated and ransomed and 34,298 vulnerable Elasticsearch instances are still open. In the following days, the number of affected servers has risen to more than 5,000. John Matherly, founder of Shodan, tweeted that the vast majority of vulnerable Elasticsearch servers are open on Amazon Web Services (AWS).
If an Elasticsearch server is hacked, users will find data indices gone and a message that reads: “SEND 0.2 BTC TO THIS WALLET: 1DAsGY4Kt1a4LCTPMH5vm5PqX32eZmot4r IF YOU WANT RECOVER YOUR DATABASE! SEND TO THIS EMAIL YOUR SERVER IP AFTER SENDING THE BITCOINS…”
The FBI stresses that victims should refuse to pay Bitcoin ransoms, so users might or might not get their data back depending on the security processes they had in place in case of an attack. At this point, it is unclear who is behind the attacks.
Ironically, what makes these attacks possible is not that Elasticsearch in itself is insecure, because it isn’t. Ransom attacks are possible because these instances have been configured in a way that makes them vulnerable. It’s like leaving the front door open.
Technology journalist Steven Vaughan-Nichols of ZDNet gave an excellent summary, explaining that, when used by amateurs without any security skills, Elasticsearch is simple to crack. The people deploying instances on AWS clouds are under the impression that AWS is protecting them, but that’s not the case. While AWS tells users how to protect their AWS Elasticsearch instances, users still need to do the work themselves.
He notes: “The worst thing about this? Just like the MongoDB attacks, none of this would have happened if its programmers had protected its instances with basic, well-known security measures.”
Elasticsearch is often used in log management, typically as part of the Elastic Stack or ELK, which stands for its main open-source ingredients of Elasticsearch, Lucene and Kibana. Since it’s free, open-source software, ELK is an easy first choice for many. It’s a great, powerful piece of software. These open-source projects are highly active, with thousands of code contributions every month and a growing combined code base of about 2.5 million lines of code.
Users need expertise to deploy and run it efficiently and safely, though, and that means needing people in an organization with the skills and time to maintain ELK clusters. If these people leave, companies need to have a backup. If they aren’t willing or able to invest in these resources, they are likely to get into trouble, like this latest ransom attack situation illustrates.
ELK is free software, but keep in mind what Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation and the GNU Project, has to say about free: “’Free software’ is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of ‘free’ as in ‘free speech,’ not as in ‘free beer.’”
Whether a company pays for a log management service or runs ELK, one approach isn’t necessarily better than the other. For some companies, it makes a lot of sense to run an in-house-built log management solution based on ELK, or even one built from scratch. For others, a delivered solution may be best.
Regardless, companies and teams need to carefully evaluate if open source makes business sense and if they are realistically able to properly support the deployment without imposing risks. If these factors aren’t weighed or completed correctly, the number of Elasticsearch ransomware attacks will continue to grow and be a profitable endeavor for hackers.
About the Author / Sven Dummer
Sven Dummer is the senior director of product marketing at Loggly. Previously, Sven worked with Yahoo, Wind River (acquired by Intel), SUSE, and Microsoft in product development and management. At Intel, Sven also helped launch (and named) the collaborative Yocto Project, an open-source initiative that enables users to create custom Linux-based systems for embedded products regardless of the hardware architecture. Connect with him on LinkedIn and Twitter.