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7 February 2021

Cryptocurrency Exchanges and Denial-of-Service Attacks - mitigation strategies for legitimate businesses in the new wild west

by Dan Pilch

DDoS attacks hurt legitimate businesses and assailants know them to be an effective tool to extort. Leveraging cloud technologies and enterprise vendor solutions you can quickly and effectively stop these types of attacks.

This document describes a sophisticated DDoS attack and how we managed to:

  1. Quickly mitigate the attack and get the system back online.
  2. Establish a project to rebuild the platform with a focus on security and infrastructure redundancy.

The learnings from this event helped the organisation to build a more robust platform that was more secure, fault-tolerant and able to scale.

Background

A huge spike in traffic was noticed in business hours which overwhelmed the service and lasted about 30 minutes. Once the traffic abated and the service was able to once again resume normal function, the assailant started a live chat with the customer support team via their support channel and explained they had just caused the outage and would attack again unless the business paid 20BTC (Bitcoin) within 2 hours (at time of attack 1BTC ~$17,900USD).

After consulting with C-level management, a war room was established to decide next steps. We instructed the support team to not engage with the assailant and to not respond to their messages.

I performed some preliminary investigation into the traffic received, types of user-agents and number of connections per IP address etc. Given my experience with web scraping I could see the traffic wasn’t coming from basic HTTP libraries/tools like python requests or curl etc. but instead from web browsers (either hijacked or programmatically controlled with tools like selenium). This was a reasonably sophisticated attack that attempted to load different pages, login/logout of the web application, load WordPress resources and execute plug-ins to overwhelm server resources. It was a targeted attack and effective against the current application stack. The traffic most likely came from a for hire bot-net tuned to the target system.

I presented my findings to the team and came up with a solution to quickly alleviate further attack attempts. We chose to engage CloudFlare and discuss advanced enterprise options with their engineers because their free tier solutions do not mitigate sophisticated browser-based DDoS attacks. Once CloudFlare had been engaged and the application DNS switched over, we could breathe a collective sigh of relief that successive attacks should not be effective.

Once the initial attack had ceased, we held a post-mortem with relevant stakeholders to further understand how and why this attack could happen and what we could do to prevent this scenario happening again in future.

Key points from the post-mortem:

v1 architecture

This document does not explore the application stack, nor the software optimisations that were made and focuses purely on infrastructure.

v2 architecture

When rebuilding the infrastructure we tried to align to current AWS best practices.

Key takeaways from rebuild project

Positives

Negatives

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