Hiding Behind the Shoulders of Giants: Abusing Crawlers for Indirect Web Attacks


It could be argued that without search engines, the web would have never grown to the size that it has today. To achieve maximum coverage and provide relevant results, search engines employ large armies of autonomous crawlers that continuously scour the web, following links, indexing content, and collecting features that are then used to calculate the ranking of each page. In this paper, we describe how autonomous crawlers can be abused by attackers to exploit vulnerabilities on thirdparty websites while hiding the true origin of the attacks. Moreover, we show how certain vulnerabilities on websites that are currently deemed unimportant, can be abused in a way that would allow an attacker to arbitrarily boost the rankings of malicious websites in the search results of popular search engines. Motivated by the potentials of these vulnerabilities, we propose a series of preventive and defensive countermeasures that website owners and search engines can adopt to minimize, or altogether eliminate, the effects of crawler-abusing attacks.

Proceedings of the 15th Annual International Conference on Privacy, Security and Trust (PST)
Calgary, Canada