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command-and-control server (C&C server)

Contributor(s): Matthew Haughn
This definition is part of our Essential Guide: Recovering from ransomware: Defend your data with best practices

A command and control server (C&C server) is a computer that issues directives to digital devices that have been infected with rootkits or other types of malware, such as ransomware. C&C servers can be used to create powerful networks of infected devices capable of carrying out distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, stealing data, deleting data or encrypting data in order to carry out an extortion scheme. In the past, a C&C server was often under an attacker's physical control and could remain active for several years. Today, C&C servers generally have a short shelf life; they often reside in legitimate cloud services and use automated domain generation algorithms (DGAs) to make it more difficult for law enforcement and white hat malware hunters to locate them. 

A malicious network under a C&C server's control is called a botnet and the network nodes that belong to the botnet are sometimes referred to as zombies. In a traditional botnet, the bots are infected with a Trojan horse and use Internet Relay Chat (IRC) to communicate with a central C&C server. These botnets were often used to distribute spam or malware and gather misappropriated information, such as credit card numbers. 

Popular botnet topologies include:

  • Star topology - the bots are organized around a central server.
  • Multi-server topology - there are multiple C&C servers for redundancy.
  • Hierarchical topology - multiple C&C servers are organized into tiered groups.
  • Random topology - coopted computers communicate as a peer-to-peer botnet (P2P botnet).

Since IRC communication was typically used to command botnets, it is often guarded against. This has motivated the drive for more covert ways for C&C servers to issue commands. Alternative channels used for botnet command include JPG images, Microsoft Word files and posts from LinkedIn or Twitter dummy accounts.

Learn more about botnet command and control in this video:

This was last updated in January 2017

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