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PHPShell is a PHP script which allows shell commands to be executed on a web server. Typically the PHPShell script is protected by a password so only the server administrator can access it. We deployed honeypots that advertise an unrestricted PHPShell application, which attackers often tried to exploit.
The majority of attacks on PHPShell honeypots that we observed were preceded by a discovery request which contained a referrer from a search engine. The search-engine queries are revealed to us by the default browser behavior, which sent the query to us as the Referer header. This technique is good for the attacker, because most of the time-consuming work of finding potentially vulnerable systems has been done by the search engine, eliminating the need for the attacker search across many different hosts themselves. Some copies of PERL/Shellbot were captured which had routines to search Google for certain scripts while other searches seem to have been performed manually. See Appendix C for example code from a captured copy of such a bot.
One disadvantage to attackers of using search engines is the new single point of failure they create. For instance, the Santy worm used Google to search for new targets, however Google started blocking Santy's queries which stopped the further spread of the worm. It should be noted that some bots have been observed which use Yahoo search and not just Google.