Malware is Malware… except when it isn’t

So block anomalous activity first and ask questions later (please).


As IT professionals (and logical human beings) we have been taught to analyze a situation first and then act based on knowledge gained from the analysis. Acting without an understanding of the full picture is considered impulsive and oftentimes, even foolish.

This is not always the best strategy in today’s fast-paced environment of ever-evolving and growing security threats. When working with malware, security professionals need to unlearn the “think twice” philosophy – they need to act first on qualified intelligence and then, if needed, analyze the data in more detail. This is especially true in the temporal world of the internet where web-based malware needs to be treated like harmful parasites that must be terminated immediately upon detection to stop propagation. Frequently, web-based threats initially present as benign code or operations; however, they easily morph into overt threats without your knowledge.

Going against the grain is a good thing

Today, Google reports more than 495,000 monthly searches for the term malware, producing around 76.4 million results. This should come as no surprise considering that there are nearly 1 million new malware threats detected every day.  

This high level of interest in the topic of malware combined with the aggressive growth of the security software market (valued at $75 billion in 2015) indicate that enterprises struggle to analyze and come to terms with the increasingly complex digital threat landscape. As studies consistently report on this lack of understanding about cybercrime and threats, it is high time that enterprises do something about it.

(Re)Defining Malware

First, let’s get back to basics and clarify the definition of malware:

“Any code, program or application that displays abnormal behavior or that has an unwarranted presence on a device, network or digital asset.”

This means any code or behavior not germane to the intended execution of a web-based asset is considered malware. Malware does not need to be complex, overt or malicious right from the time it is detected.

This definition means annoying or seemingly innocuous behavior, such as out-of-browser redirect, excessive cookie use, non-human clicks/actions or toolbar drops qualify. Most of these behaviors may seem benign now, but a close look at both Indicators of Threat (IOC) and Patterns of Attack (POA) typically suggest another story altogether.    

Don’t question the malware, question yourself  

IT professionals who’ve spent thousands of dollars and hours of learning to develop a knowledge base find it difficult to simply act without questioning and possibly over-analyzing ready to utilize data sources.

Working with qualified intelligence sources will make it much easier to change the “endless analysis” paradigm. If you must ask questions, question yourself and not the malware (at least not before blocking it first).

IT professionals need to reflect on the rapidly evolving web-based threat landscape. On a frequent basis, ask yourself:  

  1. Where are the vulnerabilities in my enterprise network?
  2. Are the tools used to secure my organization effective enough to handle increasingly sophisticated web-based attacks?
  3. What kind of threat intel resources are available? What is our experience with each source?
  4. What does my incident response look like? Is it swift and cost-effective?
  5. Where and how can I increase my operational efficiencies around my threat intelligence strategy?

Block first, ask questions later

The idea is simple, shield yourself against web-based breaches by being more proactive about the enterprise security posture. If and when breaches do occur, you should have at least limited the level of damage caused by loss of data, reputation and business continuity.

Before you spend all your time, money and effort on a full payload analysis of every malware alert, oftentimes, trying to verify the impossible, remember to block it first. What’s the worst that can happen? You block something that an employee needs? Trust me, they’ll let you know.


Ransomware and the small/medium-sized enterprise

When the “cost of doing business” is no longer an option.

hand is coming out of Computer screen front

“It’s the cost of doing business.” Over the long holiday season, I heard this phrase several times while socializing with family, friends and business acquaintances. My usually optimistic social group bemoaned the annoying effect ransomware has had (and continues to have) on their day-to-day business.

The topic isn’t a surprise. Around the country, similar professionals at small/medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) echo their sentiments. What surprised me was their passive reaction to the problem. Even the current President Barack Obama and the President-elect Donald Trump recognize the threat of cybercrime to businesses and the public.

It’s not just you, Mr. SME

Ransomware has undoubtedly been on the rise, with some groups such as the FBI claiming 4,000 attacks a day. These high numbers affirm the fact that ransomware is a financially motivated, equal opportunity malware; it wants to lock down any device that has an owner, whether the owner is a teenager, a global business tycoon or a small business owner.

Unfortunately, ransomware can be debilitating for small/medium-sized businesses (SMEs) whose viability hinges on access to customer lists, financial records, product/service details, legal contracts and much more. Most SMEs don’t have the resources or a sophisticated technology infrastructure to adequately secure their business. In fact, almost a third of SME don’t employ an information security professional. And, considering more than 70% of businesses actually pay up, ransomware is the perfect exploit for SMEs.

Clearly, it’s a big problem that needs a big solution, right?

Backups, backups, backups

From hospitals and medical offices to accounting firms and ecommerce shops, ransomware has proven to be a successful criminal endeavor, with many paying more than $10,000 for each incident to regain access to their business data. And, SMEs seem to have learned to accept it as a cost of doing business.

“It’s not a big deal, Mark. We just do more frequent backups.” Yes, this was an overwhelmingly common approach to the problem. It seems my discussion partners spend several hours a week making backup copies of files. When asked about the costs (storage, time resources, duplicate systems, access to backups, energy usage, etc.) the response was a casual shoulder shrug. Really? Frequent backups is your security strategy? At a time when businesses are getting leaner in every way, spending time and resources on backups isn’t a good use of ever-thinning IT budgets or the scarce security talent.

Beyond backups – seal the entryway

Backups are good, but they are just one piece of a more holistic security strategy against ransomware. The biggest challenge is helping my fellow IT professionals understand that ransomware—and any malware for that matter—can penetrate the best of defenses. The key is knowing how it enters: basic everyday Internet usage at work (think about email, websites, apps, out-of-date software/patches, etc.

“We use anti-virus software, blacklist the typical non-business sites, installed ad blockers, and repeatedly train staff about the perils of email links and attachments. What else is there?”

First, anti-virus (AV) and blacklisting isn’t enough as these defenses assume the bad guy is known; his signature is captured and stopped from executing. With thousands of new malware variants entering the digital ecosystem each day it’s nearly impossible for AVs to keep their protection levels up. Blacklisting is good for general business purposes. (I mean, if coworkers need to access porn, gambling or gaming during the work day you’ve got bigger problems!) But this doesn’t mean that all other websites are good, even the Alexa 1,000. Some of the largest web-based attacks occur on legitimate, premium websites.

Second, enterprise ad blocking isn’t all it seems. You may think that all ads are blocked, but this isn’t true. Large advertising networks pay a fee to whitelist their ads in exchange for agreeing to fit a stilted format. Media website owners (Facebook anyone?) are adopting technology to detect ad blockers and then re-insert their ads or content.

“Well, dammit, what should we do?”, you ask.

All is not lost – A new year has dawned

Now’s the time to take stock of your business’s information security plan. Conducting a full-scale audit can be daunting. To kick-off the process, I recommend the following initial steps:

  1. Identify all data sources (employee, vendors, customer). Increasingly, enterprises are asking their partners about security processes as part of their own security governance.
  2. Document how data is collected, used and stored. This includes mapping data input sources, e.g. website forms, emailed contracts, customer portals, payroll, etc.
  3. Estimate costs to collect and store data.
  4. Assign an owner to each data element, e.g., financial information to Finance, marketing data to Sales/Marketing, legal information to Contracts/Finance, etc.
  5. Score data value. On a scale of 1-100 assess the data’s criticality to business, e.g. if it’s lost what is the impact from financial, brand, relationship perspectives.
  6. Consider a Threat Intelligence Platform (TIP) to streamline data management and terminate threats before they penetrate the business.

Once you have this information you can then start to evaluate weaknesses, reinforce existing security processes and align IT budgets accordingly.

Ransomware isn’t as hard to tackle as many SME information security teams think.