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.


You know nothing, CISO

Shadow IT can stab you in the back

CISO work overload

Disclaimer: This blog post contains strong references to Game of Thrones. Memes courtesy of ImgFlip. 

You, CISO, are a brave warrior who fights unknown threats from all corners of the digital world. You, CISO, try with all your might to manage an increasingly complex digital ecosystem of malware, exploit kits, Trojans, unwanted toolbars, annoying redirects and more. You, CISO, wrangle a shortage of security professionals and an overload of security solutions. You, CISO, have lost sleep over protecting your enterprise network and endpoints. You, CISO, are aware of the lurking threat of shadow IT, but you CISO, know nothing until you understand that your own corporate website is one of the biggest contributors of shadow IT.

Beware of your Corporate Website

Did you know it’s likely you are only monitoring around 20–25% of the code executing on your website? The remaining 75-80% is provided by third-parties who operate outside the IT infrastructure. You may think website application firewall (WAF) and the various other types of web app security tools like Dynamic Application Security (DAST), Static Application Security (SAST), and Runtime Application Self-Protection (RASP) adequately protect your website. News flash: these applications only monitor owned and operated code. In fact, they can’t even properly see third-party code as it’s triggered by user profiles. There is a dearth of security solutions that can emulate a true end user experience to detect threats.

Think about it, if there are so many traditional website security solutions available, why do websites still get compromised? This third-party code presents a multitude of opportunities for malware to enter your website and attack your website visitors–customers and employees alike–with the end goal to ultimately compromise endpoints and the enterprise network.

Shadow IT in the corporate website

Avoid the Shame!

Practical CISOs will keep these hard facts in mind:

1.  There is no true king

You could argue that marketing is the rightful king to the Iron Throne of your corporate website since it is responsible for the UX, messaging, branding and so forth. But the enterprise website requires so much more. Every department has a stake: IT, legal, ad ops (if you have an advertising-supported website), security and finance, to name a few. Each department’s differing objectives may lead to adoption of unsanctioned programs, plugins and widgets to meet their needs. As a result, the website’s third-party code operates outside the purview of IT and security. Further complicating matters, there is no one department or person to be accountable when the website is compromised. This makes it hard for security teams to detect a compromise via third-party code and easier for malware to evade traditional security tools. In the absence of ownership, the CISO is blamed.

2.  Malware is getting more evil

Bad actors continue to hone their malware delivery techniques. They use malicious code to fingerprint or steal information to develop a device profile which can be used to evade detection by security research systems and networks. Furthermore, web-based malware can also remain benign in a sandbox environment or be dormant until triggered to become overt at a later date.

3. You’re afraid of everyone’s website…but your own

You know the perils of the internet and have adopted various strategies to protect your network from the evils of world wide web. From black and white listing to firewall monitoring and ad blocking, these defenses help guard against intrusion. But what about your website?

As previously stated, everyday web-enablement programs such as a video platform or content recommendation engine operate outside the IT infrastructure. The more dynamic and function rich your website is, the more you are at risk of a breach from third-party vendor code. Below is a not so exhaustive list of apps and programs contributing third-party code:

  • RSS Feed
  • News Feed
  • Third Party Partner Widgets
  • Third Party Content MS Integrations
  • Third Party Digital Asset MS Integrations
  • Third Party ECommerce Platforms
  • Image Submission Sites
  • Ad Tags
  • Video Hosting Platform
  • Crowd Sharing Functionality
  • File Sharing Functionality
  • Customer Authentication Platforms
  • Third-Party Software Development (SD) Kits
  • Social Media Connectors
  • Marketing Software
  • Visitor Tracking Software

Stick ‘em with the pointy end

Yes, we know, what lies beyond the realm of your security team’s watchful eye is truly scary. But now that you know that your website’s third-party vendor code is a major contributor of shadow IT, you can more effectively address website security within your overall IT governance framework.