Malware is Malware… except when it isn’t

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

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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.

 

Malvertising: Is this the beginning of the end?

TAG Malware Scanning Guidelines

Decoding TAG malware scanning guidelines for tactical use 

Note: View webinar at https://www.themediatrust.com/videos.php 

The advertising industry’s crackdown on malvertising has begun. TAG’s recently-released malware scanning guidelines clearly state that every player in the digital advertising ecosystem has a role in deterring, detecting and removing malware.

TAG Webinar Registration Malware Scanning

However, these guidelines need to be translated into action plans. As with many cross-industry initiatives, the TAG guidelines serve several different groups across the digital ecosystem while also introducing security concepts to advertising/marketing professionals. The use of words such as: interdict, cloaking, checksum, and eval(), may baffle many ad ops professionals just like defining “creative” as a payload may baffle security teams.

The good news is that The Media Trust’s existing malware clients are already 100% compliant with the guidelines. Other ad ops teams at agencies, ad tech providers, and publishers, will need to translate the best practices into tactical actions in order to bring their operations into compliance.

What is clear: Scanning is in your future

Every entity that touches or contributes code to the serving of an ad plays a role in malware deterrence – this much is clear. Agencies, ad tech providers and publishers alike are, therefore, expected to proactively and repeatedly review their ads for malware.

Specifically, the guidelines state that:

  1.    Ads and their associated landing pages must be scanned for malware
  2.    Scanning should be performed before an ad is viewed by the end consumer
  3.    If initial scanning detects malware, then the ad must be rescanned until malware-free

Read between the lines: Reap what you sow

The complexities of the digital ecosystem make it almost impossible to explicitly state what each player in the advertising ecosystem should do. Typically, the amount of scanning required is directly proportional to the risk of serving a malware-infected ad or directing to a malware-infected landing page. While there are some directional tips, the guidelines also present a few abstract recommendations:

  • Scanning frequency

Ad formats, demand types, consumer reach and access to an ad as it traverses from advertiser to publisher, affect the frequency of recommended scanning.

For instance, a publisher with a campaign using hosted, static ads, targeting a small number of impressions does not have as robust a scanning requirement as a publisher running campaigns with rich media served programmatically. And, an ad contaminated by malware needs to be scanned more frequently than one that doesn’t set off alarm bells during the initial scan. And, an ad that changes mid-flight—modifying targeting, increasing number of impressions, introducing rich media—requires additional scanning.

  • Proof of scanning

Claiming an ad is scanned is not sufficient. As a best practice, all parties should document proof of scanning and this proof should contain creative id, tag specifications, date of initial and subsequent scans and scanning results. In addition, each party in the advertising value chain should establish a point of contact for reporting malware and communicate it to their upstream and downstream partners. 

  • Know your partner

A critical factor that informs rescanning cadence is the provider’s confidence in their upstream partner(s). Long-standing relationships with reputable, responsive partner(s) infers a reduced likelihood of malicious activity, as opposed to a newly-formed partnership with a one-man shop based in a foreign country. And, the provider should also track and document if their partner adheres to the scanning guidelines, too.

Look ahead: This is just the beginning

The guidelines clearly set the stage for optimizing ad quality and its resulting effect on the user experience, with an emphasis on security. A 100% malware-free advertising experience can’t be guaranteed, but everyone agrees it can be greatly improved. Future steps will undoubtedly address data privacy, ad behavior and more.

While these guidelines provide the impetus to tackle malvertising, it’s a safe bet that industry leaders will push to make them standard a la TAG Certified Against Fraud and Certified Against Piracy programs. And, in order to standardize, a certification and evaluation or audit process will be needed.  

Stay tuned.

Learn more
The Media Trust hosted three informative webinars presenting specific direction to publishers, ad tech providers and agency/buyers. To view, visit https://www.themediatrust.com/videos.php

Did malvertising kill the video star?

Video Malware Vector

Large-scale video malware attack propagates across thousands of sites

Malware purveyors continue to evolve their craft, creatively using video to launch a large-scale malvertising attack late last week. Video has been an uncommon vector for malware, though its use is on the rise. What’s different is the massive reach of this particular attack and the ability to infect all browsers and devices. Much like The Buggles decried about video changing the consumption of music, this intelligent malware attack used video to orchestrate mayhem affecting 3,000 websites—many on the Alexa 100. Is this the future?

Charting the infection

The Media Trust team detected a surge in the appearance of the ad-based attack late Thursday night and immediately alerted our client base to the anomalous behavior of the malware-serving domain (brtmedia.net). As it unfurled, the team tracked the creative approach to obfuscation. (See image)

First, the domain leveraged the advertising ecosystem to drop a video player-imitating swf file on thousands of websites. The file identified the website domain—to purposefully avoid detection by many large industry players—and then injected malicious javascript into the website’s page. Imitating a bidding script, the “bidder.brtmedia” javascript determined the video tag placement size (i.e., 300×250) and called a legitimate VAST file. As the video played, the browser was injected with a 1×1 tracking iframe which triggered a “fake update” or “Tripbox” popup which deceptively notified the user to update an installed program. (In the example below, the user is instructed to update their Apple Safari browser). Unsuspecting users who clicked on the fake update unwittingly downloaded unwanted malware to their device.

The compromise continued unabated for hours, with The Media Trust alerting clients to attempts to infect their websites. This issue was resolved when brtmedia finally ceased delivery, but only after tainting the digital experience for thousands of consumers.

video-borne malware infection

Process flow for video-borne malware infection

The devil in the artistic details

The use of video as a malware vector is increasing. As demonstrated above, video and other rich media provide avenues for compromising the digital ecosystem, impacting both ads and websites.

The clever design and inclusion of multiple obfuscation attempts allowed this attack to propagate across some of the largest, most heavily-trafficked sites. As The Media Trust clients realized, the best defense against this kind of attack is through continuous monitoring of all ad tags and websites, including mobile and video advertising.

Ad Ops can rest a bit easier with malware resolution strategies

Sharing of malware incident information proving a success

Ad Ops can rest easy

The continuous threat of malware in the advertising ecosystem keeps many advertising operations professionals awake at night. The speed at which ads are bought and served and the number of players involved comes at a steep price—vulnerability to malware. For years, The Media Trust has tackled this vulnerability head on by detecting malware in our clients’ digital ecosystems and providing the critical details that allow the malware to be located and shut down. Impacted clients then communicated these details with the specific partner serving the infected ad. This daisy-chain process involves a series of communications with upstream partners, a process that can take up to 72 hours while the malicious ad continues to circulate.

To minimize the daisy-chain effect, The Media Trust introduced Media Scanner’s Resolution Services, an information sharing service that provides for simultaneous communication of malware alert details among partners. Announced in April, Media Scanner’s Resolution Services has proven to be a resounding success with 20 digital publishers and more than 20 ad tech partners enrolled in just under six months.

Reaping what you sow

Media Scanner’s Resolution Services is a SaaS-based service that provides real-time information sharing with upstream and downstream business partners about malicious ads detected in a client’s advertising operation. As part of the Media Scanner product family, this solution is available as a complimentary add-on to existing clients with significant ad tag volume.

Designed for publishers, ad networks, ad exchanges, demand platforms and paid-content engines, the service’s continuous, real-time information sharing compresses cycle times for malware detection, notification and remediation from several days to mere seconds, drastically reducing infected tags’ ability to harm site visitors and the site’s brand reputation. By compressing this cycle time, companies can speed incident remediation, protect revenue by ensuring ad tags stay active and strengthen business relationships.

Real-time, actionable malvertising intelligence delivers a host of benefits to the entire digital ecosystem.

  • Revenue continuity: By sharing malware incident data with the upstream party serving the malware, bad ads are removed more quickly thereby allowing ad tags to remain active and generating revenue.
  • Improved incident response: By allowing Media Scanner to send an alert to clients and their mutually-impacted business partners, everyone realizes a shorter cycle time to resolve the issue across the entire advertising value chain.
  • Streamlined incident handling: Once an anomalous ad tag is detected and confirmed, The Media Trust automatically notifies all impacted partners throughout the advertising ecosystem, which ensures the ad can be removed and then permanently blocked.
  • Enhanced security posture: 24/7 access to information on malicious ad tags improves not only the health of a publisher’s advertising operation, but also strengthens their organization’s security posture, bridging the gap across ad ops, sales, marketing, site operations and security teams.
  • Strengthened relationships among partners: Real-time communication and cooperation generates a positive network externality that improves the overall health of the entire online and mobile advertising ecosystems and severely limits malware’s success rate.

In the past few months, this solution simultaneously communicated hundreds of malware incidents to impacted publishers and their authorized ad tech partners, greatly accelerating the termination of malware, removing hours—sometimes days—from the cycle. This increased speed of malware incident resolution exponentially improves the level of protection across the greater online and mobile advertising ecosystem. But more can be done.

An eye to the future

Ad tech providers want to get into the game and initiate this program with their buying partners, attesting to the true value of Media Scanner’s Resolution Services. The Media Trust is now working with ad tech clients to share incidents with authorized agency media buyers and trading desks—a critical step to tackling malware as it enters the advertising environment. Malvertising will never be eradicated, but, limiting its ability to rapidly propagate throughout the digital ecosystem helps everyone rest a bit easier.

Malvertising: The story behind the story

Security firms make mountains out of molehills

Malware alert! Malware alert! It seems every time you turn around there’s a news story or report exposing the presence of malware in the online and mobile advertising ecosystem. The vector, exploit kit or function may change, but the story is the same—some industry expert uncovers new ad-based malware or malvertising and the media sounds the alarm. Preying on cyber-related anxieties, these stories typically present an exaggerated synopsis of the situation and focus on a single instance, spotlight one industry provider, and don’t offer actionable information for the reader. As a result, these provocative articles often make mountains out of molehills and end up missing the real story: Why does the industry expert believe this particular malware incident is news?

 

Malware Alert

Keeping it real

Malware serves as an umbrella term for any intrusive software program with malicious or hostile intent, and covers a variety of forms including viruses, Trojans, and worms. Diagnosing malware provides critical insight into identifying current system vulnerabilities and mitigating future compromises and the classic approach used by traditional security researchers requires the collection of malware samples and days of analysis by experts.

Ad-related malware behaves differently from other forms of malware and requires a distinct approach. Anyone that truly understands the advertising ecosystem recognizes that ad-based malware delivers through a publisher website for a very brief time period, typically for an hour or less, before it terminates and moves on in a mutated form to infect hundreds of other sites. In addition, the infected ad must first render on a browser before it deploys—automatically or through site visitor action—and there’s no guarantee that it will impact every browser or deploy every time rendered.

For these reasons, it’s misleading to report on one malvertising incident captured on one site. In addition, it’s irresponsible to call out a publisher for something that cannot be replicated, and these reports cause unnecessary panic among advertisers, ad networks, exchanges and publishers who spend countless resources addressing a malware event that no longer exists.

Diagnosing the motivation

Publishing incident-specific ad-based malware reports provides very little useful information and does very little to eliminate malvertising from the advertising ecosystem. Yet, this reporting persists for two primary reasons—extortion or publicity.

Known as “White Hat Ransomware”, disreputable security analysts mine websites for malvertising incidents and present the findings to the site/publisher hosting the bad ad. They offer to sell the vector information so the publisher can shut down the infection, with the understanding that the malware incident could be publicly released should the publisher choose to not pay. Usually perpetrated by obscure individuals or groups, this type of extortion proves very lucrative as many publishers purchase the information in order to avoid the time-consuming fallout of negative publicity.

The more reputable network, endpoint and intelligence security firms try to extend their traditional malware analysis skill set to malvertising and digital content. However, it doesn’t work. Effective analyses requires continuous, real-time monitoring of the advertising environment from the browser or consumer point of view which requires scanning active ad placements using simulated users set up with the exact geographic and behavioral profiles that the ad is targeting—something that can’t be accurately replicated after the fact. In addition, the ever-shifting nature of malvertising means that capturing a screen shot of an incident found on a single site is misguided—if it exists on one site, it exists on hundreds or thousands of other publisher sites and ad networks—and the post-incident analysis offers no valuable benefit to the consumers already exposed. By publishing malvertising-related reports about something that happened days, weeks or months ago, these firms unleash chaos in the ad tech industry as the publisher and its partners attempt to locate a vector that no longer exists.

Protecting the advertising ecosystem

Malware in the ad tech industry is not news. Admittedly, the ad tech industry plays a central role in the propagation of malware in the online and mobile advertising ecosystem, however, this fact is not ignored by responsible industry players who fiercely combat it every day. From establishing working groups to creating “good ad” certifications to performing extensive due diligence on buyer clients, the industry works hard to tackle the presence of malware. In fact, many of largest, most-visited websites actively scan their advertisements to identify and remove anomalous vectors before they morph and become overt malware drops. Unfortunately, a few ad-based malware vectors get through, but that number is minuscule in comparison to the billions of ads successfully rendered every day.

In effect, malvertising isn’t a new trend. In fact, it emerged shortly after the birth of banner ads 20+ years ago. What’s new is that traditional security companies are finally realizing that digital properties—websites and mobile apps—can be compromised. If you want to know how malvertising really works, ask The Media Trust. We’ve been detecting malware in the online and mobile environment for close to a decade, not the past few months.