CSO Blog: Web-based Malware Not up to Code

Article first published to CSO Blog via IDG Contributor network on November 20, 2017

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Enterprises not actively managing this third-party digital risk face significant harm in the current regulatory environment around data compliance.

Recent website attacks shattered the misconception that only disreputable or typically blacklisted websites such as gambling, or porn suffered from poor security, but this isn’t true. Throughout 2017, the media reported security incidents occurring on numerous well-known, highly-trafficked websites like Equifax, State of Ohio, hundreds of U.S. public school systems and numerous embassies and government entities around Washington, DC

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5 Reasons to Focus on Malware Delivery Mechanisms

Authored by Chris Olson, CEO and Co-Founder, The Media Trust.

Originally published by Security Magazine

Malware Delivery Mechanism

Defending against today’s pervasive web-based malware is not as straightforward and simple as it used to be. According to Symantec’s Monthly Threat report, the number of web attacks almost doubled in April of this year alone, up from 584,000 per day to 1,038,000 per day. Bad actors – seasoned cyber criminals, hacktivists, insiders, script kiddies and more – target premium, frequently whitelisted websites with varied motives such as financial, espionage and sabotage, to name a few. These web-based attacks are more targeted, complex and hard to detect, and when an employee visits an infected website, the damage to an enterprise network can be debilitating. Traditional security defenses like blacklists, whitelists, generic threat intelligence, AVs, web filters and firewalls fail to offer comprehensive protection. An alternative security approach is necessary, especially when working with malware data.

Managing malware data needs a paradigm shift

Currently, Information Security Professionals (InfoSec) and IT teams are trained to focus on the context of the web-based malware: What the payload might be; Is it replicating or morphing; Where’s the payload analysis; Who is targeting the website and why; along with a host of other variables. These are definitely valid questions, but should only be asked after action is taken to block it – not in order to take action.

Using existing analysis tactics to assess the ever-increasing volume of malware information is a Sisyphean task in the digital environment. The time it takes to agree that something is malicious is in direct proportion to your network’s exposure to web-based malware.

It’s time for InfoSec and IT teams to take a new, proactive approach to shielding customers and Internet real estate from web-based malware. It starts with adopting this simpler definition of malware: “Any code, program or application that behaves abnormally or that has an unwarranted presence on a device, network or digital asset.”

In essence, any code or behavior not germane to the intended execution of a web-based asset is considered malware. While this definition covers the obvious overt offenders it also includes seemingly non-malicious items including toolbars, redirects, bot drops, etc. Adopting a simple, yet broad definition enables you to focus on shielding your enterprise network from a wide range of active and potential malware attacks.

Understanding the digital environment is critical to breaking the analysis paralysis cycle and replacing it with a “block and tackle” approach. To do so, IT professionals need to focus on what matters: identifying the delivery mechanism in order to stop malware from penetrating the enterprise network. Here are five reasons why you should focus on the delivery mechanism:

Reason 1: Temporal malware is still dangerous

Web-based malware or malware delivered via the consumer internet (websites a typical person visits in the course of their daily activities, such as news, weather, travel, social and ecommerce sites) is fleeting and temporal. Research from The Media Trust reveals that in many scenarios web-based malware is active for as short as a few hours, giving little time for a deep dive analysis before blocking offending domains. If you spend time on analysis, you are a target for compromise because if the malware doesn’t infect your organization at the outset, it will most likely morph into another malicious domain or code to retarget the website with something more debilitating such as ransomware or keystroke logging.

Reason 2: Non-overt malware will turn on you eventually

Malware does not necessarily need to be complex or overtly malicious right from the start or upon initial detection. Annoying or seemingly innocuous behavior such as out-of-browser redirects, excessive cookie use, non-human clicks/actions or toolbar drops qualify as malware. While these behaviors may initially appear benign, they will frequently reveal their true intention upon a closer look at both Indicators of Threat (IOC) and Patterns of Attack (POA).

It happens quite often and reports suggest that every year researchers track 500+ malware evasion tactics used to bypass detection. For instance, a recent attack on several small and medium-tier ecommerce websites demonstrates malicious domains executing over varying time intervals and, in at least one instance, move from website to website across various geographies in order to avoid detection. In other instances, malware is specifically coded to look benign and only execute when certain conditions are met, e.g., geography, device, user profile or combinations of conditions. Taking weeks or months, this delayed execution is an effective technique to evade detection by most scanners. An auto-refresh ad on the browser or an alert to update software could be a red flag.

Reason 3: What’s in a name? 

While names are understandably necessary to tag malware, there is a tendency to initially fixate on labels rather than block the malware itself. For professionals in the frontlines of trying to stop web-based malware from infecting the enterprise network, focusing on the name can increase the dwell time and do more harm than good. Instead compromised domains will give teams better insight and allow them to block the malware from penetrating networks.

Reason 4: Past malware doesn’t predict future attacks

Just because malware is validated with a name or belongs to a recognized family; it does not always mean that information to defend against future attacks is necessarily reliable. The polymorphic nature of web-based malware allows it to propagate via different domains in various shapes and forms – embed malicious code on a web page through a particular CMS platform, execute an out-of-browser redirect, or present a fake system update alert. Not only is the delivery channel constantly changing, but also the actual intent and payload may change as well. Relying on past research is not a foolproof defense when it comes to ever-changing malware propagating in the digital ecosystem, which is a complex, mostly opaque environment.

Reason 5: Death by analysis

Extensive analysis of web-based malware before blocking it could have severe repercussions – either by way of a corrupted endpoint or a larger network breach. Once web-based malware reach endpoints, it is already past the security perimeter which means remediation efforts are necessary. According to reports, the average cost for an enterprise to clean up a web-based attack is estimated to be $96,000 and more.  Think of how many resources – people, time, money – could be saved if malware was immediately blocked upon detection.

By focusing on the delivery mechanism, security professionals can take a proactive stance to harden website defenses against web-based malware and also significantly reduce the time to action when it comes to securing endpoints and the enterprise networks. Real-time response is required or it provides the perfect window of opportunity for an attack to be successful.

Getting serious about malvertising with TAG

Authored by Alex Calic, Chief Revenue Officer, The Media Trust

3 steps to anti-malware certification

cmyk TAG Certified Against Malware

Malware is a serious problem in the digital advertising ecosystem. Not only is it a contributing factor to ad blocking adoption, but also a significant driver of ad fraud. The World Federation of Advertisers estimates that the total cost of ad fraud could exceed $50B by 2025. Clearly, something must be done.

Various groups have attempted to address this malware problem with little success, but one group is taking decisive action. The Trustworthy and Accountability Group (TAG)—supported by the IAB—recently launched a malware certification program. As an inaugural certification recipient, The Media Trust is fully behind this initiative—just ask for program details.

The certification program is open to any entity that touches creative as it moves through the digital advertising ecosystem, from buyer to intermediary to seller. Even malware scanners like The Media Trust have the option to participate and commit to industry efforts for creating a healthier advertising supply chain.

Benefits: Reap what you sow

TAG’s “Certified Against Malware” seal is awarded to enterprises that can demonstrate adherence to rigorous anti-malware standards, especially those delineated in TAG’s Best Practices for Scanning Creative for Malware.

The program yields a host of benefits for publishers and their upstream partners. Specifically, participating companies can:

  • Improve their enterprise security posture: Adoption of continuous, 24/7, client-side scanning of digital advertising campaigns detects malware before it propagates to consumer devices.
  • Speed incident response: By allowing The Media Trust to send simultaneous alerts to you and your business partners, you reduce the time needed to resolve the issue across your entire advertising value chain.
  • Satisfy upstream partner requirements: Demonstrate compliance with advertiser and/or buyer directed policies for security.
  • Protect your brand value: Receive a “Certified Against Malware” seal from TAG to signal your enterprise’s efforts to identify and remediate malware in the digital ecosystem, a key element in many value propositions
  • Prove digital asset governance: Discovery and validation of all parties executing in your digital ecosystem supports enterprise-wide governance and risk frameworks.

Requirements: Steps to anti-malware certification

Anti-malware certification program participants promise to adhere to malware scanning best practices, make best efforts to identify and terminate malicious activity, and submit to a TAG-directed audit.

You, too, can join industry efforts by following these steps:

  1. Complete TAG registration: If not already a TAG-registered company, fill out the registration form, signal interest in malware certification (fees may apply), and designate both a TAG Compliance Officer and a primary malware point of contact. Indicate anticipated anti-malware certification path:
  • Self certify: Enterprise submits forms and documentation directly to TAG
  • Independent validation: Accredited audit firm or digital media auditor submits forms and documentation to TAG on the enterprise’s behalf
  1. Evaluate digital advertising ecosystem: To determine a reasonable scanning cadence, companies need to understand existing inventory flowing through the environment and the involvement of all upstream partners. Review existing inventory and assess typical volume by in-house, direct and programmatic; and, also consider the volume percentage by display, mobile, video, header bidding, etc.

Upstream partners should be identified and points of contact for security violations documented. Appraise each partner according to their history of addressing malware incidents, industry reputation and general relationship experience. Especially if a direct contract is not involved, discuss respective malware scanning responsibilities.

  1. Scan inventory: Implement malware scanning according to TAG’s Best Practices for Scanning Malware and document the entire processes. As a Certified Against Malware scanner, The Media Trust provides documentation on the scanning protocol for your environment including resolution procedure for malware incidents (Red Flag event).

NOTE: Watch this quick overview of TAG’s recommended scanning cadence.

Terminate malware: What are you waiting for?

The future of the digital ecosystem rests on everyone’s shoulder—advertiser, agency, ad tech and publisher. Let’s make it a better place. Verify your inventory is malware-free. The Media Trust can show you how—Just ask.

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.