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.

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.