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Malware: The Next Generation

Zero-day and rapidly morphing malware is proliferating across the Web. Is your enterprise ready to stop it?

If January is anything to go by, then 2013 should be another doozy of a year for malware-plagued businesses. The year started off with the exploitation of a previously unknown Java vulnerability -- a spot-on example of why malware attackers are so successful these days.

The assault put millions of Java users at risk, as in many recent malware attacks, by taking advantage of flaws in a popular client-side application. In this case, it was Java's browser plug-in. But attackers often target other plug-ins, such as Flash, and document applications like Word and Adobe Reader. The January Java attack used a zero-day exploit, in which previously unknown vulnerabilities are targeted. Zero-day exploits are effective because victims wouldn't have patched to block them or spotted them via antivirus signatures, the digital fingerprints of known malware variants used to blacklist malware.

The Java attack let attackers gain control of vulnerable endpoints, potentially allowing them to launch attacks into any connected networks or simply to add infected devices to botnets that could be used to launch other attacks. Like so many malware attacks, this one was delivered using automated crimeware kits that let less skilled criminals infect websites with malicious code that automatically downloads from a website onto a visitor's machine (see "How Crimeware Kits Work").

Criminals can buy malware development services and software-as-a-service like the January Java exploit from a mature black market. For a few thousand dollars, they can get crimeware kits that let them launch automated attacks that run without any human intervention. And they're launching thousands of these sorts of attacks on enterprise infrastructures every day.

It's a crush of threats that most businesses can't stop with old regimes of firewalls, antivirus tools and occasional patching. Not only are the attacks coordinated using automated crimeware kits, but the malware itself has advanced to the point that it's able to evade signature-based detection regimes. And once an endpoint is owned by an attacker, it becomes a toehold into the network for further attacks on other resources, rendering the firewall irrelevant.

If IT departments are to protect their assets, their data and their customers, they must learn about how malware is evolving -- and how to keep up with the threats.

The redirect Threat

Several years ago, it was probably OK to focus more on basic threats, rather than the advanced ones, says Will Gragido, senior manager of the RSA FirstWatch Advanced Research Intelligence team at RSA NetWitness, the security intelligence and forensics division of RSA, and an 18-year veteran of the information security research community. The availability of attack tools is a big reason IT pros need to reassess the threats. >>

Getting Around Today's Defenses
Malware writers have gotten wise to the security methods companies and consumers are using --namely firewalls and antivirus tools. They've found ways to hide their malicious programs and operate quietly, avoiding detection. Once they get a toehold in a network, attackers quietly use infected machines in botnets, steal data from victims and drop more malware on the machines they attack.

Attackers have gotten good enough at these stealth attacks that at times can be on a network for months or even years without being detected. Last year, The Wall Street Journal reported that Nortel was compromised for 10 years without detecting it.

One simple way malware hides is by encrypting the payload on the user's machine or encrypting traffic to botnet servers, sometimes using custom encryption software designed by the criminal. Encryption can be combined with packer programs that change the appearance of the malware's binary code through compression algorithms similar to how a zip file works. Not only do packer programs reduce the size and footprint of malware on the machine, but the compression changes the lines of code in the application, making it easier for the malware to slip through the defenses of signature-based anti-malware scanners that detect malware based on how the executable code looks.

A lot of antivirus technologies have difficulty detecting packed malware because it changes the way the malware architecture is presented within the package. The packing schemes often are designed so that they'll only be "unpacked" and infect a user's machine if specific system state variables are met that trigger the malware's release. The malware might only run when a specific vulnerable application is opened by the user, effectively keeping it under wraps until then.

Encryption and packing technology aren't the only way malware developers stymie antivirus technology. They also develop polymorphic and metamorphic malware code that floods the Internet with millions of strains of malware each year in order to defeat the signature-based antivirus systems.

"You go to a website that serves you the malware, and typically about every 30 to 60 seconds the file -- the actual malware on that site -- is constantly shifting and changing its code to evade AV detection," says Derek Manky, senior security strategist and threat researcher at Fortinet Technologies, a network security and unified threat management firm. The constantly shifting code overloads signature-based systems. It's difficult to develop signatures for every single new variant that crops up, and as each signature is added to an antivirus program, that adds to the resources required to run it. Fortinet sees about 150,000 new malware samples a day, mostly due to polymorphism. "They're not all new viruses, but they're new forms of the virus," Manky says.

Polymorphism will start showing up in mobile malware, Manky says. Mobile malware is particularly scary given growing use of bring-your-own-device policies at companies. And then there's the threat of cross-platform malware.

"They're going to start consolidating malware so it's just one virus, one piece of malware," he says. "It doesn't care if it's running on your mobile device or on your PC. It's going to be much more integrated that way."

Cross-platform malware could take the form of cross-platform botnets and worms. For example an infected mobile handset comes onto a company network via Bluetooth, USB or other method and infects internal devices, using existing network connections to spread, Manky says.

chart: How attackers Get In
(click image for larger view )

Ericka Chickowski specializes in coverage of information technology and business innovation. She has focused on information security for the better part of a decade and regularly writes about the security industry as a contributor to Dark Reading.  View Full Bio

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