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Microsoft: Software Activation-Key Generators Major Malware Conduits

Lure of free software often leads to malware infection, new Security Intelligence Report finds

Blame it on Angry Birds: The main threat in the first half of the year was a software activation key generator used to spread malware mainly to users of Angry Birds Space and Battlefield -- Bad Company. The Win32/Keygen software was detected nearly 5 million times, according to findings in Microsoft's new Security Intelligence Report (SIR) 13.

Keygen isn't technically malware, but is often bundled with malware, so it's classified by Microsoft as potentially unwanted software. Its purpose is to generate keys for software products. More than 76 percent of Windows machines detected with Keygen between January and June of this year also had malware on their machines, according to Microsoft's SIR, which is based on data gathered from more than 600 million Windows machines, 280 million Hotmail accounts, and billions of Web pages scanned by Bing.

"Keygen detections have increased by a factor of 26 since the first half of 2010. The most recent surge is largely due to detections of a keygen for Angry Birds Space and Battlefield: Bad Company," says Tim Rains, director of Trustworthy Computing. "Cybercriminals see this growth as another opportunity to use social engineering as a method to swindle money from their victims."

[ Three-year-old 'dead' Windows worm infection is still spreading -- mainly via weak or stolen passwords, new Microsoft report says. See Microsoft: Conficker Worm Remains 'Ongoing' Threat. ]

The scam works like this: A key-generator utility is bundled with a popular application and then gets distributed via a file-distribution site or torrent client. Among the popular apps it poses as are AutoCAD, Sony Vegas Pro, Adobe Photoshop, and Call of Duty 4 Modern Warfare. Users looking for free or cheap movies and music often are targets.

"They surf the web looking for the file and perhaps also a crack or license key generator (Keygen) so that they don't have to purchase it," the SIR report says. "By disguising malware as popular software, or by bundling malware with popular software, malware distributors are hoping that enthusiastic bargain hunters will download and execute their malicious software and become infected."

Microsoft says that 98 percent of countries covered in the report had Keygen as one of the top 10 unwanted or malicious software families.

Unsavory tools like Keygen prey on user behavior: Users like free things. "Various psychological studies have shown that when there is no victim to face, people are more inclined to steal. This is part of what fuels the prevalence of key generators," says Randy Abrams, research director with NSS Labs.

Trojanized key generators easily trick those users, he says. "No exploits are required: It's pure, simple social engineering, and the marks are far easier than taking candy from babies," Abrams says.

Worldwide, vulnerability disclosures went up 11.3 percent from the second half of last year, and up 4.8 percent from a year ago. Among the top 10 exploit families, Java and HTML exploits accounted for the most such attacks. Microsoft found that HTML and Java exploits were detected six times more than OS exploits, and much of the prominence of those exploits is due to the Blacole exploits, which are used by the BlackHole exploit kit for serving up malware to Web pages.

"A long-standing trend has been the decrease in operating system vulnerabilities. Cybecriminals are going to attack the easy targets with high market penetration," Abrams says. "HTML and JavaScript are ubiquitous, so any opportunity to exploit these vectors will be capitalized on with significant success. Endpoint security products are improving their abilities to detect obfuscated HTML and JavaScript attacks, however, for quite a while this was a significant weakness that made it easier for cybercriminals to exploit these vectors."

Microsoft detected Blacole on 2.8 million machines in the second quarter, down from 3.1 million in the first quarter.

"Microsoft's data shows where the attacks lie: Convince users to install rogue software, and abuse browser vulnerabilities," says Wolfgang Kandek, CTO for Qualys. "The software installation problem can be addressed by tightly managing the process and taking administrator privileges away, which is an uphill battle. Browser vulnerabilities, on the other hand, are entirely avoidable by IT taking over responsibility for the entire browser stack -- browser, Java, Flash, PDF -- and applying patches consistently."

The full SIRv13 report is available here for download.

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Kelly Jackson Higgins is Senior Editor at She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise Magazine, ... View Full Bio

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