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Malvertising Could Rival Exploit Kits

Spate of malvertising campaigns gain steam in recent months, including the Kyle and Stan network, which researchers now believe is nine times bigger than initially estimated.

As the rate with which cyber criminals are gaming the ad network ecosystem to disseminate malware via malicious ads keeps snowballing, there may come a time where malvertising becomes top dog in the distribution of exploits.

"From our investigation we conclude that ad networks could be leveraged to aid or even substitute for current exploit kits," wrote researchers from Bromium in a new report released today at VirusBulletin looking at malicious ads, particularly those leveraging Flash. "Loose security policies, high prevalence, and powerful scripting capabilities make it a viable tool for malware distribution."

According to lead author of the report, Rahul Kashyap, chief security architect, Bromium, malvertising is particularly difficult for security ops personnel to deal with on a day-to-day basis due to the way that bad guys use embedded ad networks to serve up malicious content on otherwise reputable sites. Most blocking technology is not equipped to deal with this paradigm.

"It's a big challenge because how do you blacklist YouTube? How do you blacklist CNN? How do you deal with this," Kashyap says. "The attackers are actually buying ads and putting money into the system, they're highly motivated and they're not going to go away empty handed."

Bromium's conclusions are the latest in a growing stream of research pointing to the mounting problem of malvertising, including several additional alarming warnings out this week by Cisco and Invincea.

Cisco followed up on reports earlier this month about the Kyle and Stan malvertising network to report that its researchers had found that the network could be much bigger than they first estimated. Initially thought to be responsible for putting malicious ads on over 70 domains, including large sites like amazon.com, ads.yahoo.com, and youtube.com, Kyle and Stan was found by Cisco to have nine times as much reach online.

"As it turns out, this was just the tip of the iceberg," says Armin Pelkmann, threat researcher for Cisco.

Meanwhile, Invincea reported this week that Trade2win, a website that hosts the largest online forum for day traders, and TheBlaze.com, a conservative site run by Glenn Beck, are both currently serving up malvertising. This is the latest in a long list of groundbreaking work by the advertising industry-focused security company into the methods and techniques used against ad networks and the sites that depend upon them. This is actually the second offense for TheBlaze.com, which in July was found by Invincea to be serving up Kryptik drive-by exploits via malicious ads.

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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User Rank: Apprentice
9/26/2014 | 6:55:37 PM
What can we do?
Can the companies where these ads are showing up do anything about them? Because if they can a widespread banning of the site until the problem is fixed might be a way to spur them into action. If they can't do anything about it, what can a company do on the receiving end excepts ban the sites?
User Rank: Ninja
9/26/2014 | 8:58:28 AM
Thats alarming. I know that for enterprises web security tools have the ability to block ads and from a personal standpoint ad blocker can do the same for a majority of them.

Is there a reason why or if ads can circumvent these safeguards and if so what are ways your can further your security stature against malvertising? Both from an enterprise and personal perspective.
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