New Report Examines Malware's Origins, Motivations

Defending against malicious software means understanding where it comes from, researcher says

Tim Wilson, Editor in Chief, Dark Reading, Contributor

February 16, 2010

6 Min Read

Nearly every day, industry analysts and security researchers warn IT professionals about the skyrocketing proliferation of malware. A simple Web search turns up many reports that dissect the technical nature of malicious software, how it works, and how it affects its victims.

But who develops malware, and who distributes it? Who buys it, and what do they hope to achieve? Ask these questions in a Web search, and you'll find far fewer results.

In a report issued last week, ScanSafe security researcher Mary Landesman offers some thoughts on the genesis and spread of malware -- this time from a business perspective, rather than a technical point of view. While Landesman's report -- part of ScanSafe's "Annual Global Threat Report" -- is far from the first to offer insight on the business of malware, it does offer a snapshot of the current state of the malware business and a clear categorization of the players.

While many outside of the security industry still perceive "hackers" as teenagers or isolated geeks who work alone, Landesman's report encourages security professionals -- and the general public -- to see malware as a cooperative industry that supports specialists, economies, and supply chains. "Malware is every bit as layered as any other industry," she says. "There are mom-and-pop shops. There are big giants. There are suppliers and developers and a global market."

Many business executives " and even some IT pros " are too focused on the group of cybercriminals that can be categorized as "sole proprietors," Landesman says. "These are the ones we hear the most about " the phishers, the carders, the people repackaging scareware to drive users to malicious sites," she observes. "These are the equivalent of the street seller in the drug trade " they're looking to make a quick score, either for their own benefit or feeding up to a kingpin of some sort."

But as with street sellers of drugs, most "sole proprietors" don't make the product that they're dealing with, Landesman explains. "It's pretty unusual these days to see a [cybercriminal] who does everything " someone who writes the software, distributes it, harvests the data, and then uses it to make money. More and more now, those jobs are being done by different people, operating in a true market."

Today's malware is usually created by the "developer" category of individuals -- those who are creative and skilled in writing code, Landesman says. "For many of them, in their minds, they're not doing anything wrong," she says. "They're finding ways around security, developing new tools, and they feel they aren't responsible for what is done with the tools they develop. It's sort of like making guns -- the notion that malware doesn't do crime, it's the people who use it that do the crime."

Developers sometimes make extra cash by selling their exploits, but they seldom get rich doing so, Landesman says. Often, the tools are purchased, refined, and repackaged by a group of individuals who Landesman calls "middlemen" -- those who attempt to bridge the gap between the attacker and the victim.

"Again, the middleman is not usually somebody who developed the malware, but they are sort of the 'public face' of it," Landesman explains. "They're like a manufacturer's representative: They advertise the exploit kits, they sell them, many of them offer tech support, even on a 24/7 basis. They even publish bug reports and offer patches and updates."

The success of the "middleman" sales and distribution model is a key reason why malware is proliferating so quickly across the globe, Landesman postulates. As more and more middlemen get into the business -- selling exploit packages as cheaply as $100 -- they help to speed the availability of the latest malware across the globe, bringing new exploits to bear at a pace that often cannot be matched by traditional security tools, which require constant updates. "The success of the [middleman] business model is being proven by the growth of malware," she says.

Working in a fast-growing, highly competitive market, however, most middlemen are not getting rich, either, Landesman says. "They may make a decent living for the country they live in, but it's not a lot," she states.

There are other players in the malware chain, such as "mules," who help distribute malware or launder stolen money, and botnet operators, who provide the infrastructure for mass malware distribution. But the most mysterious category is the malware buyer -- those who pay to put it out there.

"The sole proprietor, middleman, and developer all have something to gain by publicly advertising their offerings," Landesman writes in the report. "Conversely, there will be no such public displays from the buyer, particularly those criminals engaged in hardcore cyber-espionage, such as the attacks leveraged against Google, Adobe, oil companies, and multiple other firms over the past year."

Malware buyers are sometimes seeking a specific target that may yield high-value intellectual property, Landesman observes. The malware that infected Heartland Payment Systems last year, for example, was written specifically to infect the systems of that particular company. Going forward, it's likely that other attacks will focus on specific targets, whether for financial or political reasons, she says. In fact, some malware authors are now writing "smart" exploits that deliver a different payload depending on the system they are infecting, Landesman states. "If your system is uninteresting, it may drop scareware, but if you're Google, or an oil company, it may behave differently," she explains. "It may continue to adapt until it's isolated specific machines and triggered a targeted attack."

While the buyer may have a specific, big-ticket target in mind, the other players in the malware business -- the sole proprietors, the middlemen, and the developers -- might have different motivations for the roles that they play, Landesman says.

"A lot of people are drawn to it by the community, or by the challenge of cracking in," she explains. "They do one [exploit], and they're successful -- they find it intoxicating and take it to the next level. Some others, such as those who are involved with drugs, are attracted to the hours -- they can work on it for a while, and set it up to work while they're getting high, and then come back to it. And of course, there are those who live in very impoverished areas, who may not have other ways to make an income or who justify it by targeting wealthy targets in the west."

To prepare a defense against this diverse and rapidly growing market, security professionals and tool vendors will need to shift their thinking, Landesman says.

"A lot of us continue to view it as a computer problem that can be solved technologically," she observes. "But it's also a data problem and a people problem. We need to stop thinking of it as a perimeter protection issue or a hardware protection issue. This is not your mother's malware."

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About the Author(s)

Tim Wilson, Editor in Chief, Dark Reading


Tim Wilson is Editor in Chief and co-founder of Dark, UBM Tech's online community for information security professionals. He is responsible for managing the site, assigning and editing content, and writing breaking news stories. Wilson has been recognized as one of the top cyber security journalists in the US in voting among his peers, conducted by the SANS Institute. In 2011 he was named one of the 50 Most Powerful Voices in Security by SYS-CON Media.

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