Coin miner malware has replaced ransomware as security's biggest threat, with samples spiking 629% in the first quarter of 2018, researchers at McAfee Labs report.
To put that number into context, consider this: Nearly 400,000 samples of coin miner malware were detected in Q4 2017, and 2.9 million known samples were found in Q1 2018. The drastic growth suggests adversaries are learning how they can maximize rewards with minimal effort.
Cryptomining's growth pattern is hypersensitive to the fluctuating value of digital currency, explains Raj Samani, chief scientist at McAfee. If you look at the growth of Bitcoin, for example, a spike in Bitcoin malware will follow about a week after its value rises.
"As the price of coins goes up, we are compounded by the availability of cryptomining malware as just as prolific … it's a huge jump," Samani emphasizes. Attackers' "infect and collect" strategy has driven the rise of cryptojacking, in which they hijack machines to mine cryptocurrency. It's more straightforward and less risky than established crimes like ransomware and data theft.
Profits generated through coin mining are not limited to Bitcoin. GandCrab ransomware, which infected 50,000 machines in the first three weeks of Q1 and replaced Locky as this quarter's ransomware leader, transacts ransom payments using dash currency instead of Bitcoin.
When people think cryptocurrency, they think of Bitcoin, and with good reason: It remains the first and most popular form of digital money. However, Bitcoin mining has become harder for attackers because it's no longer as profitable to mine Bitcoin with the standard equipment in servers and desktops. Now you need graphic cards or ASIC chips to reap the same benefits.
As Cryptomining Goes Up, Other Threats Go Down
The rampant rise of cryptominers demands a follow-up question: Which types of cyberattacks are going down? Ransomware is on the decline as cryptojacking increases, Samani points out. McAfee researchers also saw attackers move away from PowerShell exploits, which fell 77%, and turn toward LNK malware, which rose 59% during Q1 2018.
"It's probably quite a telling quarter because there have been a lot of changes," Samani notes.
Adversaries no longer need to prompt victims for money; they can simply take it from them. Kaspersky Lab research further supports the fall of ransomware in favor of coin miners. A new report found the total number of people who encountered ransomware fell nearly 30%, from almost 2.6 million in 2016-2017 to 1.8 million in 2017-2018.
In comparison, the number of people who faced coin miners rose nearly 44.5%, from about 1.9 million in 2016-2017 to 2.7 million in 2017-2018. Of the overall threats detected, the share of miners grew from almost 3% in 2016-2017 to over 4% in 2017-2018.
New malware samples were down overall this quarter, McAfee researchers found. In Q1 2018, McAfee Labs recorded an average of five new malware samples per second – a decrease from eight new samples per second recorded in the previous quarter.
"I guess it's good news … but I wouldn't necessarily go out and buy the champagne just yet," Samani explains."We're still talking about 44 million new [malware] samples, which was a 31% decrease from Q4, which was one of the highest amounts of malware samples we've ever had."
Attackers Are Stepping Up Their Game. Are You?
McAfee's Q1 2018 Quarterly Threat Report puts the spotlight on three major campaigns: the Gold Dragon implant targeting the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, Lazarus Group's Bitcoin-stealing phishing campaign, and Operation GhostSecret, which deployed the Bankshot implant.
"The underlying thing I'm seeing is they are getting better, they are adapting their techniques, and they are improving," Samani says of the attacks' commonalities.
He uses the Olympics attack as an example. The Gold Dragon implant is part of a fileless attack targeting organizations involved with the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. While many fileless malware threats use PowerShell to launch an attack in memory and create a backdoor, Gold Dragon was specifically built to target the Olympics and persist on infected systems. It was also crafted to check on antimalware processes and evade detection.
The actors behind the Olympics attack used a steganography tool to embed malicious code within seemingly benign content. While this is not a new technique, Samani points out the actors continued to edit the campaign as it was going on, demonstrating a high level of capability as they tested and rolled out new software to continue their attack.
Samani asked: How many security teams can adjust an application, perform QA, and have it launched and fully live in eight days? Adversaries are ahead of the game. They're reading the threat data researchers generate, and they're going to continue to adapt, target more systems, and evade defenses. He urges security pros to catch up with threat intel.
"As organizations, the best defense you can have is to be informed, get access to information, and use that information as proactively as you can," he says.
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