Dark Reading is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Vulnerabilities / Threats

11:39 PM
Connect Directly

Are Businesses Knowingly Infecting Their Web Visitors?

Even after being informed of infrastructure serving up malware, some organizations still don't act to clean up their online messes

As cybercriminals have shifted their techniques to get the most efficiency out of their attack campaigns, some of their favorite methods involve two-pronged attacks to first compromise legitimate Web servers and then use them to, in turn, infect unsuspecting visitors to seemingly innocuous sites. While much of this illicit malicious activity occurs behind the backs of these organizations, there are increasing number of businesses that upon being informed that their IPs are engaging in bad behavior stall indefinitely or wait months to remediate the situation.

Whether it is willful denial, a lack of preparation to respond quickly to news of this kind of infection, or simply a lack of resources to be able to properly clean up their online messes, the net effect is that businesses are complicit in spreading malware online, says Srinivas Kumar, CTO of TaaSERA. As he puts it, it is the height of hypocrisy considering how much proselytizing that so many organizations have done in the past to users about how users endanger end-to-end trust in online transactions by using infected devices. Now it is the businesses themselves that are infecting the unknowing users.

[Is malware getting around BIOS security measures? See BIOS Bummer: New Malware Can Bypass BIOS Security.]

"If you want the user to use a noncompromised device to access your Web portal, by this same logic the user has the right to expect that the server he's connecting to is not compromised," Kumar says.

His firm reports that in its scan of malicious activity online, it runs into many situations where it finds businesses serving up malicious content through compromised Web facing infrastructure. In most instances, businesses respond quickly to notifications from TaaSERA of their transgressions. But then there are the heel-draggers who say they'll "handle it internally," only for TaaSERA to find in its checkups weeks or even months later that nothing has been done.

"In one case it has been over two-and-a-half months now, and nothing has changed. In one instance they started with a couple malicious site keys, and it's grown now," says David Nevin, Kumar's colleague at TaaSERA. "They're in the unresponsive category even though its getting worse."

Many security consultants, penetration testers, and service providers echo the frustrations experienced by TaaSera. For example, Mark Simmons, master technician for JnM PC Experts, tells the story of two different city governments he encountered that were unknowingly serving up malicious content for six months.

"The only way they realized to what extent [they were infected] was when their email was hacked and they sent out spam," he says. "They both knew of it and hosted these servers for two to three months more."

Knowingly allowing users to become infected through an organization's inaction is irresponsible, says Ken Pickering, development manager, security intelligence at CORE Security.

"They're infecting the people they should be most concerned about having a positive perception of their brand: people going to the website," he says. "That being said, many security teams are already overworked, and a malware attack can be pretty entrenched, so they're likely faced with the choice of disabling the website or leaving the malware up while they figure out how to deal with it."

On top of that, he says, if the organization doesn't ever identify the vulnerability that caused the infection, there's a good chance they'll be reinfected in another place they won't find. At the root of the issue is that organizations aren't keeping up with the vulnerabilities, let alone the infections that leverage them, in a timely fashion. According to WhiteHat security, organizations resolved just 61 percent of their serious Web vulnerabilities, and it took an average of 193 days to fix them. This tracks with Vinny Troia's experience as a consultant for Night Lion Security.

He relates an experience recently of doing a vulnerability assessment as a favor for a family friend on a firm that sold healthcare products online and that would be under the eye of both PCI and HIPAA regulators. He found well more than 400 serious vulnerabilities.

"I presented the information and they basically said that they didn't have the resources to fix it and they would hope for the best. That's what it came down to," says Troia, who says often there's a similar resource crunch when these organizations do find out about servers they own behaving badly. "It can sometimes take months to resolve."

However, some security professionals warn that critics shouldn't be so hasty to judge organizations for their seemingly slow response times to these kind of infections. Outsiders may not recognize the nuances of the internal issues.

"Information security is never as simple as it seems to outsiders -- trade-offs between resources and priorities are a daily and sometime hourly problem. For example, the work required to remove malicious content could be so significant that a business chooses to delay removing it while they attend to higher priority issues," says Andrew Storms, director of security operations for Tripwire. "There could be another layer of complications connected with fixing the root of the problem so this problem doesn't recur."

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Add Your Comment" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.

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


Recommended Reading:

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
Ericka Chickowski
Ericka Chickowski,
User Rank: Moderator
6/5/2013 | 1:46:54 AM
re: Are Businesses Knowingly Infecting Their Web Visitors?
Good question, PacoRM. If you get into the liability question and start to untie that legal knot you start to pull on another thread entirely: what responsibility do the hosting companies have in this whole mess? I saved that discussion for another future article, as it opens up a whole other kettle of fish.

-Ericka Chickowski, Contributing Writer, Dark Reading
User Rank: Apprentice
6/4/2013 | 9:27:19 PM
re: Are Businesses Knowingly Infecting Their Web Visitors?
I wonder if these businesses would be liable for damages due to knowingly spread a virus that resulted in ID theft or loss of a device and software and IP (pictures). If this was the case wold these businesses be quicker to clean up their acts and servers?
COVID-19: Latest Security News & Commentary
Dark Reading Staff 7/9/2020
Russian Cyber Gang 'Cosmic Lynx' Focuses on Email Fraud
Kelly Sheridan, Staff Editor, Dark Reading,  7/7/2020
Why Cybersecurity's Silence Matters to Black Lives
Tiffany Ricks, CEO, HacWare,  7/8/2020
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Current Issue
Special Report: Computing's New Normal, a Dark Reading Perspective
This special report examines how IT security organizations have adapted to the "new normal" of computing and what the long-term effects will be. Read it and get a unique set of perspectives on issues ranging from new threats & vulnerabilities as a result of remote working to how enterprise security strategy will be affected long term.
Flash Poll
The Threat from the Internetand What Your Organization Can Do About It
The Threat from the Internetand What Your Organization Can Do About It
This report describes some of the latest attacks and threats emanating from the Internet, as well as advice and tips on how your organization can mitigate those threats before they affect your business. Download it today!
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
PUBLISHED: 2020-07-10
Django Two-Factor Authentication before 1.12, stores the user's password in clear text in the user session (base64-encoded). The password is stored in the session when the user submits their username and password, and is removed once they complete authentication by entering a two-factor authenticati...
PUBLISHED: 2020-07-10
In Bareos Director less than or equal to 16.2.10, 17.2.9, 18.2.8, and 19.2.7, a heap overflow allows a malicious client to corrupt the director's memory via oversized digest strings sent during initialization of a verify job. Disabling verify jobs mitigates the problem. This issue is also patched in...
PUBLISHED: 2020-07-10
Bareos before version 19.2.8 and earlier allows a malicious client to communicate with the director without knowledge of the shared secret if the director allows client initiated connection and connects to the client itself. The malicious client can replay the Bareos director's cram-md5 challenge to...
PUBLISHED: 2020-07-10
osquery before version 4.4.0 enables a priviledge escalation vulnerability. If a Window system is configured with a PATH that contains a user-writable directory then a local user may write a zlib1.dll DLL, which osquery will attempt to load. Since osquery runs with elevated privileges this enables l...
PUBLISHED: 2020-07-10
An exploitable SQL injection vulnerability exists in the Admin Reports functionality of Glacies IceHRM v26.6.0.OS (Commit bb274de1751ffb9d09482fd2538f9950a94c510a) . A specially crafted HTTP request can cause SQL injection. An attacker can make an authenticated HTTP request to trigger this vulnerabi...