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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

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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?
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
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