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

Five Habits Of Highly Successful Malware

It's no secret that malware is dodging defenses; security experts pinpoint successful strategies, including the use of real-time communications, frequent disguises, and laying low

The Internet frequently represents evolution on steroids, and the malware ecosystem is no different.

Malware has quickly evolved to take advantage of weaknesses in digital defenses. In 2012, more than 40 million Windows systems were infected with malware, according to data collected by Microsoft in its annual Security Intelligence Report. And Google researchers found that, of four common antivirus scanners, the best only detected 25 percent of real-world malware, and combined, the scanners only caught 40 percent of malicious downloads.

Malware writers have honed their technique to do well against current defenses, says Srinavas Kumar, chief technology officer of TaaSERA, a security-service provider.

"The malware writers know how to get around antivirus software," he says. "They can detect that antivirus is running or that IPS/IDS is watching and make it very difficult to blacklist them."

To defend against the latest attacks, enterprise security professionals need to know why today's malware is so successful. Culling data from a number of recent studies and discussions with security experts identifies five strategies for success.

1. Start with the old and sick.
Like a real-world pathogen, malware does best when the potential victim's immune system is compromised. Unpatched systems with out-of-date -- or no -- antivirus software have about a 1-in-80 chance of being infected in any given month, according to Microsoft's latest Security Intelligence Report. The same report found that the average fully-patched Windows systems running up-to-date antivirus had only a 1-in-500 chance of being infected.

"Although there is no such thing as a perfect security product, (our) findings ... clearly show that using real-time security software from a reputable vendor and keeping it up to date are two of the most important steps individuals and organizations can take to reduce the risk they face from malware and potentially unwanted software," Microsoft stated in the report.

Approximately 23 percent of all Windows systems are out-of-date, the company found.

2. Infect over real-time communications.
Infection vectors that give defenders the least time to react tend to produce the most compromises, according to a recent study of malware traffic by Palo Alto Networks. E-mail-borne malware was typically identified and a signature developed within 5 days, while attacks that used a more real-time medium, such as Web downloads, helped the malware escape detection for up to 20 days.

"When you move to things that are coming through a browser or live Internet connection, it reduces the amount of time the security software gets to analyze it," says Wade Williams, senior security analyst with Palo Alto. "With e-mail, the file sits there for a minute or two, so AV can give it the once over."

Palo Alto used data from the networks of more than 1,000 companies to analyze suspicious activity that had managed to slip pass firewalls and e-mail security gateways. Over three months, more than 68,000 files were determined to be malware samples, of which only 61 percent were detected by six popular antivirus programs, the company stated in its report

3. Wear a different face every time.
Polymorphism, where a malicious program is modified to escape detection by antivirus programs, used to be an advanced technique. Now, Trojans, bot software, and exploit kits are frequently "packed" or otherwise disguised on a regular basis to foil defenses.

"Attacks now try to never repeat the same sequence of activities twice," says TaaSERA's Kumar. "They will basically add such randomness that it won't be recognized by antivirus."

4. Lay low for a while.
Malware authors are increasingly adding a sleep feature to their programs that prevents the software from executing unless a certain amount of time has passed, or some user-activated event has occurred, such as a mouse click. The delay typically foils defenders' efforts to sandbox untrusted executables and test them for malicious behavior.

"There is actually a very strong effort by malware writers to evade a lot of defenses -- not just antivirus anymore -- but bypassing a lot of traditional sandboxing methods," says Rob Rachwald, senior director of market research FireEye.

In a recent analysis, FireEye found malware that waits for a user to execute a specific mouse command before running. "Given that automated analysis systems do not employ mouse commands, these programs lie dormant and undetected when inspected in sandboxes," the company states in the analysis.

[Malware writers go low-tech in their latest attempt to escape detection, waiting for human input -- a mouse click -- before running their code. See Automated Malware Analysis Under Attack.]

5. Hiding is half the battle.
Malware not only waits for the defenses to grow complacent, but actively hides itself in ways to avoid detection on systems running antivirus. In fact, more than half the code in a typical malicious program is code to bypass defenses, says Palo Alto's Williams.

"We saw more malware behavior that was dedicated to hiding from on-box security, than we saw hacking and data-theft behavior," Williams says. "A really large part of the malware's brain is focused on how to stay away from the security that Windows has, and how to stay away from the prying eyes of suspicious users."

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. Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET News.com, Dark Reading, MIT's Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline ... View Full Bio

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
COVID-19: Latest Security News & Commentary
Dark Reading Staff 10/23/2020
7 Tips for Choosing Security Metrics That Matter
Ericka Chickowski, Contributing Writer,  10/19/2020
Russian Military Officers Unmasked, Indicted for High-Profile Cyberattack Campaigns
Kelly Jackson Higgins, Executive Editor at Dark Reading,  10/19/2020
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Video
Cartoon
Current Issue
Special Report: Computing's New Normal
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
How IT Security Organizations are Attacking the Cybersecurity Problem
How IT Security Organizations are Attacking the Cybersecurity Problem
The COVID-19 pandemic turned the world -- and enterprise computing -- on end. Here's a look at how cybersecurity teams are retrenching their defense strategies, rebuilding their teams, and selecting new technologies to stop the oncoming rise of online attacks.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2020-24847
PUBLISHED: 2020-10-23
A Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF) vulnerability is identified in FruityWifi through 2.4. Due to a lack of CSRF protection in page_config_adv.php, an unauthenticated attacker can lure the victim to visit his website by social engineering or another attack vector. Due to this issue, an unauthenticat...
CVE-2020-24848
PUBLISHED: 2020-10-23
FruityWifi through 2.4 has an unsafe Sudo configuration [(ALL : ALL) NOPASSWD: ALL]. This allows an attacker to perform a system-level (root) local privilege escalation, allowing an attacker to gain complete persistent access to the local system.
CVE-2020-5990
PUBLISHED: 2020-10-23
NVIDIA GeForce Experience, all versions prior to 3.20.5.70, contains a vulnerability in the ShadowPlay component which may lead to local privilege escalation, code execution, denial of service or information disclosure.
CVE-2020-25483
PUBLISHED: 2020-10-23
An arbitrary command execution vulnerability exists in the fopen() function of file writes of UCMS v1.4.8, where an attacker can gain access to the server.
CVE-2020-5977
PUBLISHED: 2020-10-23
NVIDIA GeForce Experience, all versions prior to 3.20.5.70, contains a vulnerability in NVIDIA Web Helper NodeJS Web Server in which an uncontrolled search path is used to load a node module, which may lead to code execution, denial of service, escalation of privileges, and information disclosure.