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Vulnerabilities / Threats

2/26/2019
04:40 PM
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Social Media Platforms Double as Major Malware Distribution Centers

Because many organizations tend to overlook or underestimate the threat, social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, are a huge blind spot in enterprise defenses.

Social media platforms present far more than just a productivity drain for organizations.

New research from Bromium shows that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other high-traffic social media sites have become massive centers for malware distribution and other kinds of criminal activity. Four of the top five websites currently hosting cryptocurrency mining tools are social media sites.

Bromium's study also finds one in five organizations have been infected with malware distributed via a social media platform, and more than 12% already have experienced a data breach as a result. Because many organizations tend to overlook or underestimate the threat, social media sites are a huge blind spot in enterprise defenses, the study found.

"It's certainly something businesses should be taking seriously," says Mike McGuire, author of the Bromium study and a senior lecturer of criminology at the University of Surrey in the UK. "Users are unwittingly introducing risk to the enterprise and creating backdoors into corporate networks in a variety of ways" that endanger customer data and company IP.

For the study, McGuire analyzed data gathered from a variety of sources, including social media platforms and users, social media posts, and several academic, business, and law enforcement sources.

The analysis reveals that social media-related security incidents surged more than three hundredfold in the US between 2015 and 2017. Over 1.3 billion social media users have had their data compromised one way or the other during the past five years, and up to half of all stolen data illicitly traded between 2017 and 2018 stemmed from breaches of social media platforms.

Criminals are using a combination of tactics, including malicious applications, advertisements, plug-ins, and links on social media platforms, to get users to download cryptomining software and other malware in a massive way. Up to 40% of the malware infections on social media sites stem from malicious ads, and 30% come from rogue apps and plug-ins. McGuire's analysis shows that the large user bases of major social media sites and the manner in which many of them share user profiles enable malware to spread rapidly across platforms.

One silver lining is that merely using a social media platform does not increase risk. "The cases we saw did require some action from the user – for instance, clicking a link or a download" in order to enable malware, McGuire says. "So just visiting a site would not automatically mean cryptomining malware would be enabled."

The threat doesn't stop with malware, according to the study. Just like the Dark Web, social media platforms have become a major marketplace for cybercrime tools and services. Four in 10 of the social media sites that McGuire includes in his analysis has some form of service offering malicious hacking services, hackers for hire, and hacking tools. The sites also host services for buying and selling stolen credit card data and other sensitive information, and for recruiting money mules for laundering money and selling drugs.

Significantly, cybercriminals appear to have become adept at taking advantage of trusted features on many of these sites to trick users into following links or clicking on things they should have known to avoid. For instance, cybercriminals have been using fake "confirm that you know" emails to try and redirect LinkedIn users to malicious sites. Similarly, criminals have taken advantage of Instagram's comments feature to post comments that direct users to rogue sites.

McGuire estimates that criminals are generating somewhere around $3.2 billion annually from social media-enabled crime.

A Tough Choice for Enterprises
The worsening situation puts enterprises between a rock and a hard place, says Ian Pratt, co-founder and president at Bromium. "Banning employees from social media platforms altogether isn't the right solution and is completely impractical in the modern age," he says.

For many organizations, social media has become an important tool for sales, marketing, recruiting, and other business functions. "As such, it is important to mitigate the risk of infection from social media by deploying layered defences and reducing the harm that social media-enabled attacks can cause," Pratt says.

One approach is to isolate social media pages in such a manner that even if an individual user clicks on an infected app or other malware, the damage is contained, Pratt notes. User education and awareness about social media risks is key, too, he says.

Social media platforms also have a responsibility, McGuire says. They need to do more to prevent cybercriminals from misusing their platforms to disseminate malware and malicious services, he says.

More also needs to be done to ensure that social media platforms are not profiting from the criminal activity — for instance, from paid malicious ads taken out by criminals to redirect users to rogue sites.

"Social media can be a Trojan horse, providing an effective tool for hackers to create targeted campaigns," McGuire says. "It's important to understand how social media can be used by attackers so that businesses can effectively manage their levels of risk."

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Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year ... View Full Bio

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