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Cybercrime Threats Gaining Complexity

As current attacks become less effective, there's a corresponding increase in more difficult-to-detect combined attacks, finds M86 study.
The good news: Traditional online attacks are becoming less effective. The bad news: Attackers are finding new ways to combine these attacks in unexpected ways, to continue punching malicious code through corporate firewalls. Those findings come from a new study conducted by M86 Security, a vendor of real-time online and e-mail threat protection.

When it comes to online attacks, "traditional methods, such as spambots and dynamic code obfuscation, are still very much in use," said Bradley Anstis, VP of technology strategy for M86 Security, in a statement. But new combinations of these attacks are growing as "cybercriminals continue to try and outsmart even the latest Internet security protection mechanisms." Unfortunately, these combined attacks are also becoming more complex and difficult to detect.

For example, attackers are increasingly splitting malicious code between two languages, such as Adobe ActionScript, which is built into Flash, and the JavaScript components on a web page. Helpfully for attackers, ActionScript already has a built-in interface to JavaScript, meaning that they can easily establish two-way communication between the components.

"What is the advantage of this functionality for the attackers? In order to de-obfuscate and analyze code, the full code is required," according to the report. In other words, security defenses must grab both the ActionScript and JavaScript, then decode how they're working together.

For the report, M86 researchers studied security trends for the first half of 2010. In that timeframe, another unwelcome security development was the return of the Asprox botnet, which both functions as a spambot and automatically targets websites which use Microsoft Active Server Pages (ASP). Over a period of just three days in June 2010, 10,000 ASP sites were infected by Asprox, according to the report. In another twist on combined attacks, "an interesting factor of the attack was that the botnet performed a Google search term used to seek out additional vulnerable ASP sites." These websites were then automatically exploited via a SQL injection attack.

Finally, M86 found that the global volume of spam continues to increase. In addition, about 1% of all spam is malicious, though M86 said that the figure occasionally spikes to 3%.

Truly making a dent in that volume of spam, malicious or otherwise, would require somehow taking down the affiliate programs that make it so lucrative, according to M86. "These programs are set up by dubious online retailers who use botnet operators -- or herders -- to drive sales to their websites via spam campaigns. These herders are then paid a commission on any sales made as a direct result of these campaigns."

Interestingly, two of the top-three spambots that M86 tracks use the same affiliate program, Canadian Pharmacy, which "remains the most popular because it is the most lucrative," according to the report. Not coincidentally, 81% of all spam seen in the first half of 2010 was pharmacy-related, and Canadian Pharmacy accounted for two-thirds of that spam.

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