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" Cisco acquired IronPort Systems in June, 2007. Now a part of the Cisco product family, IronPort email and web security appliances protect organizations of all sizes
against spam, viruses, malware
and other Internet threats "
Source : IronPort
2008 Internet Security Trends: A Report on Emerging Attack Platforms for Spam, Viruses, and Malware
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2007 marks a turning point. Amateur hour is over. Just when
malware design seemed to have reached a plateau, new attack
techniques have burst forth, some so complex - and obviously
not the work of novices - they could have only been designed
by means of sophisticated research and development. But, these
advancements are not happenstance; they are actually a product
of the security industry's own success.
For a time, security controls designed to manage spam, viruses,
and malware were working. Loud, high-impact attacks abated.
But, as a result of this success, the threats they protected against
were forced to change. In 2007, many of these threats underwent
significant adaptation. Malware went stealth, and the
These changes were illustrated by the discovery of self-defending
bot networks, and malware designed as a reusable attack
platform. New terminology referring to these adaptations
also appeared, including terms like: "fast-flux," "decentralized
command and control" and "rotating exploit packs." Attackers
created back-end malware management systems to maintain
infection statistics and monitor exploit effectiveness - proving
that Unified Threat Management (UTM) is apparently a twoway
This report is designed to help highlight the key security trends
of today and suggest ways to defend against the sophisticated
new generation of Internet threats certain to arise in the future.
The overall trends in spam and malware can
be characterized by a larger number of more
targeted, stealthy and sophisticated attacks.
Specific observations include:
- Spam volume increased 100 percent, to
more than 120 billion spam messages daily.
That's about 20 spam messages per day for
every person on the planet.
- Spam has become more dangerous. Past
spam attacks were primarily selling some
type of product. In 2007, more than 83
percent of spam contained a URL. In accordance
with a trend towards the blending
of different malware techniques, URL-based
viruses increased 256 percent.
- The "Self Defending Bot Network" was
introduced. The Storm Trojan is perhaps
one of the most sophisticated botnets ever
observed. The quality and technical sophistication
reflect that these threats are being
developed by professional engineers.
- Viruses no longer make headlines, because
virus writers have evolved from the
previous mass distribution attacks, viruses
where much more polymorphic and typically
associated with the proliferation of
very sophisticated botnets such as Feebs
2007 Trends: Testing New Techniques
The cyclical holiday spam surge pushed 2006 volumes to
record highs and, by the end of the year, many companies
were seeing spam messages making up as much as 90
percent of their inbound mail flow.
As image spam defenses got better and this technique lost
its effectiveness, spam volumes throttled back somewhat -
presumably because attackers saw the drop in results
from their spam campaigns, and focused their resources
on finding a new way to get their message through.
A Proliferation of Attachments
When image spam first appeared in 2005 it was the first
time spammers tried using message attachments to get
their pitch across. Usually consisting of a GIF or JPEG file,
and often touting low-priced stocks to buy or a toll-free
number to call for ordering drugs, these non-text attachments
easily slipped by anti-spam engines that relied on
keywords and text classification to sort out good content
2007 has seen a proliferation of different attachment
types used in spam. Spammers are using these different
attachments in order to try and get past email security
gateways that are unable to look into complicated file
types like PowerPoint and Zip files. Where in 2005 and
2006 there were only a couple of different attachment
types seen overall, in 2007 there have been outbreaks of
spam campaigns using at least twenty different attachment
SPAM ATTACHMENT TYPES BY YEAR
Testing the Waters: Excel and MP3 Spam
Spammers use different attachment types for one
reason: to get their messages through spam filters. But
the message delivery must still be easy for end-users
to read, and so spammers experiment to find what is
the best approach.
These graphs track the spike and quick decline of two
of the most unique attachment-based spam attacks
of 2007. In August there was a dramatic growth in
the use of Excel files in spam messages, and then an
equally quick decline over a period of six days. In
October, there was a spike of spam using an MP3
attachment that was just as large, but it only lasted
three days. At the peak of these outbreaks however,
both of these spam types represented double-digit
percentages of worldwide spam traffic, showing that
the attackers are willing to put enormous resources
into trying to find their next way to sneak into your
inbox. The Excel outbreak totaled more than one
billion spam messages sent worldwide!
These attachment types slipped through all but the
most advanced email security systems. Since the spam
content was encapsulated in a hard-to-parse Excel
format or in an audio file that can only be listened to,
traditional content-based scanning engines failed to
protect their users - just as they had with image spam
the year before. However, advanced spam defenses
were able to stop these outbreaks.
By looking at factors not related to the message
content such as the reputation of the IP sending the message, the structure created by automatic spam engines, and any
URLs the message tries to get users to click on, third generation spam engines can detect and block many kinds of
attachment spam, even if the text of the attachment is unreadable.
These messages did get through in large numbers; large enough to be noticed by the press.
Ultimately these campaigns were unsuccessful though, because users have learned not to click on strange attachment
types, and spammers moved on to trying new techniques
PDF: The new GIF
In 2007 there was one new attachment type that was extremely effective however. PDF-based attachment spam first
appeared in June of this year. Like GIF-based spam, PDFs were touting low-priced stocks that the spammers were trying
to manipulate the price on in order to make money in a "pump and dump" scheme. Unlike the GIF-based attacks however,
these PDF messages looked extremely professional, in an attempt to gain people's trust that this was a worthwhile
The PDF attachments had a high success
rate for spammers, measured in the
same way that many legitimate marketing
campaigns would be: by the number
of users that click-through to buy. For a
three-month period PDF spam actually
increased to levels above traditional image-
based spam, some days accounting for
tens of billions of individual messages.
From Pictures to Links
For the three months before October,
spam volume overall began to increase
sharply. This is actually not surprising as
there is a cyclical increase in spam every year just before the holiday season. It is surprising however that that the percent
of spam messages that contain an attachment (image or otherwise) began to fall dramatically in the same period.
In the most recent measurements, attachment-based spam accounts for less than ten percent over overall spam volume,
while the total number of spam messages sent worldwide has doubled to more than 120 billion per day.
The large number of text-only messages being sent today contain a different payload - one that, in many ways, is much
more dangerous than graphics files imploring you to invest in cheap stocks. The predominate form of spam today is
nothing more than a few simple words and a link, usually to a temporary webpage whose only purpose is to infect a
computer with a malware Trojan.
Spam has become much more dangerous,
because instead of just trying to sell
useless products or services, it is now
trying to infect computers with malicious
software. These types of Trojan horse
programs used to be sent in executable
or Microsoft Office files as attachments
to email, but attackers are now sending a
seemingly benign spam message through
and tricking recipients into reaching back
out to them so they can infect computers
through a weakness in Web browsers.
Today, approximately 83 percent of spam contains a
URL. This has increased greatly from 2005 and 2006
when a majority of spam contained only the image
that conveyed the call to action ("buy this stock" or
"call this phone number").
Now, coordinated and self-propagating botnets
such as the Storm platform will send multi-phase
attacks that use short spam messages point a user's
Web browser right back at other systems in the
Storm cloud for the sole purpose of infecting their
machine with the Storm Trojan and expanding the
Keeping the Vigil
Spam is at an all-time high. Spammers have reacted to the increased defenses that have been deployed over the past 24
months by simply cranking up the sheer number of messages they send. Since individual spam messages are nearly free
to send after the campaign has been created, spammers have realized that as spam engines reach 99 percent effectiveness,
they must send an order of magnitude more traffic to have the same number of messages end up in people's
inboxes. The effectiveness of spam prevention systems is more critical than ever.
It is critical that spam defenses are able to adapt to new tricks in spam as well. Attachment spam is changing so quickly
that merely being able to detect image-specific spam is not enough. The source of the message and the history of the
URL it tries to draw you to is critical. Spam engines must look beyond a content of a message in order to accurately
gauge its intent, reputation of the source and the target is key.
Companies must secure both email and Web traffic in order to fully defend against this new breed of blended threats.
Attackers have realized that they no longer need to get their entire Trojan payload through in one message. Today's
attacks come in multiple phases, starting off with the most innocuous message possible, only to trick the user into
going out and actually infecting themselves.
2007 has been a year of trial and refinement for spammers. While the first half of the year did not bring a remarkable
increase in the number of spam messages sent, spammers showed incredible persistence in testing and refining their
attacks. Now that they have found significant weaknesses in the way that many spam engines handle URL-only messages,
there will be an explosion on the order of the three-fold image spam increase seen in 2006. In fact, the past few
months have already seen considerable uptick in worldwide spam volume. This trend is expected to continue through
the holiday season, making the total amount of spam sent in 2007 larger than possibly all email sent in total since the
medium was invented.
While 2007 saw a new and virulent type of blended threat
emerge with a preponderance of "link spam" that pointed to
an attacker website, purely meant to infect a user's computer,
traditional email-born viruses were still very prevalent and in
fact showed a similar amount of experimentation and refinement
throughout the year.
Virus outbreaks in 2005 and 2006 were dominated by variants
of the Bagle and Mytob Trojans. These malicious payloads were
delivered in executable files, Zip archives and other binary attachments
- attempting to exploit flaws in popular mail clients
in order to install their botnet payload onto a computer. The
purpose of these botnets were to create specific-use attack platforms
meant for sending even more spam, disguising phishing
sites used to steal personal information, or executing distributed
denial of service attacks (DDoS) against large corporate websites.
Shockingly, Bagle and Mytob have all but disappeared in 2007,
being replaced by new and more devious botnets that try to
spread through many more channels than just email. Storm,
Feebs and Clagger variants top the list of this year's most
frequent virus outbreaks.
THE FEEBS MASS MAILING WORM
"Feebs" is the research name for a selfpropagating
email worm that gives attackers
remote access to infected computers for the
purposes of stealing personal information.
The Feebs worm is particularly dangerous
because it watches a system for outgoing
SMTP connections and will transparently
inject an infected Zip file into the system's
own messages - increasing the likelihood
of them being opened by the recipient
because they are coming from a trusted
Once it is present on an infected computer,
the worm will listen for incoming connections,
accept commands to retrieve files
from the local computer, upload new virus
templates to propagate and retrieve new
executable programs to run.
Like the experimentation with attachment spam in 2007, email viruses have seen a large amount of change and refinement,
sometimes resulting in new variants of a virus being released in the wild even before traditional signature-based
virus scanners have published rules to catch the first variants.
Take for example the Feebs virus, a particularly nasty threat which many researchers believe to be building a network as
large and powerful as the oft-mentioned Storm virus, but doing so quietly in order to not attract attention to its growth.
During one week in 2007, the IronPort? Threat Operations Center detected six distinct outbreaks of different Feebs
variants, each expanding exponentially for several hours before the first virus signatures were published. There was even
a day when two completely different strains of Feebs were released at exactly the same time, with one of them taking
nearly a full day for inoculations to be developed, twice as long as its sibling.
Zero-day virus protection is an essential layer of protection to guard against these rapidly changing attacks.
FEEBS OUTBREAK TIMELINE
Tremendous Growth in URL Outbreaks
While attachment outbreaks like the above Feebs variants still constitute the lion's share of zero-day virus threats,
2007 saw a significant increase in the number of outbreaks that were spread by URLs instead of through a traditional
Up 253 percent 2006, URL-classified outbreaks represented a disturbing trend in the evolution of multi-phase attacks
that try multiple ways to deliver seemingly innocuous messages such as link-only email, but that can result in a significant
security compromise when that URL points to a malware-infected Web server that is designed to compromise and
enslave a passing computer.
The "Storm" Network:
Introducing Social Malware
In 2007, the "Storm" class of malware introduced new, and combined existing, technologies to create highly
sophisticated social malware that borrows attributes from the social networks of Web 2.0. Storm did this by combining
disparate techniques into a larger system that is difficult to track, fast-moving and dynamic in both source
and size. As a blended threat, it uses both email and Web to conduct a two-stage attack.
Storm introduced new types of spam attacks carrying out large-scale
PDF, XLS attacks and the smaller MP3 outbreak.
Over the course of 2007, the Storm Trojan grew from nonexistent to what
some researchers estimate from one to ten million infected systems. First
detected on January 17, 2007, Storm has reportedly grown to sizes never
before seen and raised claims that the collective computing power has
surpassed even the largest supercomputers. The significant variation in
Storm size estimates may indicate inaccurate counting techniques or
gross over-estimation of power.
STORM-CLASS MALWARE: KEY CHARACTERISTICS
- Self-Propagating - Storm sends massive amounts of spam to spread.
Users are directed to multiple changing HTTP URLs, which serve
Storm malware. If infected, the system then becomes part of the
- Peer-to-Peer - Where previous botnets were controlled from centralized
locations through a hierarchical management structure, Storm
nodes communicate through a unique peer-to-peer communication
protocol. This makes it difficult to track the total size.
- Coordinated - Storm will send spam campaigns that
point to webpages hosted by other Storm computers,
showing amazing sophistication in the way the network
creates its attacks.
- Reusable - Storm can be used for many kinds of attacks:
spam, phishing, DDoS, it has even been known to
compromise IM networks and post blog spam, making
it a threat to many different protocols
- Self-Defending - Storm watches for signs of reverse
engineering or analysis. It repeatedly launched massive
denial of services attacks against researchers and
A STORM BY ANY OTHER NAME
Storm has been called:
- Storm Trojan
- Storm Botnet
- Storm Worm
- Storm Spam Engine
- Storm Distributed Denial of
Service (DDoS) network.
The many names are an
indication of the number of
features Storm provides and
the fact it is a new class of
malware - the reusable attack
Storm has expanded the malware vocabulary
by combing new or existing techniques into a
- Fast-flux: designed to thwart tracking and
- P2P botnet: Allows systems to communicate
and coordinate attack
- Decentralized Command and Control:
Prevents direct attack on the controlling
systems, disguises controller network.
- Self-protection: Launching (possibly) automated
attacks on researchers probing the
USERS ARE THE TARGET
Storm requires user intervention and assistance to spread
and relies on a simple attack technique - social engineering
of the victim. To obtain new victims, Storm sends out
enormous amounts of email.
Storm coordinates the email and Web attacks into a two-stage system. This represents an interesting synchronization
between the Storm bots sending spam and the other bots serving malicious webpages.
To make Storm even more virulent, the designer included "drive-by" browser exploits - a class of exploits that
can infect a vulnerable, un-patched computer simply by means of viewing the webpage - no download of any
executable file required.
PEER-TO-PEER AND SELF-DEFENDING
Once compromised, Storm-infected systems connect into a Peer-to-Peer (P2P) network to maintain redundancy
and de-centralize communication. Prior to Storm, botnets relied on a centralized command and control structure.
They often used IRC channels, awaiting commands from the operator. However, this older design presented
a weakness; blocking access to, or shutting down the central IRC channel would effectively "cut off the
head" of the botnet, rendering it useless. Storm learned from these weaknesses and moved to a decentralized
command and control structure.
To maintain longevity and prevent reverse engineering, Storm contains self-defense features; launching (possibly
automated) Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks if examined too closely. During the initial outbreak,
Storm repeatedly attacked researchers who, while investigating the botnet, accidentally triggered a retaliatory
attack. This DDoS attack capability has also been used against multiple anti-spam and computer security
RECYCLE, REUSE AND COORDINATE
When a new system joins the ranks of the Storm network, it can be directed to carry are different types
- Sending Storm recruiting spam to grow the Storm network
- Serving malicious webpages
- Attacking Instant Messaging clients
- Providing fast-flux and DNS resolution
- Posting blog spam on websites
Storm bots can be repurposed as-needed to cycle these attacks. The entire network can be synchronized and
coordinated to ensure the spam relates to the Web-based landing pages.
The open nature of Storm allows the operator to redirect the computing resources and create "campaigns" by
updating the infected systems with new instructions.
There are two primary types of attacks the Storm systems conduct:
- Spam advertising
- PDF spam outbreaks
- XLS spam outbreaks
- MP3 spam outbreaks
- Text spam for Pharma and stock "pump-and-dump" scams
- Recruiting of new Storm systems
The spam-sending side of this attack sends email to millions different address. The spam messages are simple
and direct. The recruiting side is responsible for adding new systems to the Storm network and allows Storm to
refresh itself and grow. It uses infected systems to host specific landing pages, directly related to the content
contained in the spam.
In the fall of 2007, Storm began a series of recruiting campaigns that progressively increased in sophistication.
STORM RECRUITING ATTACKS
This timeline shows recent Storm campaigns and the effective lifespan of each. These examples show how
Storm recruits new systems into the Storm network. Each of these webpages is loaded with a drive-by exploit
and downloadable executable. Storm recruiting attack webpages are synchronized with the distribution of
malicious emails. If the attack is successful, the infected computer will become part of the larger Storm network.
As Storm progresses, the sophistication of each page increases.
ROTATING THE ATTACK
The progression in sophistication and design is clear. Each new Storm campaign looks more professional and
refined than the last. Furthermore, all systems are updated and synchronized to ensure coordination during
the attack. The spam and landing pages are always related to the same content and the whole system is cycled
The different landing pages show that Storm is marketing itself to a victim demographic. Each of these campaigns
target different segments or even age groups during the attack. The NFL campaign is obviously directed
toward football fans (and was timed to coincide with the NFL season opening), while the Free Games and
Psycho Kitty campaigns were probably more successful among younger users. The length of the campaign may
also indicate how successful it is; the more successful campaigns running longer while those not getting a good
attach and infection rate being swapped out more quickly.
REUSABLE ATTACK PLATFORM
Previous malware was designed kamikaze-style. Once launched, it would run until out of fuel and crash -
ultimately melting back into the Internet. Storm, however, is not single-use malware. It is designed as an adaptable,
extensible and reusable platform. This adaptation has allowed Storm to last (and grow) throughout 2007.
Storm's architecture means it will be measured by its longevity rather than overall destructive power or noisy
headline grabbing infection techniques.
Looking ahead, the malware-as-platform design that Storm has so successfully demonstrated will no doubt be
copied, improved and refined in the coming years.
For many years, virus and Trojan infections spread predominately through email. As the threat grew, most organizations
deployed multiple layers of generic virus defense: multi-vendor best-of-breed scanning engines running on clients,
groupware and gateways; zero-day virus outbreak protection; and restrictions on malicious attachment types flowing
into an organization.
The infection landscape is now changing. In 2007 we saw a
significant growth in the number of virus outbreaks that started
as text-only email message that simply contained a link to an
attackers' webpage. Once a user clicked on that link, malware
payloads would be delivered through known Web browser
exploits while the user saw some seemingly innocuous advertising
or banal humor.
Compromising Users Where They Feel "Safe"
Even more threatening is the compromise of legitimate sites by
attackers that piggyback on the user's trust of a known domain
to deliver malware payloads while the user thinks they are on
a perfectly safe site. First generation URL filtering techniques
do not provide adequate protection from this type of threat -
companies should rely on Web reputation systems to detect
and block embedded threats.
While most spam URLs point to Web servers with extremely
low reputations that can be blocked by advanced multi-protocol
reputation systems, the overwhelming majority of sites visited
by users over the course of a day have comparably good reputation
ISN'T MALWARE JUST A VIRUS?
"Malware" is a term used to describe
specific threats that are downloaded from
webpages without a user's knowledge.
While similar to viruses (in that malware
can infect a users computer and cause
system damage or loss of sensitive information),
malware is a unique threat - which,
at times, cannot be detected by traditional
So, while many users think they are protected
from malware because they are running
one or two anti-virus engines on their
desktop computer, the truth is that often
they are not. Many companies are beginning
to deploy special malware scanning engines
at several points in their network to help
protect sensitive corporate data.
While spam can be a way to drive users to
specific infection traps, attackers also have an
incentive to spread their malware by compromising
high-traffic legitimate websites
and attempting to infect as many systems as
possible that are merely "driving by."
A Google study released in May 2007
analyzed the presence of malware across all
pages indexed by the Google search crawler.
It was reported that one in ten webpages
are infected with malicious code, and that
70 percent of Web-based infections were
found on "legitimate" websites (those
with a neutral to positive reputation).
In January 2007, during the run-up to
the Super Bowl, the websites of the Miami
Dolphins and of Dolphin Stadium was
compromised and attackers subtly altered
the HTML pages to infect user's PCs during
normal Web browsing. This was a wellchosen
target for the attackers, as the Super
Bowl is the most-watched sporting event
on U.S. television. Attackers are picking
their targets to guarantee as many exposures
Later in the year, the website for the Bank
of India was similarly hacked, distributing
the password-stealing MPack Trojan
through an HTML IFrame compromise.
These "malframe" compromises are
becoming more common on legitimate
sites, as the crime syndicates behind these
organized attacks have realized the return
on investment from distributing reusable
Trojan software far and wide. Recently it
has been discovered that the Bank of India attack was financed and
organized by a well-known cyber criminal group euphemistically
known as the "Russian Business Network." This organization is
said to be based in St. Petersburg, have protective political connections,
and provides network and computing resources for malware
distribution, child pornography and phishing.
Malware Infiltrates the Web
The figure at right shows the malware categories found by scanning
Web objects retrieved from pages that were not outright
blocked because of their low reputation history (such as those
found in the URLs of spam messages), and shows that it is possible
and even common for well-known and trusted sites to contain
malicious content that must scanned for and blocked.
Spam, viruses, phishing, Trojans and malware have all blended together, with one attack being used to propagate the
platform to deliver another attack that launches a coordinated email and Web campaign designed to defraud and compromise
the security of all Internet users. Just as no organization today would consider running their email systems
without multiple layers of defense, the Web threat must be similarly secured, with categorization of URLs - based on
historic reputation, in-depth scanning of Web objects with
multiple anti-malware engines, and constant vigilance against
internal infections that may come from unprotected networks
such as home offices and public wi-fi access.
A Google study, released in May 2007,
analyzed the presence of malware across
all pages indexed by the Google search
crawler. It was reported that one in
ten webpages are infected with malicious
code, and that 70 percent of Web-based
infections were found on "legitimate"
websites (those with a neutral to
A LOOK BEHIND THE CURTAIN AT MALWARE PRODUCTION, SALE AND DISTRIBUTION
MPack Attack Analysis
MALWARE INSIDE THE FIREWALL
In 2007, attackers repeatedly compromised legitimate websites to distribute malicious code. Many of these attacks
used a new malware kit called MPack. Like Storm, MPack uses a two-stage attack to infect computer users.
- PHP-based malware kit
- Sold by Dream Coders Team
- Includes one year of support, fresh exploits and
- Designed specifically for Web-based attack
- Deployed using an IFrame attack injected
into legitimate websites
- Maintains infection and attack statistics
TROJANS FOR HIRE
MPack is a PHP-based malware kit that is commercially designed, updated, supported and sold. $500 to
$1000 buys the base system. For a period of one year, the Dream Coders Team (DCT) will supply fresh exploits
and support the MPack tool. Add-on modules ranging from $50 to $300 can be purchased for the most recent
vulnerabilities - the more serious the vulnerability and the more systems that can be compromised, the higher
Selling malware or exploits isn't new, but providing service and support does set a precedent. MPack and the
Dream Coders Team have created a market, providing up-sell add-ons and offering on-going support for the
malicious products they sell.
MAINTAINING ATTACK STATS
MPack "customers" purchase the MPack kit, but in order to carry out actual infections, they must load the
exploit pack on victim computers. Unpatched computers hit by drive-by exploits are the simplest targets.
An MPack attack is meant to hit a large number of systems with little to no oversight by the attacker. To monitor
infection rates, the MPack toolkit provides an administrative interface. The interface records statistics on
the number of systems viewing each
infected page and the number of
successful exploits. It breaks down
infection rates into geographic areas
and monitors which exploits are
most successful. These statistics and
metrics allow the MPack customer to
measure the attack's effectiveness and
demonstrably measure their return on
investment. The MPack design and
frequency of these types of attacks
indicate that both are likely to grow.
Just prior to the Super Bowl, the website of the Miami Dolphins was compromised, delivering a malicious payload
to anyone viewing the site. Rather than being an unplanned, opportunistic attack, the compromise of the
Dolphin's site was obviously timed to inflict the most damage on the largest number of systems.
In June there was a similar incident; attackers hit more than 10,000 websites, mostly based in Italy. These sites
had an illicit "IFrame" element added to the page which went undetected by the original site's authors. As endusers
viewed the infected webpages, the IFrame (without user intervention) delivered a set of drive-by exploits,
compromising the target system. The exploits included keyloggers and Trojan-downloaders - small bits of code
that can be used to load other malware on the system.
WEB USAGE LEADS TO
CORPORATE DATA LOSS
First generation URL filters that attempt to categorize
sites and block risky websites or behavior
cannot provide effective protection when even the
trusted sites are hijacked and become malicious.
For companies this change in tactics means even
employees who engage in "Safe Browsing" and
avoid questionable websites represent risk.
Many of the MPack attacks infected systems with
"phone-home" malware - which attempts to steal
data from the infected system and post it to a
central location. Many corporate firewalls are not
designed to monitor or block data transfers initiated
from within the corporate network - especially if
they are cloaked to look like normal user activity.
Even previous best practices of scanning incoming
email streams for virus content and keeping desktop
anti-virus software up-to-date is not enough.
Because the MPack exploits come over HTTP from
what are assumed to be safe sites, the email channel
is not involved.
With professional malware developers providing
new exploits to surreptitious criminal networks in order to exploit a user's trust, we see a worrisome shift
in the threat network where the economics of labor have been divided to allow each participant to focus on
what they are best at, and further advance the sophistication and damage posed by malware attacks such as
MPack and Storm.
IFRAME OR iFRAME?
Many of the Web-based browser attacks these
days make use of the iframe HTML tag. IFrame
is a useful feature that enables numerous Web 2.0
sites to dynamically construct webpages for users.
Unfortunately the iframe tag can also be used
by attackers to insert a malicious payload into an
existing website without changing the actual appearance
of the page.
IFrame attacks have come to be one of the most
common threats on the Internet, usually used to
distribute Trojan software like MPack. Organizations
must ensure they have secured their Web
traffic as well as their email traffic to defend
against these new multi-phase threats.
The theme for malware in 2007 is increased sophistication.
Attackers are still engaged in the traditional types
of attacks: spam, malware and data theft. However, these
attacks became more sophisticated and refined. Attackers
moved away from the single-shot, specifically designed
attack and moved into reusable platforms that can cycle,
synchronize and distribute dynamic attacks. Spam is
increasingly used as a benign gateway into corporate
networks, using social engineering techniques that cause
the end-user to draw malware into the network.
Malware is no longer a single-step infection. New attacks
are multi-phase - supported, distributed and managed
by a well-defined infrastructure.
Spam Still Pays
2007 was the year of spam attachments. Spammers conducted
trials of more than 20 different file attachment
types to determine which had the best success rates.
Rapid onset spam attacks became commonplace, with
outbreaks spiking in volume very quickly and anti-spam
companies scrambling to adapt. This left little reaction
time, and many customers found themselves reevaluating
anti-spam products that could not adapt.
Many of the most malicious attacks start as a seemingly
innocuous spam message with nothing more than a few
words of text and a single URL. These messages often
slip past traditional spam engines that are looking for
keywords, or for graphics touting the latest stock spam.
When they land in the recipient's inbox they have made
it to the most sensitive part of the corporate network. All
it takes is one errant click of the mouse and the payload is downloaded - providing full access to the user's computer,
and possibly the internal network.
Storm and MPack dominated much of the Internet security news in 2007, but not just because of their size and scope.
They both introduced new, more sophisticated techniques that demonstrate the refinement of malicious software.
Malware creators are spending more time and resources developing an actual platform that is designed to last and be
reused. Delivery methods are also changing, moving toward blended attacks that combine both email and Web services.
Attacks are now originating from directly inside the "protected" corporate network. Many administrators believe they
have secured their infrastructures and that spam is nothing more than an irritant. The truth: spam is being used as a
gateway, designed to lure users to dangerous sites. To respond, companies must deploy the most advanced email security
systems to stop inbound threats, enforce strong classification and scanning of all user-initiated Web traffic and monitor
closely for possible internal malware infections.
A higher frequency of attacks is also being seen - timed to coincide with popular events and major news stories in an
attempt to make the message seem more legitimate. These attacks are designed to maximize the spread of malicious
content by piggy-backing on strong public interest in sports, political activities, or natural disasters.
PREDICTIONS FOR 2008
2008 will be the year of social malware.
Modern malware borrows attributes from the social
networks of Web 2.0 - it is collaborative, adaptive
and intelligent. Corporations are under increasing
pressure to ensure the integrity of their sensitive
information. The sophisticated peer-to-peer networks
(like Storm) that malware writers are building to
harvest this data are becoming harder to detect
and stop. To combat this threat, companies need
to deploy comprehensive security systems.
Spam volumes will continue to grow without limit.
The underlying economics support this and it has
profound implications for the anti-spam industry. As
spam volumes grow, spam filters must increase their
catch rates. The escalating investment required to
accomplish this will drive consolidation of the antispam
industry, as only a small number of vendors
will have the resources to stay ahead of spam.
The use of blended attack techniques will
This means that organizations must
think holistically about their approach to security.
Point solutions for email and Web will not be as
effective as a comprehensive system that analyzes
email and Web traffic and sharesinformation between
the two. This is the best defense to protect
against blended threats.
The multi-phase, multi-protocol nature of these new attacks renders some previous security best practices obsolete.
Legacy anti-spam gateways can no longer keep up with the diversity and sheer amount of spam being sent. Traditional
Web proxies (used for caching and acceptable-use enforcement for Web browsing) are insufficient when it comes to
protecting users against many of the new threats being delivered through HTTP.
Secure Web Traffic
Even if a company has deployed a URL filtering solution to control and report on individual Web usage behavior, these
databases are insufficient when it comes to preventing malware downloads into its network. A URL filter's security
category maintains a list of webpages where malware has been seen in the past, but does not actually scan Web objects
for new infections in real-time. Relying on a reactive security list for malware protection is akin to using only a legacy
DNL blacklist in email to protect against spam: totally insufficient. As malware distributors are getting better at inserting
their malicious payload into compromised "legitimate" sites, the URL filtering protection becomes even more useless,
as the longer-term reputation of (for example) Yahoo as a search engine will trump an occasional user-generated malware
package from keeping people from going there.
Deploy Preventive Protection For Email
With malicious Trojans like Feebs and Storm evolving faster, the "traditional" protocols for virus distribution (email)
still need advanced protection. Spam volumes are increasing which calls for scalable, multi-core spam defenses to keep
pace with the attacks. Reputation systems that can block incoming attacks at the connection level - without the need to
examine the message body - reduce the burden on both the anti-spam gateway and the overall network traffic. Deploying
zero-day defenses that can detect and quarantine possible viral attachments before traditional virus signatures have
been published is imperative for complete network detection.
Protect Against Corporate Data Loss
Some of the worst Trojans aim to scan users' hard drive and send the important information (passwords, corporate
documents, financial information) back to their command-and-control centers for use by the criminal gangs financing
the development of these programs. Data loss can occur without a Trojan infection however. 2007 has already seen
nearly 350 publicly reported data loss incidents involving sensitive personal information, most of which happened
accidentally through employee error. While defending against outside threats coming into the network to steal important
information is critical, scanning outgoing communications for possible policy violations is also extremeley
important to any organization that deals with any kind of sensitive personal or customer information.
Prevent "Phone-home" Activity
Scanning ingress and egress traffic is the first step to protection, but security personnel must also be vigilant against
the risk of laptops and other systems being compromised while on public networks outside of the corporate security
blanket. For this reason, it is important to scan for and block malicious "phone home" activity from malware-infected
computers that may be trying to retrieve new attack commands or upload sensitive data back to their operators.
Track Important Communications
With the increase in threats, defenses are going to get tighter. It is an unfortunate fact of life: as spam becomes more
and more legitimate-looking, poor spam engines are going to start (or continue) losing legitimate email messages.
Because of this, and the sizable volume of mail that most recipients are dealing with on a day-to-day basis, it is important
to offer users the ability to have a higher level of visibility and control on their messages than traditional email
provides. New technologies are available that give real-time tracking of email messages similar to what we are used to
with physical package shipping. For email to maintain its usefulness as a cheap and fast way to foster communication
around the Internet, we must take added care that messages of high importance are treated as such and given a different
class of service.
IRONPORT POWERS AND PROTECTS YOUR NETWORK
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