Required: A revamped antimalware strategy

Increasingly sophisticated malware can divert the attention of IT departments from low-level security gaps. Here’s why you need a strategy that works on all levels.

While IT continues to fight increasingly clever attacks against on-site enterprise infrastructure, new malware is taking aim at lower-hanging fruit: under-secured smartphones, mobile applications, social media and other cloud services. As workers make more extensive use of such perimeter-less platforms, they create rich targets that require new antimalware protection strategies to mitigate these multifaceted new malware threats.

Enterprises can defend themselves by understanding these new malware vectors, enforcing application policies, implementing new device resident and cloud-based antimalware techniques, and leveraging other security tools.

Following the money

Far more than fame or hacktivism, the malware industry is driven by financial gain and drawn to low-cost, high-profit attacks. This has been repeatedly proven, as malware migrated from floppy to USB drives, email to Web, browser to PDF, abandoning old haunts to seek out more vulnerable monocultures.

“As technology trends such as Web and mobile come to the forefront, that’s where malware refocuses,” says Intrepidus Group Principal Consultant Zach Lanier. “Mobile convergence creates an interesting opportunity: one device that delivers [non-stop] network, Web, media and application access. Because there are only so many players—Apple, Google, the WebKit browser engine—a single bug can be leveraged to attack millions of users.”

In fact, cloud services like Google Apps “are a very large data repository for a wide range of companies and people,” Cisco Senior Threat Researcher Mary Landesman says. "Rather than trying to penetrate one [business] at a time, cloud is an avenue of attack to penetrate many. Increased return on investment means making money with less effort—cloud attacks are a natural progression of that."

Looking for loopholes: Mobile malware and social media

But size and popularity are not the only draws. Co-mingled personal and business use, real-time communication, bring-your-own consumerization, and little or no IT control combine to make any discovered vulnerabilities more readily exploitable.

Lookout Principal Engineer Tim Wyatt has examined thousands of mobile applications from Apple’s AppStore, Google’s Android Market and unofficial markets. “We’re still seeing the start-up phase of smartphone malware development. Attackers are experimenting with what they can do, inside and outside the enterprise. We haven’t yet seen massive self-replicating mobile malware, but we think that’s mostly because nobody has hit on a business model for untargeted attacks, beyond toll fraud,” he says.

Symantec tracked mobile malware monetization, including premium-rate SMS trojans, tracking spyware, search engine poisoning, pay-per-install/click schemes, repackaged adware, and identity theft. According to Product Manager John Engels, “We used to see these for Symbian. When iOS changed the landscape, Apple did a good job of building in [malware deterrents] such as sandboxing and AppStore review. Now Android is picking up where Symbian left off because it’s open, with alternative distribution paths that are a recipe for more challenging malware.”

Similar trends have been seen in malicious activity on social networks such as Facebook. “[Social media] malware tends to be user-focused: looking to gain access to the user’s account or credentials,” Cisco’s Landesman says. “Today’s biggest enterprise threats don’t evolve from social networks, but at some point, those could morph into more targeted attacks.”

For now, social media attacks tend to be untargeted. M86 Security Labs reports that Facebook scams surged in recent years as attackers searched for new ways to convince thousands to click on malicious links. From “like-jacking” and “comment-jacking” to photo tagging and rogue applications, social engineering tricks snared users into pay-per-click or pay-per-install scams—some leading to malware like the Koobface botnet Trojan. Facebook itself scans over a trillion clicks per day, blocking more than 200 million posts and messages carrying malicious links.

Social media security risks

For IT groups scrambling to stop malware on so many different fronts, deciding which threats to tackle can be a challenge. The best place to begin is by understanding emerging malware: targeted platforms, exploited vulnerabilities, and jeopardized business assets.

“Recently, the biggest threats have not attacked computers—they’ve attacked people,” says Symantec Security Response Director Kevin Haley. “We’re seeing [email] spam drop as attackers move to social media. Factors include shutdown of major botnets, growing ineffectiveness of spam, and natural migration to new vectors. Technology itself hasn’t changed that much; social engineering got better and toolkits made malware easier.”

To date, social media malware has gotten the biggest bang by aiming at Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. For example, Twitter’s brevity, anonymity, and real-time communication have fostered many hacks since 2007—some involving account compromise, others malware dissemination. The two are intertwined, as legitimate and fraudulent top-followed accounts are used to phish thousands of victims. Shortened links, trend tags, and direct messaging further increase the odds of following tweets to malware.

As more businesses use Twitter to track industry news and communicate with customers, associated risk is growing. Not only do less than one-quarter of enterprises block Twitter, but “companies cannot assume they don’t have a social networking presence,” Cisco’s Landesman says. “Nothing from a technology standpoint will solve this. You’re better off having practices in place to determine what’s being said about your company and your tone and action plan should a social networking crisis develop.” Such practices might involve rapidly detecting and reporting tweets that reference your brand but carry links leading to malware.

Facebook too has been plagued by phishing attacks. However, Facebook tends to be more personal, resulting in individual rather than business risk. But millennial expect to use Facebook and other social networks 24/7: Over half of surveyed college students said they would not even consider taking a job with an employer that banned access. Rampant password reuse and bring-your-own devices also mean credentials gleaned by Facebook malware could well play a role in corporate account break-ins.

Workforce and malware mobility

In fact, consumer mobile network attach rates are skyrocketing, driven largely by employee-owned devices. According McAfee Senior Architect Igor Muttik, these unmanaged smartphones and tablets pose real enterprise risk.

“Mobile devices are no longer just phones; they are now full computing devices. For example, they can record audio and video for blackmail or industrial espionage,” he says. “If somebody brings their device into the office, IT has no idea what’s on it. A blanket ban on personal devices isn’t going to succeed, so measurement of security is essential before allowing devices in or rejecting them.”

According to Muttik, market-leading devices—iPhones, iPads, and their Android counterparts—have similar OS security models. The latest incarnations of each deter malware through sandboxing, code signing, permissions, and hardware encryption. The biggest difference in malware risk, he says, lies in software sourcing.

“Apple has done a better job. Non-jailbroken iPhones have been pretty safe—to date we’ve seen only proof-of-concept malware in the AppStore—but it will not stay clean forever,” says Muttik. “The fact that Apple devices can be jail-broken illustrates there are vulnerabilities. Wherever you have both a browser and a kernel exploit, you can remotely own the device.”

Unfortunately, Android has not been so fortunate. Trend Micro estimated the malicious and high-risk Android apps in circulation at 1 million at the end of 2013; in-the-wild malware spiked last year. The firm now pegs annual risk of an Android user encountering malware at four percent, compared to risk of clicking on a phishing link at 36 percent.

Tim Armstrong, a researcher for Kaspersky, believes a tipping point has been reached for Android malware. “We’re still seeing SMS as a vector, but we’ve seen rapid growth in sophistication since FakePlayer [the first Android SMS Trojan in late 2009]. We’re seeing malware like DroidDream exploit phones to gain [root] permissions, and Trojans like GGTracker download code,” he says.

Deterring malware through governance

CheckPoint Researcher Tomer Teller attributes this surge to unwise app downloads. “We can clearly see a big mobile malware shift from the Web to apps, using markets to bypass review, get distributed, and [solicit] installation through social engineering,” he says.

“The app review process is what makes Android less secure. There is no validation of the person distributing apps through the market. Open policies are good for developers, but a bad thing for users. Enterprises need to get involved with their [device] manufacturers and carriers to understand these threats, vulnerabilities, and risks,” Teller says.

While many would like Google to tighten Android Market policies, others see a need for IT to step in. “If enterprises can control apps, they can control their malware exposure,” Kaspersky’s Armstrong says. “Application management has potential to stop a lot of mobile malware from entering networks.”

Symantec’s Engels suggests using mobile device management (MDM) to enforce whitelists and control mobile apps in some use cases, for example iPads used for retail, logistics or health care. But Teller says whitelisting is problematic for employees who use their own devices. “Enterprises don’t have time to review [public] apps published on a daily basis. I think we’ll see [list providers] emerge to do second tier review and certification, helping enterprises [use blacklists] to make sure user-downloaded apps don’t have malware.”

Enterprises must rely on carriers to patch vulnerabilities exploited by malware. But Lookout’s Wyatt suggests auditing installed apps, correlated to known vulnerabilities. For enterprise-developed mobile apps, Wyatt recommends code review. “We often encounter apps that do not leverage OS security, send identities in the clear, or expose vulnerabilities in back-end apps. [Looking for these mistakes] would eliminate fundamental problems that we see [exploited] time and again,” he says.

Rolling out new antimalware protection

Additional strategies likely are needed to mitigate business-affecting malware delivered and executed outside corporate networks. New device-resident and in-the-cloud antimalware approaches can complement existing defenses.

“Even with bring-your-own devices, some policies are still applicable if not directly, then from a practices standpoint,” Lookout’s Wyatt says. “With the emergence of native and third-party MDM solutions, there are now enterprise-friendly ways to bolt security onto mobile devices that don’t have antimalware baked in.”

Specifically, MDM can not only mandate passwords and invoke remote wipe; it can also remotely install (or direct users to) mobile antimalware apps. Such scanners are readily available for Android, but not effective on iPhones or iPads due to OS restrictions.

Ultimately, many antimalware vendors recommend embedding antimalware “in the cloud.” For example, some carriers already deploy anti-malware to deliver SMS filters and anti-phishing to subscribers. A growing number of Software as a Service providers apply internal antimalware measures like email attachment virus scanning, phishing URL filters and domain reputation systems, blocking malicious content before it can be delivered. Enterprises can follow suit by embedding in-the-cloud antimalware as they deploy private clouds.

Beyond in-the-cloud antimalware, cloud threat intelligence services can help to rapidly update malware signatures and deliver real-time threat analysis, detecting links that lead to social media malware and malicious applications, thereby reducing enterprise dependence on inevitably diverse website or market governance.

For example, McAfee analyzes events gathered from all over the Internet at over 100 million endpoints (including mobile devices) and 60 million gateways. According to CTO for Public Sector Phyllis Schneck, McAfee uses these events to create a real-time reputation weather map that shows storms forming on the Internet. Reputation data can then be delivered to human network operators and fed back into reputation-aware systems (e.g., secure Web gateways).

“This global threat intelligence enables the network to respond automatically, stopping attacks never seen before,” Schneck says. “If ISPs can use this to filter out a lot of [malicious] traffic before it reaches the enterprise, we can lower the profit model for botnets. The same methodology applies to cloud services—the cloud just changes where the bits and bytes are processed.”

Stopping malware inside the corporate network

Even experts with vested interest in new antimalware approaches recommend leveraging other types of security tools to battle malware, such as next-generation firewalls, secure Web gateways, data loss prevention and network behavior analysis. This strategy may not stop external infection, but it can reduce business impact, especially if platforms are reputation-aware.

“When users connect to corporate Wi-Fi, enterprises can easily send traffic through a secure Web gateway to kill off infected content,” Symantec’s Engels says. “When that same device connects to a home or mobile network, utilize that device’s native VPN client to route traffic through enterprise Web security.”

CheckPoint’s Teller recommends enterprises log mobile traffic to detect potential threats. “Using network behavior analysis can help you understand when something malicious starts. This didn’t work well for desktops due to false positives, but on the mobile side, I think NBA can detect when an infected smartphone starts side-loading apps or communicating with a [command-and-control] server,” he says.

In fact, Landesman says employers should use NBA to establish “new normal” baselines, including common malware traffic. “Social media worms like Koobface will always circulate. They still need to be mitigated, but their noise can cause IT to react to the wrong things, distracting from [higher risk] threats,” she says. NBA filters can help IT better hone in on emergent malware.

Malware is an ongoing battle; we can be certain that attackers will continue to develop new malicious code and target new technology trends. But by raising awareness of new vulnerabilities and threats, and mitigating them through a multi-pronged antimalware strategy, enterprises arm themselves with a fighting chance against evolving threats.

About the author:
Lisa Phifer owns Core Competence, a consulting firm specializing in business use of emerging network and security technology. She has been involved in the design, implementation and evaluation of internetworking, security and management products for over 25 years. Send comments on this article to [email protected].

This was last published in March 2014

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