Malware miasma

Malware threats on the Web grew at an exponential rate over the first half of 2008, security experts say.

During this period, there was a new Web page infected with malicious content every five seconds, according to Abingdon, U.K.-based Sophos plc. That’s an increase from a rate of one every 14 seconds over the latter half of 2007.

Businesses were a major target of such attacks, as cyber-criminals used Web 2.0 channels of attack to infiltrate their corporate networks.

Two major security vendors have released reports on threats faced by Internet users everywhere.

The reports paint a grim picture of growing attacks against legitimate Web sites, many of them social networking sites containing user-generated content.

The number one host of malware was Google-owned Blogger. The popular blog-hosting service allows users to quickly set up their own personal Web page and post content. That makes it easy for hackers to take advantage of the service.

That’s not a slur on Blogspot, according to Graham Cluely, senior technology consultant at Sophos. “The guys at Google are very good at rapidly shutting down infected Web pages. But even if you have a page shut down, it is very easy to start up a new one.”

Out of the top 100 most popular Web sites, 60 have either hosted or been involved in malicious activity, according to a report from San Diego, Calif.-based Websense Inc. It’s an example of hackers using legitimate Web sites to target unsuspecting victims.

“With their large user base, good reputations, and support of Web 2.0 applications, these sites provide malicious code authors with abundant opportunity,” the report says.

Anecdotal evidence of the malware attacks reveals how cyber-criminals are becoming more cunning, relying on the trust users place in famous social network sites.

The Websense report shows the challenge of guarding aginst threats posed by user-generated content.

MySpace unknowingly ran an advertising banner that pushed malware on to unsuspecting users. A third-party Facebook application called “Secret Crush” was actually ad-serving software in disguise.

“A lot of our customers have been treating social networking with a draconian policy of ‘no one can go there’,” says Dan Hubbard, chief technology officer at Websense.

“But that binary yes or no policy doesn’t work anymore. Web 2.0 services are becoming a part of doing business for many companies and as they open up, there are new risks.”

Most companies are not exercising the right policies or using the correct technology to ensure safe use of Web 2.0 sites, according to Websense. Cyber-criminals are focusing on that weak point, moving away from e-mail attacks that have become well-guarded against.

One step companies should take to secure their corporate networks is a well-managed Web browser policy, operated by a systems administrator.

Having a very recently patched browser with the right security options set can go a long way, the Sophos report recommends.

“It’s a simple way of reducing the threat,” Cluely says. “For too long, users have been able to run the asylum and decide what they install. The poor IT worker then has to provide technical support and it can be difficult.”

New browsers such as Mozilla’s Firefox 3 offer warnings when malware is detected on a site, he adds.

Administrators, the Sophos consultant said, should be able to make the decision to have everyone on the network use Firefox, or block older versions of Web browsers, if they see fit.

Companies that see their users involved in Web 2.0 sites often need to look at a security product that evaluates the content of the Web page, not just the URL, Hubbard says. It is a more flexible option than an outright ban on social networking sites.

“You can go to social networking sites, but you can’t go to pages that have malicious code embedded in them,” he says.

Companies should also have policies surrounding how employees can use the Web sites. Policies that dictate what users are allowed to post about a company should be enforced with some kind of retribution, Hubbard adds.

Some companies don’t even allow employees to specify their employer on social networking sites. That might be a wise decision, considering the scams seen on business-oriented social networking site LinkedIn.

Cyber-criminals can use LinkedIn to get an effective corporate directory of your company and see the new people that join it, Cluely says.

“They can just e-mail these people claiming to be the head of HR, whose name they also know because of LinkedIn,” he explains. “Before you know it, your new employees have shared information that is valuable to the criminals.”

The latter half of 2008 will see cyber-criminal honing in on social networking sites to an even higher degree, security analysts predict. Even since the vendors’ respective reports were completed, more high-profile threats have been seen on social networking sites.

A new worm targeting MySpace and Facebook users was detected by Woburn, Mass.-based security vendor Kapersky Lab July 31. The worm – Networm.Win32.Koobface – recruits victim machines to form a botnet.

The worm creates messages on user profiles that contains a link to a fake video clip, where the user is prompted to download the latest version of Flash Player. But instead, the user unwittingly installs the network worm.

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