Google now sniffs out malware

Google’s search engine is now fighting against a strain of malware that secretly intercepts Web browser activity on Windows PCs.

Infected users will see a big yellow box at the top of search results, directing them to a Google Web page that explains how to remove the malware. That page urges users to download or update their antivirus software, and also provides manual instructions for removing the malware from Windows computers. (To see if you’re infected, run any search on and look for the yellow box.)

Google doesn’t explain the threat in detail, saying only that the malware routes Internet traffic through intermediary servers called proxies, and that the search engine is able to detect when traffic is coming from those servers.

However, the primary IP address that Google is watching out for — — has been flagged by security firms such as BitDefender and TrendMicro as part of a Trojan that warns users to install fake antivirus software.

Because Google is looking for a specific proxy, businesses that use their own proxy servers to fight infections shouldn’t see the warnings. Google does note that businesses could have their own proxies infected by this malware, which would trigger a warning for all users even if their individual computers are clean.

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Matt Cutts, a Google search engineer, has called this effort against malware “an experiment to alert and protect consumers that we believe have infected machines.” It’s not hard to imagine the company expanding the effort to a wider range of proxy-based malware.

But don’t take this as a sign that Google’s entering the security software business; users still need proper antivirus software — and possibly some technical know-how — to rid themselves of infection.

Spam in retreat but old software flaws still menace users

In other developments, spam volumes are down sharply on their level a year ago but cybercriminals continue to hit home with easy-to-exploit vulnerabilities for Adobe and Java, the latest half-year report from security company M86 Security has said.

The company’s Labs Report for January-June 2011 confirms what every other respected source has been saying about spam levels in the aftermath of last September’s closing of pharmacy spam host,; it has declined heavily and stayed at a lower level ever since.

M86 Security’s Spam Volume Index (SVI) is now around 2000, about half the 4,000-6,000 it was during most of 2010, a positive trend aided by law enforcement disruption of several prominent botnets, especially Rustock, Mega-D and Bredolab.

As well as cutting the volume of spam traffic, disruption has also changed the content of spam, with gambling, dating, and fake goods spam challenging traditional pharma as the most common categories.

“The legal action taken by Microsoft during the Rustock takedown sent promoters of illegitimate pharmaceutical Web sites a strong message, perhaps making this option less attractive for spammers,” the report’s authors said. “It may be that competing affiliate programs in other categories are now more financially attractive for the spammers.”

In M86 Security’s assessment, phishing emails have become far less common, now accounting for only 1 in 1,000 spam messages sent although attachment spam still hovers at levels up to 5 per cent of spam volumes.

One thing that doesn’t appear to be changing is the way that criminals continue to target software old flaws that have been around for years, most commonly in Adobe, Java and Microsoft applications.

The commonest exploit seen was an ActiveX exploit for Internet explorer from 2006, followed by a stack of flaws in Adobe Reader dating from between 2007 and 2010. Adobe’s popularity appears to be connected to its ubiquity. As individual browser flaws are patched more rapidly, this is pushing criminals to find plug-ins that are vulnerable across all browsers and Adobe fits this bill perfectly.

As Qualys revealed recently, plug-ins are also patched less assiduously than browsers, perhaps because users underestimate their security importance. This is particularly true of Adobe applications.

The company noticed a connection between countries hosting big sporting events and an increase in spam hosts targeting such occasions. South Africa saw a rise in hosts during the 2010 World Cup and the UK was now seeing a similar rise in advance of the 2012 Olympic Games. This is one issue the UK Governmen[s meticulous planning can probably do little about.


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