The Blame Game

Major Malware Outbreaks Evade Anti-Virus Protection

A report released on July 14, 2009 states that “Several successive and massive malware outbreaks caused a spike in malware that was undetected by major AV engines.”

In Commtouch’s Q2 Report available here , which covers the analysis of over 2 billion emails and Internet transactions, they also claim:

  • “Business” was the website category most infected with malware
  • An average of 376,000 new zombies were activated each day with malicious intent

Amir Lev, Chief Technology Officer of Commtouch said that for the last 18 months anti-virus (AV) engines used many generic signatures, which were effective at blocking malware. However, malware writers and distributors introduced new variants which are immune to these generic signatures.

This time period coincides with the infection of 1,000s of websites with gumblar, martuz and iframe malscripts which then received Google’s moniker of “This site may harm your computer.”

The Blame Game

Answering many, many blog and forum postings from disgruntled website owners and developers who’ve been the victim of these recent gumblar, martuz and iframe infections, it’s been our experience that quite often the thought process of the victimized website owner follows this path:

  1. The website owner or webmaster receives an email from Google notifying them that their site is infectious. Google rarely (if ever) is wrong so they immediately slap all SERPs (Search Engine Result Pages) with the “This site may harm your computer” label thereby stopping all traffic dead in it’s tracks.
  2. Cautiously the site owner or webmaster will try to view the site. They don’t want to become infected from their own site, but their curiosity is overwhelming. They typically don’t see anything malicious.
  3. “How do I find and clean this?” Often these people will post questions on sites like Google’s Webmaster Forums or www.badwarebusters.org or some other favorite online watering hole.
  4. Then their focus turns to, “Who’s to Blame?”

The feeling of many site owners is one of “I’ve been violated and I need to blame someone.”

When hacking victims get to “Who’s to blame”, they quite often turn their attention to their hosting provider. Many times the blogs and forums are filled with postings where people blame even some of the largest hosting providers. Site owners want to instantly spend the time and money to move their website to a different hosting provider where they’ll once again feel safe and secure.

All because they feel it’s the hosting provider’s fault their site, or sites, were hacked.

The site owner or developer will call the hosting provider looking for assistance from their technical staff and quite frequently, they can’t find the obfuscated malscript buried deep inside some harmless HTML code either. Many times the website has been blocked by various anti-virus programs, Google’s search results and sometimes even corporate website filters for days or weeks before the issue is resolved.

Even if the site owner goes through the trouble of moving to a new hosting provider, with these recent infections, their site will just get hacked again and again.

Then who’s to blame? The new hosting provider? How many more hosting provider’s will the site owner move to until they finally find one that gives them that safe and secure feeling?

Many site owner’s want the hosting provider to take responsibility and clean their site. After all, they’re paying their $5 – $10 per month so the hosting provider should take responsibility and the spend the time to clean the infectious website, right? No matter how many times the site gets re-infected.

Don’t Shoot the Messenger

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but, hosting providers had nothing to do with websites getting hacked with the recent gumblar, martuz or iframe injections. It was anyone’s fault but theirs.

It could be the site owner’s fault, or the anti-virus company’s fault, or Microsoft’s fault, or the fault of the company that wrote the FTP software being used.

It was almost anyone’s fault – except that of the hosting provider.

Let me explain.

You see, with all the malware that went undetected by these generic signatures, thousands of PCs were compromised. According to the Commtouch report referenced above, 376,000 new zombies per day.

You could blame Microsoft, however, the Commtouch report also shows an increase in the amount of Mac malware as well. Besides, blaming Microsoft is so 2,000 late.

These recent website infections came from viruses on the PCs of people who have FTP access to websites.

OMG!

Does that mean it could be the fault of the website owners, developers and webmasters?

It might, rabbit, it might.

These recent undetectable viruses steal FTP credentials – usernames and passwords. These viruses search through the files of popular FTP software looking for the file with the stored FTP credentials. These viruses also record keystrokes so when an infected PC is used to type in the FTP credentials, they get stolen. As another point of attack the viruses also “sniff” FTP traffic. Since FTP transmits all data in plain text, it’s easy for a sniffer to see the username and password in the FTP data stream and steal it. We even did a video to show how easy it is to sniff FTP traffic. It’s so easy that some people use a sniffer on their own FTP traffic if they forgot their stored password. Here’s our video.

Virus writers are incredibly smart and this round of malware proves it.

Once the virus has the FTP credentials it sends them to the server of a cybercriminal. This server is configured to login to the website as a valid user, inject it’s infectious code and move on to the next site.

Who’s to Blame?

How many websites did you visit that displayed some type of ad? Did you know that many ad networks have served up infectious ads – unknowingly of course, but nonetheless, the ads could have infected many visitors.

How many websites did you visit that displayed Flash intro’s or allowed you to view an Adobe Acrobat file (pdf)? Adobe had a few vulnerabilities in their software, that were exploited during and prior to this time period. Combine a vulnerability in files so widely used with the ineffective generic anti-virus signatures, and there’s another source to blame. Maybe two new sources – the AV companies and Adobe.

Did you update your Adobe products as soon as the update was available?

If not, then there’s another person to blame – you.

Could the companies that wrote the FTP software used, maybe have encrypted the stored usernames and passwords so that it wasn’t quite so easy to find and steal the FTP credentials? There’s anothe source to blame.

Maybe if so many people didn’t use their PCs with full administrator rights, there wouldn’t be such a virus outbreak in the first place. Maybe these PC owners are to blame.

Whoever you decide to blame, don’t incur the costs involved with moving to a new hosting provider before you find out what your site was infected with and how those infections occurred. You might be barking up the wrong tree.

I’ll tell you, the cybercriminals are to blame.

They’re the people who write and distribute viruses, malware and malscripts.

Cybercriminals (some call them hackers) want to control as many computers as they possibly can. They don’t care if it’s a computer for a university or if it’s the computer of a new Internet start-up company. One compromised computer looks just the same as another.

Compromised computers make up their inventory.

You know what a hacker calls an uninfected computer – opportunity!

Their digital assets are the computers they control. Often times some of their inventory of infected computers gets rented out to other cybercriminals. This provides them with a source of income.

If you really need to blame someone, blame the hackers, or the international cyber laws, or the world economy. Just don’t blame the hosting providers.

Hosting providers provide a very valuable service. Their margins are squeezed tighter and tighter as it seems everybody thinks it’s a great idea to enter the hosting industry. The good hosting providers work hard for their customers. They depend on customer retention and acquisition – just like every other business. They do the best they can with what they have.

The only thing a hosting provider could do to prevent these gumblar, martuz and iframe infections is to block all FTP traffic. Then you would have a very good reason to blame them for something, but you still wouldn’t be able to justify blaming them for the rash of website infections.

It simply isn’t their fault.

Let me know your thoughts on this. Who would you blame if your site got hacked? Who did you blame if your site was already hacked?