The Insidiousness of Cellphone Malware

Hackers and cyber criminals continue to get more sophisticated, especially when it comes to fooling people via less traditional attack vectors. For example, I got an interesting text on my work cell phone earlier this week …

“heyy that’s what I was telling you you should join.

The message came from a local Twin Cities telephone number that I didn’t recognize. So, being the suspicious type that I am, I “Googled” the phone number and found that the same number was spamming local numbers here in the Twin Cities and that there are several complaints about it already.

Taking this a step further, I fired up a clean VM with antivirus on it that goes through our Sophos WS1000 web security appliance and pulled up the URL in Google Chrome.  Sure enough, the site was blocked and classified as “High Risk” and that “Mal/HTMLGen-A” has been found on the site.

Sophos warning

Sophos classifies malware by its behavior, and Mal/HTMLGen-A happens to be a very commonly used browser payload delivery mechanism that affects Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux.

After doing a little more digging, I found that the URL that was sent resolves to, which has some really interesting history to it. This particular IP range was in Volgograd, Russia back in 2010, and is now owned by a Romanian internet hosting company parked in Schiphol, Netherlands.

A few companies I’ve worked at in the past IP block Romania at the firewall since there is a high amount of fraud and scam traffic that originates from there, so it makes sense that they would host from another country to get around geo location-based IP blocking.

And finally, we arrive at the nature of the attack itself.

Cell based text messaging. Both my phones run a variant of Linux, one being Apple iOS (work cell) and the other Android (personal cell). If an attack is highly sophisticated, it will include some sort of detection routine so it knows which payload to push onto the phone such as iOS JailBreak code or Android rooting scripts/programs – something that will allow the attacker to access your dialer without you knowing about it to make premium calls or text messages. Sure, you’ll figure it out once you get your next phone bill, but by then it’ll be too late.

If the attack is low-tech, then it may be as simple as trying to get you to share you URLs (like Chrome does) with a far more vulnerable Windows OS and use some canned Blackhole Exploit Kit scripts that were purchased to farm some bank info.

I’d love to take the time to pull the payload code apart to see what it’s trying to do, but from the poor English used in the text message itself, I’m betting its low tech.  If the attacker can’t be bothered to try to make the message look legit, you can more than likely bet they bought their malware off the shelf.

Moral of the story: your cellphone is as at as much risk as your computer. Be wary, be vigilant.

Sophos: Pushing the Boundaries

Several people have been asking me lately if I still prefer Sophos technology. After all, they recently released a bad update and Tavis Ormandy’s recent paper illustrated some design flaws in the product.

There’s spin on both sides. Unsurprisingly, Sophos is downplaying the issue and Tavis Ormandy’s tone in his second paper is much like that of his first. So I thought it would be good to explore the issues more fully.

I am disappointed in Sophos’s recent fumbles, but not disheartened. I still think that, for a great many companies, they have the best solution available.

There are two core problems here. The first is that of scaling. As companies grow bigger, they often become slower to react. Sometimes, they fail to adjust to their new reality. Sometimes, however, they get through it and become incredible companies. There are indications that Sophos is beginning the turnaround.

The second problem is industry-wide and has to do with market-splintering. Today, we are facing a splintering security vendor space and reports like the ones from Tavis are a symptom. Reports we’ve been getting for the past few years about AV and IDS being “dead” is yet another symptom.  There’s nothing wrong with these reports and it’s good that people are thinking about the issues. But unfortunately, they’re missing the big picture.

In a splintering space, there is an increasing deviation between what a product actually does and how it is branded. This continues until the vendors wake up and pivot their branding to better match what they actually do. This always takes longer than we’d like, because employees of a company are driven by their brand even more than their customers.

As I see it, the AV vendor space is breaking apart into four chunks:

  • Traditional AV – Focused on being lightweight and supplementing the protections built into an operating system.
  • Anti-Malware – Focused on monitoring and responding to bad and potentially bad things that can happen to an operating system.
  • Application Whitelisting – Focused on locking down an operating system to only allow known applications to run.
  • Malware Analytics – Focused on providing detailed data about events so human analysts can make appropriate decisions.

We are also seeing the attack space splintering as well. Specifically, we’re seeing a tiered structure emerging:

  • Background Radiation – A constant stream of trivial attacks, legacy viruses and worms that float about the internet.
  • Industry-focused Asset Attack – Attacks that focus on specific industries aiming to steal monetary assets. These often rotate between industries, “campaign” style. At present, Western banks are in vogue. Indications are that these attacks are run by organized criminal groups. If you have above average protection in this space, you gain significant competitive advantage as attacks are driven to those that do not.
  • State-sponsored IP Attack – Attacks that also focus on specific industries, but are run by better-organized groups suspected of being funded by state agencies. They aim to steal intellectual property. You get significant benefit from being above-average here too.
  • Industrial Espionage – Attacks focus on specific companies and likely come from other specific companies. There is no benefit to be gained from being above-average in defense, as that just creates rapid escalation in an arms-race pattern of growth.

The third splintering effect is familiar to those of you who have heard my talks or read my comic book.

In the defense space, we have two primary trends emerging based on complexity. Both are valid, but they are completely incompatible with one another (at least on the large scale).

  • Simplification – This trend involves firms who outsource much of their operations and infrastructure to managed SOC providers, cloud providers, SAAS providers, etc. The idea is that by focusing on their core business and finding trustworthy partners, they can become more nimble and therefore, more profitable.
  • Complexification – This trend involves firms who increasingly centralize their infrastructure through virtualization, log management, analytics, etc. The idea is by taking more control, you can better analyze the business and find regions of improvement.

So after this rather long diversion, what does it mean for Sophos? Well, their core strength is offering administrators a solution to rapidly and consistently provide a reasonable level of protection that gives early indicators of attack. This means they’re a great fit for anti-malware up to and including the State-sponsored IP attack tier and work best in simpler environments or in simpler subsets of complex environments.

I do not think that they’re the best solution for highly-targeted complex companies, as they are not an analytics tool. They’re also not the best solution for extremely simple firms that want “set it and forget it” technologies. Security takes work and if you put the work in, you get better security. You should pick a solution that allows you to put in more work than you currently do, but does not require that additional work for the product to still be effective.

Many of the critiques of Sophos tend to be at the edges. And Sophos doesn’t help these concerns by marketing as if they fit everywhere for everyone. I think they’ll eventually reach this goal, but they’re not there today.

If you’re in a highly complex environment that is facing constant incursion from well-funded foreign governments, Sophos better not be your only tool. You need Analytics, too.

If you want the cheapest solution out there that you can install and ignore, Sophos won’t work well for you either. That’s where Traditional AV and the ability to wipe and reload when it fails comes in.

Operationally, you need to figure out what sort of attack and defense space you’re in, so you can select the tool(s) that will provide the best protection for your business. If you overlap spaces, you’re going to need multiple tools. One of the biggest reasons I really like Sophos is because of their flexibility to play in overlapping spaces. They layer quite well with other security products, which is a great benefit for their customers.

Just remember: We live in a complex world. There are no magic bullets. Security requires thought.

Hoaxicane Sandy

It’s that time again.

Whenever a major media event happens (like Hurricane Sandy), we are inundated with news. Sometimes that news is useful, but often it merely exists to create FUD… Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. While I have not personally seen any malware campaigns capitalizing on the event yet, it is inevitable. The pattern is generally as follows:

  1. Event hits the news as media outlets try to one-up eachother to get the word out.
  2. People spread the warnings, making them just a little bit worse each time they are copied.
  3. Other people create hoaxes to ride the wave of popularity.
  4. Still other people create custom hoaxes to exploit the disaster financially.

A few minutes ago, at least in my little corner of the internet, we hit stage 3 when this image was posted:

( From here. )

Now, as someone who plays with photography, I was a bit suspicious, but as a security person, I can actually prove some things here.

The first tool I want to discuss is FotoForensics. Check out their analysis.

See how the statue of liberty and land on which she stands is much brighter than the background? That indicates that that image has been pasted on top of the other, so we know it’s fake.

Sometimes, though, this trick doesn’t work. If someone is making a good hoax, they can change the error levels to prevent easy detection. That’s where our next tool comes in. TinEye is awesome.

Look what happens when I do a reverse image search on the suspicious file here. (TinEye results expire after 72 hours, so if you’re slow to read this, just past the URL of the photo into their search box.)

TinEye, by default, is going to try to find the best match. But that’s not what we want. We want the original. Luckily, when people make hoaxes, they usually shrink the image to make it harder to find the signatures of a hoax. So we just click to sort by size and there we have what it likely the original:

ETA: Original can be found in this set by Mike Hollingshead.

Then it lists a bunch of sites that have stolen this image to use without credit. (That’s a different post.) You can then click on the “Compare” link for the likely original and see what they did. By flipping between the versions, you can see that they added the Statue of Liberty, the water and the boat. They also shrunk the image and made it darker… because darker is scarier, apparently.

The important thing to realize here is that the attacker is trying to manipulate you. By spreading fear, they are making you more susceptible to future attacks. By taking advantage of your uncertainty and doubt, they put you in a position where you will do unwise things to gain an element of certainty in your life. Does this matter that much in an image hoax? Probably not. But it does matter when you start getting fraudulent emails convincing you to “click here” to help victims of the hurricane.

Uncertainty and doubt can work against you, but it can also work for you. When the attacks come … likely in a few hours, approach them with suspicion. If you’re in the path of the storm, trust the names you recognize, like Google and The National Weather Service. If you’re not in the path of the storm and want to send aid, go with The Red Cross. If anyone else you don’t know asks for your money or your clicks, ask yourself what they have to gain.

Cyber “Pearl Harbor”

It’s no secret that cyberspace has quickly become the world’s next battleground. The United States and Israel were widely speculated to have delivered a mighty blow to the Iranian Nuclear Program with the Stuxnet Virus and now Iran has fought back attacking the web sites of American financial institutions, Bank of America and J. P. Morgan Chase.

Despite the magnitude of these web-based attacks, I don’t think the public necessarily understands how devastating cyber warfare could become. With nearly all business featuring some sort of online component and so much of our day-to-day activities utilizing web-based technology, a cyber terrorist could effectively cripple everything from bank accounts, telecommunications, medical facilities, utilities, transportation … you name it. Perhaps this is why U.S. Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta offered a rather dire warning last week:

“The collective result of these kind of attacks could be a cyber Pearl Harbor,” warned Panetta. “An attack that would cause physical destruction and the loss of life, an attack that would paralyze and shock the nations and create a new profound sense of vulnerability.”

I bet that quote got your attention! The reality of such an immense attack can certainly be debated, but the question of whether the United States is ready and able to protect its interests is certainly a topic that should be at the forefront of any discussion regarding terrorism and world war.

Heather Roff, a Research Fellow with the Eisenhower Center for Space and Defense Studies at the United States Air Force Academy, penned a great post this week for the Huffington Post that discusses the conclusions we can draw from Panetta’s speech and how prepared the United States is to defend it cyber borders.

Cyber Criminals attacking Java

There is a significant security flaw in Java and it is being exploited fast and furiously by cyber criminals. Sophos’ Naked Security blog has a fantastic post on the vulnerability and especially its effect on Oracle users. Their solution: Disable Java immediately. Check out the post here.

And why is Java so problematic you ask? Graham Cluley states the following:

“In fact, it has become increasingly common to see malware authors exploiting vulnerabilities in Java – as it is so commonly installed, and has been frequently found to be lacking when it comes to security.

Cybercriminals also love Java because it is multi-platform – capable of running on computers regardless of whether they are running Windows, Mac OS X or Linux. As a result it’s not unusual for us to see malicious hackers use Java as an integral part of their attack before serving up an OS-specific payload.”

For easy reference, here’s how to disable Java on the most popular web browsers.