The Rise of Malvertising

malvertising cyber security

LAS VEGAS—One of the hottest topics in cyberthreat detection right now is the rise of malvertising, online advertising with hidden malware that is distributed through legitimate ad networks and websites. On Monday, Yahoo! acknowledged that one of these attacks had been abusing their ad network since July 28—potentially the biggest single attacks, given the site’s 6.9 billion monthly visits, security software firm Malwarebytes reported.

In the first half of this year the number of malvertisements has jumped 260% compared to the same period in 2014, according a new study released at the Black Hat USA conference here today by enterprise digital footprint security company RiskIQ. The sheer number of unique malvertisements has climbed 60% year over year.

“The major increase we have seen in the number of malvertisements over the past 48 months confirms that digital ads have become the preferred method for distributing malware,” said James Pleger, RiskIQ’s director of research. “There are a number of reasons for this development, including the fact that malvertisements are difficult to detect and take down since they are delivered through ad networks and are not resident on websites. They also allow attackers to exploit the powerful profiling capabilities of these networks to precisely target specific populations of users.”

How does malvertising work—and why is it taking off right now? “The rise of programmatic advertising, which relies on software instead of humans to purchase digital ads, has generated unprecedented growth and introduced sophisticated targeting into digital ad networks,” the company explained. “This machine-to-machine ecosystem has also created opportunities for cyber criminals to exploit display advertising to distribute malware. For example, malicious code can be hidden within an ad, executables can be embedded on a webpage, or bundled within software downloads.”

The study also noted that, in 2014, there was significantly more exploit kit activity (which silently installs malware without end user intervention) than fake software updates that require user consent. In 2015, however, fake software updates have surpassed exploit kits as the most common technique for installing malware. Fake Flash updates have replaced fake antivirus and fake Java updates as the most common method used to lure victims into installing various forms of malware including ransomware, spyware and adware.

Last week, enterprise security firm Bromium also released a new study focused on the rising threat of malvertising, finding that these Flash exploits have increased 60% in the past six months and the growth of ransomware families has doubled every year since 2013.

“For the last couple of years, Internet Explorer was the source of the most exploits, but before that it was Java, and now it is Flash; what we are witnessing is that security risk is a constant, but it is only the name that changes,” said Rahul Kashyup, senior vice president and chief security architect at Bromium. “Hackers continue to innovate new exploits, new evasion techniques and even new forms of malware—recently ransomware—preying on the most popular websites and commonly used software.”

One of the riskiest aspects of these exploits is that users do not have to be accessing sites that seem remotely suspect to be exposed. According to Bromium’s research, more than 58% of malvertisments were delivered through news websites (32%) and entertainment websites (26%). Notable websites unknowingly hosting malvertising included,,, and, the firm reported.

With that in mind, IT and cybersecurity teams have to adapt to meet these new threats, which are evolving far faster than detection tools, including antivirus, behavioral analysis, network intrusion detection, and the basic safe browsing guidelines issued to employees regarding their use of work devices.

“The key takeaway from this report is that, at large, the Internet is increasingly becoming ‘untrustworthy.’ Attackers are now using popular websites to launch malware via online ads, which makes things difficult for IT security teams,” explained Rahul Kashyup, SVP and chief security architect at Bromium. “This risk should be well understood and factored in for any organization while building a ‘defense-in-depth’ security stack. Regular patching and updates definitely help to limit the exposure to potential attacks, but that might not be feasible for large organizations. It is advisable to evaluate non-signature based technologies that can thwart such attacks in a reliable way and prevent infections on end-user devices.”

According to Bromium, the websites that most frequently serve as malvertising attack sources are:

malvertising attack sources

Insider Threats Missing from Most Cybersecurity Plans

When it comes to damaging cyberattacks, a horror movie cliche may offer a valuable warning: the call is coming from inside the building.

According to PwC’s 2014 U.S. State of Cybercrime Survey, almost a third of respondents said insider crimes are more costly or damaging than those committed by external adversaries, yet overall, only 49% have implemented a plan to deal with internal threats. Development of a formal insider risk-management strategy seems overdue, as 28% of survey respondents detected insider incidents in the past year.

In the recent report “Managing Insider Threats,” PwC found the most common motives and impacts of insider cybercrimes are:

Insider Cybercrime Consequences

These threats can come from a variety of sources, from employees to trusted business partners who are given extensive access. Even after the costly lesson from the Target breach about the risk of contractors with system access, only 44% of respondents in PwC’s survey have a process for evaluating third parties before engaging in business operations with them, and just 31% include security provisions in contract negotiations.

To fortify against the risk, the firm recommends that organizations use a phased approach to build an insider threat management program over time. This should be formed with an eye to compliance with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) framework, which highlights the key functions: Identify, Protect, Detect, Respond, and Recover. To explain how and when to tackle these, the report explains:

building an insider threat program

New Studies Highlight Sources, Patterns of Data Breach—And How to Do Better

Three recent studies provide a great reminder of the threats of data breach—and the role workers and IT departments play in either maintaining a company’s defense or letting malware storm the gates.

In its 2014 Data Breach Investigations Report, Verizon identified nine patterns that were responsible for 92% of the confirmed data breaches in 2013. These include: point of sale intrusions, web application attacks, insider misuse, physical theft/loss, miscellaneous errors, crimeware, card skimmers, denial of service attacks, and cyber-espionage. They have also identified the breakdown of these patterns in various industries, highlighting some of the greatest sources of cyber risk for your business:

Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report

Verizon’s report also offers specific information about the patterns and advice on how to respond to them.

Many sources of vulnerability come from within, and there is less variation than you might expect in terms of who the riskiest workers may be. A survey by the Pew Research Center found that 18% of adults have had important personal information stolen online, including Social Security number, credit card, or bank account information—an 8% increase from just six months ago. Further, 21% of adults who use the internet have had an email or social networking account compromised. Two groups that make up a large part of the workforce were hit particularly hard during this period: young adults and baby boomers. The percentage of individuals in these groups who had personal information stolen online doubled between July 2013 and January 2014.

stolen personal data by age

But as this chart shows, all age ranges have experienced a significant amount of data theft as of the beginning of the year.

Indeed, according to meetings-software company TeamViewer, 92% of IT administrators have seen troublesome habits among office workers using company computers. These risky behaviors are frequently known to open the work system to viruses or other malware, including:

  • Browsing social media websites (reported by 82% of IT admins)
  • Opening inappropriate email attachments (57%)
  • Downloading games (52%)
  • Plugging in unauthorized USB devices (51%)
  • Plugging in unauthorized personal devices (50%)
  • Illegal downloads, such as pirated movies, music or software (45%)
  • Looking for other jobs (39%)

Further, nine out of 10 IT administrators reported witnessing problems to company equipment because of these actions, including viruses (77%), slow computers (74%), crashed computers (55%), mass popups (48%) and inability to open email (33%). Not only do these behaviors leave corporate infrastructure at risk, but they may endanger the overall HR program, as a vast proportion of IT workers report feeling frustrated, angry and discouraged. Up to 12% even said that they were considering quitting over these bad behaviors and increased strain on the IT department.

So what can you do? Administrators agreed that better security software, using remote access to fix problems, installing disk cleanup software, integrating automatic backup solutions, and offering the ability to telecommute would all help mitigate these issues and make their jobs easier.