McAfee report looks at ‘dark web’ industry, data breaches

  • Underground market supports ‘POS’ cybercrime, from coding to monetisation
  • Digitally-signed malware threatens long-established certificate authority model
McAfee report looks at ‘dark web’ industry, data breaches

SECURITY specialist McAfee Labs recently released the McAfee Labs Threats Report: Fourth Quarter 2013, highlighting the role of the ‘dark web’ or ‘dark net’ malware industry as a key enabler of the high-profile point-of-sale (POS) attacks and data breaches in the fall of 2013.
The report brings to light the growing ease of purchasing POS malware online, and selling stolen credit card numbers and other personal consumer data online, the company said in a statement.
McAfee Labs also saw the number of digitally-signed malware samples triple over the course of 2013, driven largely by the abuse of automated Content Distribution Networks (CDNs) that wrap malicious binaries within digitally-signed, otherwise legitimate installers.
McAfee Labs believes this accelerating trend could pose a significant threat to the long-established certificate authority (CA) model for authenticating ‘safe’ software.
Detailed research of the high-profile Q4 (fourth quarter) credit card data breaches found that the POS malware used in the attacks were relatively unsophisticated technologies likely purchased ‘off the shelf’ from the Cybercrime-as-a-Service community, and customised specifically for these attacks.
McAfee Labs’ ongoing research into underground dark web markets further identified the attempted sale of stolen credit card numbers and personal information known to have been compromised in the Q4 retail breaches.
The researchers found the thieves offering for sale some of the 40 million credit card numbers reported stolen in batches of between one million and four million at a time.
“The fourth quarter of 2013 will be remembered as the period when cybercrime became ‘real’ for more people than ever before,” said Vincent Weafer, senior vice president for McAfee Labs.
“These cyber thefts occurred at a time when most people were focused on their holiday shopping and when the industry wanted people to feel secure and confident in their purchases.
The impact of these attacks will be felt both at the kitchen table as well as the boardroom table. For security practitioners, the ‘off the shelf’ genesis of some of these crime campaigns , the scale of operations, and the ease of digitally monetising stolen customer data all represent a coming of age for both Cybercrime-as-a-Service and the ‘dark web’ overall.”
By the end of 2013, McAfee Labs said it saw the number of malicious signed binaries in its database triple, to more than eight million suspicious binaries. In the fourth quarter alone, McAfee Labs found more than 2.3 million new malicious signed applications, a 52% increase from the previous quarter.
The practice of code-signing software validates the identity of the developer who produced the code and ensures the code has not been tampered with since the issue of its digital certificate, the company pointed out.
Although the total number of signed malware samples includes stolen, purchased, or abused certificates, the vast majority of growth is due to dubious CDNs. These are websites and companies that allow developers to upload their programs, or a URL that links to an external application, and wrap it in a signed installer.
“We can see from the threat statistics in the Q4 report that Asia Pacific comes in third place after North America and the Europe-Middle East market, with 8.4% of servers hosting suspect content here,” said Wahab Yusoff, vice president for McAfee South Asia.
“Although only a rather small number of suspicious content is hosted in Asia, we should remain vigilant and monitor the situation as cyber-attacks don’t know physical boarders,” he added.
The McAfee Labs team warns that the growing number of maliciously signed files could create confusion among users and administrators, and even call into question the continued viability of the CA model for code signing.
“Although the expansion of the CA and CDN industries has dramatically lowered the cost of developing and issuing software for developers, the standards for qualifying the identity of the publisher have also decreased dramatically,” said Weafer.
“We will need to learn to place more trust in the reputation of the vendor that signed the file, and less trust in the simple presence of a certificate,” he added.
Additional Q4 2013 findings:

  • Mobile malware: McAfee Labs collected 2.47 million new mobile samples in 2013, with 744,000 in the fourth quarter alone. Its mobile malware zoo of unique samples grew by an astounding 197% from the end of 2012, it said.
  • Ransomware: The volume of new ransomware samples rose by one million new samples for the year, doubling in number from Q4 2012 to Q4 2013.
  • Suspicious URLs: McAfee Labs recorded a 70% increase in the number of suspect URLs in 2013.
  • Malware proliferation: In 2013, McAfee Labs found 200 new malware samples every minute, or more than three new threats every second.
  • Master boot record-related: McAfee Labs found 2.2 million new MBR-attacks in 2013.

Each quarter, the McAfee Labs team of 500 multidisciplinary researchers in 30 countries follows the complete range of threats in real time, identifying application vulnerabilities, analysing and correlating risks, and enabling instant remediation to protect enterprises and the public.
To read the full McAfee Labs Threats Report: Fourth Quarter 2013, go to
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