Entries Tagged "Symantec"

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xHelper Malware for Android

xHelper is not interesting because of its infection mechanism; the user has to side-load an app onto his phone. It’s not interesting because of its payload; it seems to do nothing more than show unwanted ads. it’s interesting because of its persistence:

Furthermore, even if users spot the xHelper service in the Android operating system’s Apps section, removing it doesn’t work, as the trojan reinstalls itself every time, even after users perform a factory reset of the entire device.

How xHelper survives factory resets is still a mystery; however, both Malwarebytes and Symantec said xHelper doesn’t tamper with system services system apps. In addition, Symantec also said that it was “unlikely that Xhelper comes preinstalled on devices.”

In some cases, users said that even when they removed the xHelper service and then disabled the “Install apps from unknown sources” option, the setting kept turning itself back on, and the device was reinfected in a matter of minutes after being cleaned.

From Symantec:

We first began seeing Xhelper apps in March 2019. Back then, the malware’s code was relatively simple, and its main function was visiting advertisement pages for monetization purposes. The code has changed over time. Initially, the malware’s ability to connect to a C&C server was written directly into the malware itself, but later this functionality was moved to an encrypted payload, in an attempt to evade signature detection. Some older variants included empty classes that were not implemented at the time, but the functionality is now fully enabled. As described previously, Xhelper’s functionality has expanded drastically in recent times.

We strongly believe that the malware’s source code is still a work in progress.

It’s a weird piece of malware. That level of persistence speaks to a nation-state actor. The continuous evolution of the malware implies an organized actor. But sending unwanted ads is far too noisy for any serious use. And the infection mechanism is pretty random. I just don’t know.

Posted on November 8, 2019 at 6:10 AMView Comments

Estimating the Cost of Internet Insecurity

It’s really hard to estimate the cost of an insecure Internet. Studies are all over the map. A methodical study by RAND is the best work I’ve seen at trying to put a number on this. The results are, well, all over the map:

Estimating the Global Cost of Cyber Risk: Methodology and Examples“:

Abstract: There is marked variability from study to study in the estimated direct and systemic costs of cyber incidents, which is further complicated by the considerable variation in cyber risk in different countries and industry sectors. This report shares a transparent and adaptable methodology for estimating present and future global costs of cyber risk that acknowledges the considerable uncertainty in the frequencies and costs of cyber incidents. Specifically, this methodology (1) identifies the value at risk by country and industry sector; (2) computes direct costs by considering multiple financial exposures for each industry sector and the fraction of each exposure that is potentially at risk to cyber incidents; and (3) computes the systemic costs of cyber risk between industry sectors using Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development input, output, and value-added data across sectors in more than 60 countries. The report has a companion Excel-based modeling and simulation platform that allows users to alter assumptions and investigate a wide variety of research questions. The authors used a literature review and data to create multiple sample sets of parameters. They then ran a set of case studies to show the model’s functionality and to compare the results against those in the existing literature. The resulting values are highly sensitive to input parameters; for instance, the global cost of cyber crime has direct gross domestic product (GDP) costs of $275 billion to $6.6 trillion and total GDP costs (direct plus systemic) of $799 billion to $22.5 trillion (1.1 to 32.4 percent of GDP).

Here’s Rand’s risk calculator, if you want to play with the parameters yourself.

Note: I was an advisor to the project.

Separately, Symantec has published a new cybercrime report with their own statistics.

Posted on January 29, 2018 at 6:18 AMView Comments

Suckfly

Suckfly seems to be another Chinese nation-state espionage tool, first stealing South Korean certificates and now attacking Indian networks.

Symantec has done a good job of explaining how Suckfly works, and there’s a lot of good detail in the blog posts. My only complaint is its reluctance to disclose who the targets are. It doesn’t name the South Korean companies whose certificates were stolen, and it doesn’t name the Indian companies that were hacked:

Many of the targets we identified were well known commercial organizations located in India. These organizations included:

  • One of India’s largest financial organizations
  • A large e-commerce company
  • The e-commerce company’s primary shipping vendor
  • One of India’s top five IT firms
  • A United States healthcare provider’s Indian business unit
  • Two government organizations

Suckfly spent more time attacking the government networks compared to all but one of the commercial targets. Additionally, one of the two government organizations had the highest infection rate of the Indian targets.

My guess is that Symantec can’t disclose those names, because those are all customers and Symantec has confidentiality obligations towards them. But by leaving this information out, Symantec is harming us all. We have to make decisions on the Internet all the time about who to trust and who to rely on. The more information we have, the better we can make those decisions. And the more companies are publicly called out when their security fails, the more they will try to make security better.

Symantec’s motivation in releasing information about Suckfly is marketing, and that’s fine. There, its interests and the interests of the research community are aligned. But here, the interests diverge, and this is the value of mandatory disclosure laws.

Posted on May 26, 2016 at 6:31 AMView Comments

Regin Malware

Last week, we learned about a striking piece of malware called Regin that has been infecting computer networks worldwide since 2008. It’s more sophisticated than any known criminal malware, and everyone believes a government is behind it. No country has taken credit for Regin, but there’s substantial evidence that it was built and operated by the United States.

This isn’t the first government malware discovered. GhostNet is believed to be Chinese. Red October and Turla are believed to be Russian. The Mask is probably Spanish. Stuxnet and Flame are probably from the U.S. All these were discovered in the past five years, and named by researchers who inferred their creators from clues such as who the malware targeted.

I dislike the “cyberwar” metaphor for espionage and hacking, but there is a war of sorts going on in cyberspace. Countries are using these weapons against each other. This affects all of us not just because we might be citizens of one of these countries, but because we are all potentially collateral damage. Most of the varieties of malware listed above have been used against nongovernment targets, such as national infrastructure, corporations, and NGOs. Sometimes these attacks are accidental, but often they are deliberate.

For their defense, civilian networks must rely on commercial security products and services. We largely rely on antivirus products from companies such as Symantec, Kaspersky, and F-Secure. These products continuously scan our computers, looking for malware, deleting it, and alerting us as they find it. We expect these companies to act in our interests, and never deliberately fail to protect us from a known threat.

This is why the recent disclosure of Regin is so disquieting. The first public announcement of Regin was from Symantec, on November 23. The company said that its researchers had been studying it for about a year, and announced its existence because they knew of another source that was going to announce it. That source was a news site, the Intercept, which described Regin and its U.S. connections the following day. Both Kaspersky and F-Secure soon published their own findings. Both stated that they had been tracking Regin for years. All three of the antivirus companies were able to find samples of it in their files since 2008 or 2009.

So why did these companies all keep Regin a secret for so long? And why did they leave us vulnerable for all this time?

To get an answer, we have to disentangle two things. Near as we can tell, all the companies had added signatures for Regin to their detection database long before last month. The VirusTotal website has a signature for Regin as of 2011. Both Microsoft security and F-Secure started detecting and removing it that year as well. Symantec has protected its users against Regin since 2013, although it certainly added the VirusTotal signature in 2011.

Entirely separately and seemingly independently, all of these companies decided not to publicly discuss Regin’s existence until after Symantec and the Intercept did so. Reasons given vary. Mikko Hyponnen of F-Secure said that specific customers asked him not to discuss the malware that had been found on their networks. Fox IT, which was hired to remove Regin from the Belgian phone company Belgacom’s website, didn’t say anything about what it discovered because it “didn’t want to interfere with NSA/GCHQ operations.”

My guess is that none of the companies wanted to go public with an incomplete picture. Unlike criminal malware, government-grade malware can be hard to figure out. It’s much more elusive and complicated. It is constantly updated. Regin is made up of multiple modules — Fox IT called it “a full framework of a lot of species of malware” — making it even harder to figure out what’s going on. Regin has also been used sparingly, against only a select few targets, making it hard to get samples. When you make a press splash by identifying a piece of malware, you want to have the whole story. Apparently, no one felt they had that with Regin.

That is not a good enough excuse, though. As nation-state malware becomes more common, we will often lack the whole story. And as long as countries are battling it out in cyberspace, some of us will be targets and the rest of us might be unlucky enough to be sitting in the blast radius. Military-grade malware will continue to be elusive.

Right now, antivirus companies are probably sitting on incomplete stories about a dozen more varieties of government-grade malware. But they shouldn’t. We want, and need, our antivirus companies to tell us everything they can about these threats as soon as they know them, and not wait until the release of a political story makes it impossible for them to remain silent.

This essay previously appeared in the MIT Technology Review.

Posted on December 8, 2014 at 7:19 AMView Comments

Is Antivirus Dead?

Symantec declared anti-virus dead, and Brian Krebs writes a good response.

He’s right: antivirus won’t protect you from the ever-increasing percentage of malware that’s specifically designed to bypass antivirus software, but it will protect you from all the random unsophisticated attacks out there: the “background radiation” of the Internet.

Posted on May 15, 2014 at 1:18 PMView Comments

How Antivirus Companies Handle State-Sponsored Malware

Since we learned that the NSA has surreptitiously weakened Internet security so it could more easily eavesdrop, we’ve been wondering if it’s done anything to antivirus products. Given that it engages in offensive cyberattacks — and launches cyberweapons like Stuxnet and Flame — it’s reasonable to assume that it’s asked antivirus companies to ignore its malware. (We know that antivirus companies have previously done this for corporate malware.)

My guess is that the NSA has not done this, nor has any other government intelligence or law enforcement agency. My reasoning is that antivirus is a very international industry, and while a government might get its own companies to play along, it would not be able to influence international companies. So while the NSA could certainly pressure McAfee or Symantec — both Silicon Valley companies — to ignore NSA malware, it could not similarly pressure Kaspersky Labs (Russian), F-Secure (Finnish), or AVAST (Czech). And the governments of Russia, Finland, and the Czech Republic will have comparable problems.

Even so, I joined a group of security experts to ask antivirus companies explicitly if they were ignoring malware at the behest of a government. Understanding that the companies could certainly lie, this is the response so far: no one has admitted to doing so.

Up until this moment, only a handful of the vendors have replied ESET, F-Secure, Norman Shark, Kaspersky, Panda and Trend Micro. All of the responding companies have confirmed the detection of state sponsored malware, e.g. R2D2 and FinFisher. Furthermore, they claim they have never received a request to not detect malware. And if they were asked by any government to do so in the future, they said they would not comply. All the aforementioned companies believe there is no such thing as harmless malware.

Posted on December 2, 2013 at 6:05 AMView Comments

New York Times Hacked by China

The New York Times hack was big news last week, and I spent a lot of time doing press interviews about it. But while it is an important story — hacking a newspaper for confidential sources is fundamentally different from hacking a random network for financial gain — it’s not much different than GhostNet in 2009, Google’s Chinese hacking stories from 2010 and 2011, or others.

Why all the press, then? Turns out that if you hack a major newspaper, one of the side effects is a 2,400-word newspaper story about the event.

It’s a good story, and I recommend that people read it. The newspaper learned of the attack early on, and had a reporter embedded in the team as they spent months watching the hackers and clearing them out. So there’s a lot more detail than you usually get. But otherwise, this seems like just another of the many cyberattacks from China. (It seems that the Wall Street Journal was also hacked, but they didn’t write about it. This tells me that, with high probability, other high-profile news organizations around the world were hacked as well.)

My favorite bit of the New York Times story is when they ding Symantec for not catching the attacks:

Over the course of three months, attackers installed 45 pieces of custom malware. The Times ­– which uses antivirus products made by Symantec ­– found only one instance in which Symantec identified an attacker’s software as malicious and quarantined it, according to Mandiant.

Symantec, of course, had to respond:

Turning on only the signature-based anti-virus components of endpoint solutions alone are not enough in a world that is changing daily from attacks and threats. We encourage customers to be very aggressive in deploying solutions that offer a combined approach to security. Anti-virus software alone is not enough.

It’s nice to have them on record as saying that.

EDITED TO ADD (2/6): This blog post on Symantec’s response is really good.

Posted on February 6, 2013 at 6:36 AMView Comments

Stealing Source Code

Hackers stole some source code to Symantec’s products. We don’t know what was stolen or how recent the code is — the company is, of course, minimizing the story — but it’s hard to get worked up about this. Yes, maybe the bad guys will comb the code looking for vulnerabilities, and maybe there’s some smoking gun that proves Symantec’s involvement in something sinister, but most likely Symantec’s biggest problem is public embarrassment.

Posted on January 9, 2012 at 12:55 PMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.