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As the recent Conficker malware outbreak clearly demonstrated with an estimated 10 million systems infected, cyber exploits are still wreaking havoc despite better security practices and near ubiquitous antivirus. The recent U.S. Cybersecurity Policy Review found industry estimates of domestic losses from intellectual property to data theft in 2008 ranging as high as $1 trillion.

With all this money involved, cyber criminals clearly have the resources and motivation to develop sophisticated malware to break into private networks. And cyber criminals have a whole arsenal of tactics to use.

They can capitalize on newly discovered OS and application vulnerabilities, use security bypass toolkits, and exploit Web 2.0 applications such as social networking where user-generated content (like malware) can be uploaded. Social engineering attacks via email are still common, but require user interaction to activate a malware binary or malicious URL.

Today's stealthy "drive-by" tactics require no such interaction by compromising legitimate Web sites and embedding malicious JavaScript that exploits browser and plug-in vulnerabilities to install "dropper" malware. For example, the July 6, 2009 Microsoft Security Advisory (972890) confirmed a new vulnerability in the Microsoft Video ActiveX Control.

An attacker who successfully exploited this vulnerability could gain the same user rights as the local user. When using Internet Explorer, code execution is remote and may not require any user intervention. At the time Microsoft indicated the company was aware of attacks attempting to exploit the vulnerability.

The aggressive use of Web exploits and non-Web callback channels represent the primary mechanism for today's cyber criminals to open up covert channels for data theft. So, the initial infection and installation of the so-called dropper malware may occur via the Web, but is simply the first step.

Further malware payloads are downloaded by the dropper malware utilizing various protocols. Typical security procedures allow outbound communications originating from within the network to exit the organization. Subsequent, related inbound replies are also allowed (e.g. stateful inspection firewalls operate on this principle.)


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