Navigating Into the Journey of Malware

Eli
Eli
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March 16, 2024
5 min

Navigating Into the Journey of Malware

Malware, or malicious software, is any software that has been intentionally created to bring damage to a computer, server, client, or computer network. It includes a wide range of malicious software, including viruses, worms, trojans, ransomware, spyware, adware, and others. Each sort of malware functions differently, but they all have the same goal: to exploit or harm the targeted systems and data.

Understanding malware is critical in today's digital environment, given our growing reliance on technology and the internet for personal, professional, and governmental purposes. Cybercriminals are constantly developing complex viruses to steal sensitive information, disrupt systems, and harm financial and reputational interests. As cyberthreats increase, awareness and knowledge of malware assist individuals and companies in implementing effective cybersecurity measures, protecting their digital assets, and ensuring the integrity and confidentiality of their data.

Types of Malware

Viruses

Computer viruses are harmful programs that implant themselves in normal files or applications, allowing them to spread from one system to another. They frequently require user interaction to spread, such as opening an infected email attachment or downloading a corrupted file. Viruses can inflict severe damage, such as distorting or destroying information and slowing down system performance. They can also construct backdoors that allow other viruses to enter, resulting in more security breaches.

Worms

Worms, unlike viruses, do not require a host file or human interaction to spread. They are self-replicating programs that exploit flaws to spread across networks. Worms commonly target networked systems, such as servers and personal PCs. They can use bandwidth and system resources, causing network slowdowns or crashes.

Trojans

Trojans pose as legitimate software or files to trick users into downloading and running them. They frequently appear as email attachments, software downloads, or even as components of seemingly harmless applications. Trojans frequently enter the system through email attachments, compromised websites, and software downloads from untrusted sources. Once inside, they can commit a range of criminal acts, such as stealing data or installing more malware.

Ransomware

Ransomware encrypts the victims' files, making them inaccessible. The attacker then demands a ransom payment in exchange for the decryption key required to access the data. Victims are usually persuaded into paying the ransom with threats of data loss or public disclosure of important information. Payment in bitcoins is frequently asked to protect the attacker's anonymity.

Spyware

Spyware discreetly monitors user activities and collects personal information such browsing history, login credentials, and financial information. It frequently runs without the user's knowledge. By sending acquired data to third parties, spyware can cause identity theft, financial loss, and serious breaches of privacy. It can also reduce system performance by depleting resources.

Adware

Adware shows intrusive advertisements on the user's device, typically in the form of pop-ups or banners. While not necessarily damaging, it can be disruptive and damage the user experience. Some adware can monitor user behavior and collect data without permission. It may also act as a conduit for more serious malware, increasing the likelihood of subsequent infections.

Rootkits

Rootkits are intended to obtain full access to a system, allowing attackers to operate it remotely. They can conceal their presence and that of other malware, making detection extremely difficult. They also function at a low level in the operating system, frequently bypassing typical security measures. Specialized equipment and techniques are necessary for effective detection and removal.

Impacts of Malware

Economic Impact on Businesses and Individuals

Malware has a significant economic impact on organizations and individuals. Cybercrime, including malware attacks, is expected to cost the globe $10.5 trillion per year by 2025, making it one of the most serious economic concerns worldwide. Businesses endure immediate financial losses as a result of stolen money, disrupted operations, and the costs of restoring systems and data. For example, ransomware attacks are predicted to produce $265 billion in annual damages by 2031. These expenses include not only ransom payments, but also decreased productivity, legal bills, and higher insurance rates. Individuals, on the other hand, may face identity theft and financial fraud, resulting in personal financial devastation and long-term credit troubles.

Disruption of Services and Operations

Malware can seriously interrupt services and operations, especially in important areas like healthcare, energy, and government agencies. Ransomware attacks, for example, have caused significant disruption in the healthcare sector, resulting in losses of more than $7.8 billion due to disrupted services. When important services such as hospitals and emergency responders are disrupted, company activities might be put on hold critical services delayed, and even lives endangered. The Loiret departmental council's ransomware attack in 2023 is an example of how activities were suspended and staff were forced to pay a ransom to restart work. The broader implications include a loss of customer trust and potential legal liabilities.

Real-World Examples

  • XLoader (2021): A Formbook variation designed to steal login passwords, record keystrokes, and download files. One of the most common types of malware, affecting both Windows and MacOS systems.
  • Lazarus (2022): It disguised as job postings to target users of Coinbase and Crypto.com and aimed at stealing cryptocurrency and sensitive user information.
  • ChromeLoader (2022): A Chrome browser extension that could steal information, hijack search engine queries, and serve adware. It targeted users by manipulating their browser settings and collecting sensitive data.
  • LockBit Ransomware (2023): It targeted the British Royal Mail service and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC). Royal Mail faced an $80 million ransom demand, while TSMC was hit due to a breach at its partner Kinnmax.
  • MoveIt Ransomware Attacks (2023): It exploited a vulnerability in the MoveIt Transfer software from Progress Software and affected multiple organizations, including U.S. government agencies, the BBC, British Airways, and HR software provider Zellis.

How Malware Spreads

Phishing Emails and Social Engineering Tactics

Phishing remains one of the most common techniques of spreading malware. Cybercriminals create false emails that appear to be from legitimate sources, typically using a sense of urgency to deceive recipients into taking quick action. These emails may include malicious attachments or links that, when viewed or clicked, install malware on the victim's device. In these phishing attempts, attackers usually use social engineering strategies, such as impersonating trustworthy entities or manipulating human psychology, to trick users into disclosing critical information or installing malware. For example, in one documented scenario, attackers imitate a CEO's email to fool workers into clicking on a malicious link, displaying the extensive research and targeting involved in current phishing attacks.

Malicious Downloads and Drive-by Downloads

Malware can spread by deliberate downloads of malicious files or through more covert means such as drive-by downloads. Malicious downloads can cause users to unintentionally install software packaged with malware, which is frequently obtained from third-party websites or file-sharing services. Drive-by downloads are especially dangerous because they might occur without the user's knowledge or permission. A compromised website examines the visitor's machine for vulnerabilities in outdated apps, operating systems, or browser plugins. If a vulnerability is discovered, malware is immediately downloaded and deployed without the user's knowledge or agreement. This approach is very harmful because it requires no involvement other than accessing an infected website.

Infected Websites and Links

When attackers infiltrate a website, it can become a vector for the spread of malware. On average, a website gets targeted 58 times each day in an attempt to infect it with malware. Once attacked, these websites can transmit malware to visitors via a variety of channels, including malicious advertisements (malvertising) and exploit kits. Malvertising is the practice of putting ads that appear to be normal but include hidden malicious code. When visitors click on these ads, they may be routed to exploit kit landing pages that scan for vulnerabilities and deliver malware payloads. Furthermore, infected links posted via social media, messaging applications, or email might direct visitors to malicious websites meant to spread malware.

Removable Media (USB Drives)

Removable storage devices, particularly USB drives, are still a prevalent means of distributing malware. Many worms are designed to infect removable drives, allowing them to spread when the infected device is attached to a different computer. This strategy is particularly effective in environments where USB drives are often shared, as well as in targeted attacks in which infected disks are purposefully put in public places for unsuspecting victims to find and use. To reduce this danger, users should exercise caution when connecting unknown USB drives to their computers and check removable media with antivirus software before viewing its contents.

Network Vulnerabilities and Unpatched Software

Malware frequently exploits network weaknesses and unpatched software to spread throughout computers. Modern ransomware variants, for example, feature self-propagating algorithms that enable lateral migration inside networks after infecting a single computer. This feature allows malware to quickly grow throughout an organization's infrastructure. Unpatched software is another major vulnerability, as cybercriminals regularly exploit known security holes in popular apps and operating systems. Regular software upgrades and patch management are critical to preventing malware infections via these channels. Furthermore, using pirated software dramatically raises the risk of malware infection, as illegal copies frequently lack essential security patches and may be pre-infected with dangerous code.

Immediate Steps to Take Upon Detection of Malware

Isolate the Infected Device

  • Disconnect it from all networks (wired and wireless).
  • Remove any connected external storage devices.

Run a Full System Scan

  • Use up-to-date antivirus/anti-malware software.
  • Perform a deep scan of all files and directories.

Identify and Remove Malicious Files

  • Delete or quarantine any detected malware.
  • Remove suspicious programs or browser extensions.

Change All Passwords

  • Update passwords for all accounts accessed on the infected device.
  • Use strong, unique passwords for each account.

Check for Data Breaches

  • Monitor accounts for any suspicious activity.
  • Review recent transactions and logins.

Update and Patch Software

  • Install latest security updates for operating system.
  • Update all applications to their latest versions.

Backup Clean Data

  • Perform a backup of important files (only after confirming they are clean).
  • Store backup on a separate, uninfected device.

Notify Relevant Parties

  • Alert IT department or security team if in a work environment.
  • Inform contacts if the malware may have spread via email or messaging.

Monitor for Recurring Issues

  • Keep an eye out for signs of persistent malware.
  • Run regular scans to ensure the threat has been fully eliminated.

Consider Professional Help

  • If the malware persists or damage is extensive, consult cybersecurity experts.

Additional Resources