McAfee report reveals techniques used in data breaches

The report brings to light the growing ease of purchasing POS malware and selling stolen credit card numbers and other personal consumer data online. 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. 

This accelerating trend could pose a significant threat to the long-established certificate authority (CA) model for authenticating “safe” software.

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 40m credit card numbers reported stolen in batches of between 1m and 4m 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 monetizing 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 saw the number of malicious signed binaries triple to more than 8m suspicious binaries. In the fourth quarter alone, McAfee Labs found more than 2.3m new malicious signed applications, a 52 per cent 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.

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.

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.

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