Worst Malware and Threat Actors
Two reports call out the most serious malware attacks and attackers of the year (so far).

What is the worst malware to rear its head in 2018? The year isn’t quite over, but candidates for the role of “worst” have made themselves clear.

According to a new report issued by Webroot, among the worst are three large botnets. The list starts with Emotet, included because of its ability to spread laterally within a victim’s network. Trickbot follows, both on the list and in the wild, adding capabilities (including the ability to carry ransomware payloads) to the ones introduced by Emotet. Zeus Panda is the third member of the botnet and banking Trojan trio, included because it employs a wide variety of distribution methods to infect its victims.

These botnets are, together, part of a major trend that has been building for some time, says Chris Doman, an AlienVault threat engineer. “One of the new, interesting trends is that the commercial malware people are looking toward open source and rentable malware because it makes them harder to trace and means that they can pay others to do development,” he states. Malware-as-a-service puts malicious capabilities into the hands of those who may have very little technical sophistication, he adds.

AlienVault, an AT&T company, has released its own report that looks at the top threats and exploits seen in the first half of the year. It finds that malicious actors are broadening the horizons on which they attack and constantly shifting their approaches to evade detection and remediation.

Asked whether the overall news regarding malware is good or bad, Doman says, “The answer varies depending on which side you’re looking at. Are there more threats out there and more exploitable vulnerabilities? Yes.” At the same time, he says, “The defensive side is getting better. It doesn’t get the attention because it’s not as sexy as the hacking, but there are a lot of things today that are built in and we don’t have to think about.”

One of the areas AlienVault’s research looked at is major threat actors; this year, Lazarus took the No. 1 spot from Fancy Bear as the most-reported. The top 10 malicious actors were distributed across the globe, launching threats from North Korea (two groups), Russia (three), Iran (two), China (two), and India (one). According to the Webroot report, those top malicious actors have been busy in both rentable malware networks and ransomware. Webroot identifies the three worst ransomware actors for 2018 as Crysis/Dharma, GandCrab, and SamSam.

According to the AlienVault report, one change from 2017 is the distribution of the top threats and vulnerabilities across platforms. Whereas 2017’s top vulnerabilities were found almost exclusively in Microsoft Office and Adobe Flash, this year hackers have exploited vulnerabilities in Web application servers and Internet of Things (IoT) devices. That said, Microsoft Office still accounts for half the top 10, and Adobe Flash is still the home of the third vulnerability.

The malicious actors are increasingly turning from a near-exclusive focus on Microsoft and Adobe software to remote exploits of IoT and Web application platforms, such as Drupal, as they build cryptomining botnets to generate ready income and remain under the radar of law enforcement agencies.

Javvad Malik, security advocate at AlienVault, says that many of those technologically unsophisticated criminals have turned their hands to ransomware. “Because of the ease of deployment and the open system nature, [ransomware] can be deployed by people who aren’t hardened criminals,” Malik says. “It could pay for someone’s college fees, and then the cultural issues come in, where the perpetrators don’t see it as a real crime.”

AlienVault’s Doman says the Internet has, so far, avoided the mass wave of ransomware that marked 2017. “One thing that struck me is that last year we had things like WannaCry and BadRabbit — a few big worms that spread around causing chaos. They had ties to nation-states,” he says. “This year we haven’t had so much. There was Olympic Destroyer, but it was a one-off.”

Despite the focus on bad actors and malware, one piece of good news is improved information sharing about malicious software is becoming standard practice in the security field, Malik says. “A lot of the improvements are down to the more open sharing nature of what we’re doing,” he says. “We’re seeing a lot more independent researchers reaching out and sharing their data and research. I think that’s a very good thing.”

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Curtis Franklin Jr. is Senior Editor at Dark Reading. In this role he focuses on product and technology coverage for the publication. In addition he works on audio and video programming for Dark Reading and contributes to activities at Interop ITX, Black Hat, INsecurity, and … View Full Bio

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