How social media platforms mine personal data for profit

It’s almost impossible not to rely on social networks in some way, whether for personal reasons or business. Sites such as LinkedIn continue to blur the line, increasing the amount of social function over time with features and services resembling less formal sites, such as Facebook. Can anyone imagine not relying on, of all things, Twitter to catch up on breaking coronavirus news around the world instantly? The trade off is your data, and how they profit from it.

Like it or not—and it’s entirely possibly it’s a big slab of “not”—these services are here to stay, and we may be “forced” to keep using them. Some of the privacy concerns that lead people to say, “Just stop using them” are well founded. The reality, however, is not quite so straightforward.

For example, in many remote regions, Facebook or Twitter might be the only free Internet access people have. And with pockets of restriction on free press, social media often represents the only outlet for “truth” for some users. There are some areas where people can receive unlimited Facebook access when they top up their mobiles. If they’re working, they’ll almost always use Facebook Messenger or another social media chat tool to stay in touch rather than drain their SMS allowance.

Many of us can afford to walk away from these services; but just as many of us simply can’t consider it when there’s nothing else to take its place.

Mining for data (money) has never been so profitable.

But how did this come to be? In the early days of Facebook, it was hard to envision the platform being used to spread disinformation, assist in genocide, or sell user data to third-parties. We walk users through the social media business model and show how the inevitable happens: when a product is free, the commodity is you and your data.

Setting up social media shop

Often, Venture Capital backing is how a social network springs into life. This is where VC firms invest lots of money for promising-looking services/technology with the expectation they’ll make big money and gain a return on investment in the form of ownership stakes. When the company is bought out or goes public, it’s massive sacks of cash for everybody. (Well, that’s the dream. The reality is usually quite a bit more complicated).

It’s not exactly common for these high-risk gambles to pay off, and what often happens is the company never quite pops. They underperform, or key staff leave, and they expand a little too rapidly with the knock-on effect that the CEO suddenly has this massive service with millions of users and no sensible way to turn that user base into profit (and no way to retain order on a service rife with chaos).

At that point, they either muddle along, or they look to profit in other ways. That “other way” is almost always via user data. I mean, it’s all there, so why not? Here are just some of the methods social networks deploy to turn bums on seats into massive piles of cash.

Advertising on social media

This is the most obvious one, and a primary driver for online revenue for many a year. Social media platforms tend to benefit in a way other more traditional publishers cannot, and revenue streams appear to be quite healthy in terms of user-revenue generation.

Advertising is a straight-forward way for social media networks to not only make money from the data they’ve collected, but also create chains where external parties potentially dip into the same pool, too.

At its most basic, platforms can offer ad space to advertisers. Unlike traditional publishing, social media ads can be tailored to personalized data the social network sees you searching for, talking about, or liking daily. If you thought hitting “like” (or its equivalent) on a portal was simply a helpful thumbs up in the general direction of someone providing content, think again. It’s quite likely feeding data into the big pot of “These are the ads we should show this person.” 

Not only is everything you punch into the social network (and your browser) up for grabs, but everything your colleagues and associates do too, tying you up in a neat little bow of social media profiling. All of it can then be mined to make associations and estimations, which will also feed back to ad units and, ultimately, profit.

Guesstimates are based on the interests of you, your family, your friends, and your friends’ friends, plus other demographic-specific clues, such as your job title, pictures of your home, travel experiences, cars, and marriage status. Likely all of these data points help the social network neatly estimate your income, another way to figure out which specific adverts to send your way.

After all, if they send you the wrong ads, they lose. If you’re not clicking through and popping a promo page, the advertisers aren’t really winning. All that ad investment is essentially going to waste unless you’re compelled to make use of it in some way.

Even selling your data to advertisers or other marketing firms could be on the table. Depending on terms of service, it’s entirely possible the social platforms you use can anonymise their treasure trove and sell it for top dollar to third parties. Even in cases where the data isn’t sold, simply having it out there is always a bit risky.

There have been many unrelated, non-social media instances where it turned out supposedly anonymous data, wasn’t. There are always people who can come along afterwards and piece it all together, and they don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to do it. All this before you consider social media sites/platforms with social components aren’t immune to the perils of theft, leakage, and data scraping.

As any cursory glance of a security news source will tell you, there’s an awful lot of rogue advertisers out there to offset the perfectly legitimate ones. Whether by purchase or stumbling upon data leaked online, scammers are happy to take social media data and tie it up in email/phone scams and additional fake promos. At that point, even data generated through theoretically legitimate means is being (mis)used in some way by unscrupulous individuals, which only harms the ad industry further.

Apps and ads

Moving from desktop to mobile is a smart move for social networks, and if they’re able to have you install an app, then so much the better (for them). Depending on the mobile platform, they may be able to glean additional information about sites, apps, services, and preferred functionalities, which wouldn’t necessarily be available if you simply used a mobile web browser.

If you browse for any length of time on a mobile device, you’ll almost certainly be familiar with endless pop-ups and push notifications telling you how much cooler and awesome the app version of site X or Y will be. You may also have experienced the nagging sensation that websites seem to degrade in functionality over time on mobile browsers.

Suddenly, the UI is a little worse. The text is tiny. Somehow, you can no longer find previously overt menu options. Certain types of content no longer display correctly or easily, even when it’s something as basic as a jpeg. Did the “Do you want to view this in the app?” popup reverse the positions of the “Yes” and “No” buttons from the last time you saw it? Are they trying to trick you into clicking the wrong thing? It’s hard to remember, isn’t it?

A cynic would say this is all par for the course, but this is something you’ve almost certainly experienced when trying to do anything in social land on a mobile minus an app.

Once you’re locked into said app, a brave new world appears in terms of intimately-detailed data collection and a huge selection of adverts to choose from. Some of them may lead to sponsored affiliate links, opening the data harvesting net still further, or lead to additional third-party downloads. Some of these may be on official platform stores, while others may sit on unofficial third-party websites with all the implied risk such a thing carries.

Even the setup of how apps work on the website proper can drive revenue. Facebook caught some heat back in 2008 for their $375USD developer fee. Simply having a mass of developers making apps for the platform—whether verified or not—generates data that a social network platform can make use of, then tie it back to their users.

It’s all your data, wheeling around in a tumble drier of analytics.

Payment for access/features

Gating access to websites behind paywalls is not particularly popular for the general public. Therefore, most sites with a social networking component will usually charge only for additional services, and those services might not even be directly related to the social networking bit.

LinkedIn is a great example of this: the social networking part is there for anybody to use because it makes all those hilariously bad road warrior lifestyle posts incredibly sticky, and humorous replies are often the way people first land on a profile proper. However, what you’re paying for is increased core functionality unrelated to the “Is this even real?” comedy posts elsewhere.

In social networking land, a non-payment gated approach was required for certain platforms. Orkut, for example, required a login to access any content. Some of the thinking there was that a gated community could keep the bad things out. In reality, when data theft worms started to spread, it just meant the attacks were contained within the walls and hit the gated communities with full force.

The knock-on effect of this was security researchers’ ability to analyse and tackle these threats was delayed because many of these services were either niche or specific to certain regions only. As a result, finding out about these attacks was often at the mercy of simply being informed by random people that “X was happening over in Y.”

These days, access is much more granular, and it’s up to users to display what they want, with additional content requiring you to be logged in to view.

Counting the cost

Of the three approaches listed above, payment/gating is one of the least popular techniques to encourage a revenue stream. Straight up traditional advertising isn’t as fancy as app/site/service integration, but it’s something pretty much anybody can use, which is handy for devs without the mobile know-how or funds available to help make it happen.

Even so, nothing quite compares to the flexibility provided by mobile apps, integrated advertising, and the potential for additional third-party installs. With the added boost to sticky installs via the pulling power of social media influencers, it’s possibly never been harder to resist clicking install for key demographics.

The most important question, then, turns out to be one of the most common: What are you getting in return for loading an app onto your phone?

It’s always been true for apps generally, and it’ll continue to be a key factor in social media mobile data mining for the foreseeable future. “You are the product” might be a bit long in the tooth at this point, but where social media is concerned, it’s absolutely accurate. How could the billions of people worldwide creating the entirety of the content posted be anything else?

The post How social media platforms mine personal data for profit appeared first on Malwarebytes Labs.

GDPR: An impact around the world

A little more than one month after the European Union enacted the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to extend new data privacy rights to its people, the governor of California signed a separate, sweeping data protection law that borrowed several ideas from GDPR, sparking a torch in a legislative data privacy trend that has now spanned at least 10 countries.

In Chile, lawmakers are updating decades-old legislation to guarantee that their Constitutional data protections include the rights to request, modify, and delete personal data. In Argentina, legislators are updating a set of data privacy protections that already granted the country a “whitelist” status, allowing it to more seamlessly transfer data to the European Union. In Brazil, the president signed a data protection law that comes into effect this August that creates a GDPR-like framework, setting up rules for data “controllers” and “owners,” and installing a data protection authority to regulate and review potential violations.

Beyond South America, India is mulling a new law that would restrict how international companies use personal data, but the law includes a massive loophole for government agencies. Canada passed its first, national data breach notification law, and in the United States, multiple state and federal bills have borrowed liberally from GDPR’s ideas to extend the rights of data access, deletion, and portability to the public.

GDPR came into effect two years ago, and its impact is clear: Data privacy is the law of the land, and many lands look to GDPR for inspiration.

Amy de La Lama, a partner at Baker McKenzie who focuses her legal practice on global privacy, data security, and cybersecurity, said the world is undergoing major shifts in data privacy, and that GDPR helped spur much of the current conversations.

“At a high level, there’s a huge amount of movement in the privacy world,” de La Lama said, “and, without a doubt, the GDPR has been a huge driver.”

The following laws and bills are a sample of the many global efforts to bring data privacy home. Often, the newer laws and legislation are influenced by GDPR, but several countries that passed data privacy laws before GDPR are still working to update their own rules to integrate with the EU.

This is GDPR around the world.

South America

Several countries in South America already grant stronger data protection rights to their public than in the United States, with several enshrining a right to data protection in their constitutions.

In 2018, Chile joined that latter club, supplementing its older, constitutional right to privacy with a new right to data protection. The constitution now says:

“The Constitution ensures to every person: … The respect and protection of private life and the honor of the person and his family, and furthermore, the protection of personal data. The treatment and protection of this data will be put into effect in the form and conditions determined by law.”

That last reference to “conditions determined by law” matters deeply to Chileans’ actual data protection rights because even though the Constitution protects data, it does not specify how that data should be protected.

Think of it like the US Constitution, which, for instance, protects US persons against unreasonable searches. Only within the past few decades, however, have courts and lawmakers interpreted whether “unreasonable searches” include, for instance, searches of emails sent through a third-party provider, or searches of historical GPS data tracked by a mobile phone.

Now, Chile is working to determine what its data protection rights will actually include, with a push to repeal and replace a decades-old data protection law called the “Personal Data Protection Act,” or Act No. 19.628. The latest legislative efforts include a push to include the rights to request, modify, and delete personal data, along with the right to withdraw consent from how a company collects, stores, writes, organizes, extracts, transfers, and transmits personal data.

Revamping older data protections is not unique to Chile.

Argentina implemented its Personal Data Protection Law (PDPL) in 2000. But that law, unlike Chile’s, drew inspiration from the European Union long before the passage of GDPR. Instead, Argentina’s lawmakers aligned their legislation with the law that GDPR repealed and replaced—Data Protection Directive of 1995.

This close relationship between Argentinian and European data protection law made Argentina a near shoe-in for the GDPR’s so-called “whitelist,” a list of countries outside the European Union that have been approved for easier cross-country data transfers because of those countries’ “adequate level of data protection.” This status can prove vital for countless companies that move data all around the world.

According to the European Commission, countries that currently enjoy this status include Andorra, Argentina, Canada (for commercial organizations), the Faroe Islands, Guernsey, Israel, Isle of Man, Japan, Jersey, New Zealand, Switzerland, and Uruguay. The US is also included, so long as data transfers happen under the limited Privacy Shield framework—an agreement that replaced the previous, separate data transfer agreement called “Safe Harbor,” which itself was found invalid by the Court of Justice for the European Union.  

(Privacy Shield also faces challenges of its own, so maybe the US should not get too comfortable with its status.)

Despite Argentina’s current whitelist status with the European Commission, the country is still trying to update its data protection framework with a new piece of legislation.

The new bill, Bill No. MEN-2018-147-APN-PTE, was introduced to Argentina’s Congress in September 2018. Its proposed changes include allowing the processing of sensitive data with approved consent from a person, expanding the territorial reach of personal data protections, creating new rules for when to report data breaches to the country’s data regulator, and drastically increasing the sanctions for violating the law.

Within South America, there is still at least one more country influenced by GDPR.

In August 2018, Brazil’s then-president Michel Temer signed the country’s General Data Privacy Law (“Lei Geral de Proteção de Dados Pessoais” or LGPD). The law comes into effect August 2020.

The similarities to GDPR are many, de La Lama said.

“Like the GDPR, the new law, when it comes into effect, applies extraterritorially, contains notice and consent and cross-border transfer requirements as well as obligations with regard to data subject rights and data protection officer appointment,” de La Lama said. “EU Standard Contractual clauses may be recognized under the new law but this step has not yet been taken.”

The LGPD defines “sensitive data” as personal data that reveals racial or ethnic origin, political opinions, religious or philosophical beliefs, and trade union membership, along with genetic data, biometric data used for uniquely identifying a natural person, health and medical information, and data concerns a person’s sex life or sexual orientation.

Similar to GDPR, Brazil’s LGPD also creates a distinction between data controllers or owners, and data processors, a framework that has quickly rolled out in proposed laws around the world, including the United States. Brazil’s LGPD also applies beyond the country’s borders. The law applies to companies and organizations that offer goods or services to those living within Brazil, much like how GDPR applies to companies that direct marketing towards those living inside the European Union.

The law also, following amendments, includes the creation of the Brazilian Data Protection Authority. That body will have the sole authority to issue regulations and sanctions for organizations that violate the law because of a data breach.  

India

In late 2019, India’s lawmakers introduced a data protection law two years in the making, which included minor similarities to the EU’s GDPR. The Personal Data Protection Bill of 2019, or PDPB, would require international companies to seek the consent of India’s public for many uses of personal data, and grant the people a new right to have their data erased.

The similarities stop there.

While portions of the law feint the main purpose of GDPR, the data protections actually included suffer from an enormous loophole. As written, though the law’s data restrictions apply to government agencies, the law also allows the newly-created data protection authority to pick any government agency that it wants exempted.

The law would permit New Delhi to “exempt any agency of government from application of Act in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order,” according to an early, leak draft of the law obtained by TechCrunch.

This exceptionally broad language is akin to any loophole in the United States that applies to “national security,” and it is one that digital rights activists in India are fighting.

“This is particularly concerning in India given that the government is the largest collector of data,” said Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, in talking to the New York Times.

Salman Waris, who leads the technology practice at the New Delhi law firm TechLegis, also told the New York Times that the new Indian law purports to protect the public while actually accomplishing something else.

“It gives a semblance of owning your data, and having the right to know how it is used, to the individual,” Waris said, “but at the same time it provides carte blanche to the government.”

GDPR in the United States

Though we’ve focused on GDPR’s impact on a global scale, it is impossible to deny the influence felt at home in the United States.

While Congress’s efforts to pass a comprehensive data privacy law date back to the Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2018, some of the ideas embedded in more current data privacy legislation relate directly to GDPR.

One clear example is the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), said Sarah Bruno, partner at Reed Smith who works at the intersection of intellectual property, privacy, and advertising. Though the law was signed less than one month after GDPR took effect in the EU, it was drafted with more than enough time to borrow from GDPR after that law’s earlier approval, in 2016.

“GDPR did have an impact on CCPA,” Bruno said, “and it has a lot of components in CCPA.”

CCPA grants Californians the rights to access and delete data, the right to take their data and port it to a separate provider, along with the right to know what data about them is being collected. Californians also enjoy the explicit right to opt out of having their data sold, which is not verbatim included in GDPR, though that law does give residents protections that could result in a similar outcome. And though CCPA does not grant rights to “data subjects,” as written in GDPR, it does have a similar scope of effect. Much of the law is about giving consumers access to their own information.

“Consumers are able to write to a company, similar to GDPR, to find out what information [the company] is collecting on them, via cookies, about their purchase history, what they’re looking at on websites when on there,” Bruno said. She added that CCPA contends that “all that information, a California consumer should have access to that, and that’s new in the US, but similar to GDPR.”

But California is just one state inspired by GDPR. There’s also Washington, which, earlier this year, introduced a remodeled version of its Data Privacy Act.

“It’s similar as well to CCPA,” Bruno said about Washington’s revamped bill. “As I call it, CCPA plus.”

The Data Privacy Act scores close to GDPR, in that it borrows some of the EU law’s language on data “controllers” and “processors,” which would both receive new restrictions on how personal data is collected and shared. The law, much like GDPR, would also provide Washingtonians with the rights to access, control, delete, and port their data. Much like CCPA, the Data Privacy Act would also let residents specifically opt out of data sales.

Though the bill initially drew a warm welcome from Microsoft and the Future of Privacy Forum, shortly after, Electronic Frontier Foundation opposed the legislation, calling it a “weak, token effort at reining in corporations’ rampant misuse of personal data.”

The bill, introduced on January 13 this year, has not moved forward.

GDPR’s legacy: Fines or fatigue?

GDPR’s passage came with a clear warning sign to potential violators—break the law and face fines of up to 2 percent of global revenue. For an Internet conglomerate like Alphabet, which owns Google, such an enforcement action would mean paying more than a billion dollars. The same is true for Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Verizon, and AT&T, just to name a few.

Despite having the tools to hand down billion-dollar penalties, authorities across Europe were initially shy to use them. In early January 2019, France’s National Data Protection Commission (CNIL) slapped a €50 million penalty against Google after investigators found a “lack of transparency, inadequate information and lack of valid consent regarding the ads personalization.” It was the largest penalty at the time, but it paled in comparison to what GDPR allowed: Based on Alphabet’s 2018 revenue, it could have received a fine of about €2.47 billion, or $2.72 billion in today’s dollars.

Six months later, regulators leaned more heavily into their powers. In July 2019, the Information Commissioner for the United Kingdom (which was at the time still a member of the European Union) fined British Airways $230 million because of an earlier data breach that affected 500,000 customers. The penalty represented 1.5 percent of the airline’s 2018 revenue.

But regulatory fines tell just one side of GDPR’s story, because, as de La Lama said, after the law’s passage, her clients tell her of fatigue in trying to comply with every new law.

The nuances between each country’s data protection laws have produced guide after guide from multiple, global law firms, each attacking the topic with their own enormous tome of information. De la Lama’s own law firm, Baker McKenzie, released its annual, global data protection guide last year, clocking in at 886 pages. A quick glance reveals the subtle but important differences between the world’s laws: Countries that adopt a framework that separates data restrictions between “controllers” and “processors,” countries that protect “consumers” versus “data subjects,” countries that require data breaches to be reported to data protection authorities, countries that create data protection authorities, and countries that differ on just what the hell personal information includes.

Complying with one data protection law can be hard enough, de La Lama said, and there’s little assurances that the current data privacy movement is coming to a close.

“There’s difficulty in trying to bring a company into compliance with a wide variety of privacy and technical specifications and finding internal resources to do that is a daunting task,” de la Lama said. “And when you’re trying to replicate that across multiple jurisdictions, we’re seeing a lot of companies just trying to wrap their arms around how to do that, knowing that GDPR isn’t the end game, but really just the start.”

The post GDPR: An impact around the world appeared first on Malwarebytes Labs.

Coronavirus scams, found and explained

Coronavirus has changed the face of the world, restricting countless individuals from dining at restaurants, working from cafes, and visiting their loved ones. But for cybercriminals, this global pandemic is expanding their horizons.

In the past week, Malwarebytes discovered multiple email scams that prey on the fear, uncertainty, and confusion regarding COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. With no vaccine yet developed, and with much of the world undergoing intense social distancing measures and near-total lockdown procedures, threat actors are flooding cyberspace with emailed promises of health tips, protective diets, and, most dangerously, cures. Attached to threat actors’ emails are a variety of fraudulent e-books, informational packets, and missed invoices that hide a series of keyloggers, ransomware, and data stealers.

The problem expands beyond pure phishing scams.

On March 14, Twitter user @dustyfresh published a web tracker that found 3,600 coronavirus- and COVID-19-related hostnames that sprung up in just 24 hours.

On March 17, security researcher and python developer @sshell_ built a tool, hosted by the team at ThugCrowd, that provides real-time scans for potentially malicious, coronavirus-related domains. Just click the link and watch possible scam sites get registered every minute.

Further, RiskIQ reportedly tracked more than 13,000 suspicious, coronavirus-related domains last weekend, and more than 35,000 domains the next day, too.

Much of these numbers mean nothing without real, useful examples, though. Yes, coronavirus scams and scam sites are out there, but what do they look like, and how do they work? We’re here to explain.

Here are some of the many email scams that Malwarebytes spotted in the wild, with full details on what they say, what they’re lying about, and what types of malware they’re trying to install on your machines. The good news? Malwarebytes protects against every threat described.

Impersonating the World Health Organization

Earlier this week, we found an email phishing campaign sent by threat actors impersonating the World Health Organization (WHO), one of the premier scientific resources on COVID-19. That campaign, which pushed a fake e-book to victims, delivered malicious code for a downloader called GuLoader. That download is just the first step in a more complex scheme.

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As we wrote:

“GuLoader is used to load the real payload, an information-stealing Trojan called FormBook, stored in encoded format on Google Drive. Formbook is one of the most popular info-stealers, thanks to its simplicity and its wide range of capabilities, including swiping content from the Windows clipboard, keylogging, and stealing browser data. Stolen data is sent back to a command and control server maintained by the threat actors.”

Unfortunately, this GuLoader scam is just one of many in which threat actors posed as WHO professionals as a way to trick victims into downloading malicious attachments.

On March 18, we uncovered an email campaign that pushed victims into unwittingly downloading an invasive keylogger called Agent Tesla. The keylogger, which experienced a reported 100 percent increase in activity across three months in 2018, can steal a variety of sensitive data.

As cybersecurity researchers at LastLine wrote: “Acting as a fully-functional information stealer, [Agent Tesla] is capable of extracting credentials from different browsers, mail, and FTP clients. It logs keys and clipboards data, captures screen and video, and performs form-grabbing (Instagram, Twitter, Gmail, Facebook, etc.) attacks.”

The Agent Tesla campaign that we tracked on Wednesday involved an email with the subject line: Covid19″ Latest Tips to stay Immune to Virus !!

The email came to individuals’ inboxes allegedly from the WHO, with a sender email address of “sarah@who.com.” Notice that the sender’s email address ends with “.com” when legitimate WHO email addresses instead end with “.int.”

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The email alleges to include a PDF file about “various diets and tips to keep us safe from being effected with the virus.” It is signed by a “Dr. Sarah Hopkins,” a supposed media relations consultant for the WHO.

A quick online search reveals that the WHO has a public website for contacting its media relations representatives, and that none of those representatives is named Sarah Hopkins. Also, note how “Dr. Hopkins” has a phone number that doesn’t work, at +1 470 59828. Calling the number from a US-based phone resulted in an error message from the mobile service provider.

Interestingly, the above scam is just one example of an email campaign that both impersonates the WHO and attempts to deliver Agent Tesla.

On the same day we found the above-mentioned Agent Tesla scam, we found another that mirrored its tactics and payload.

The second Agent Tesla scam arrives in individuals’ inbox with the email subject line “World Health Organization/Let’s fight Corona Virus together”

Already, savvy readers should spot a flaw. The unnecessary space placed between the words “Corona” and “Virus” mirrors a similar grammatical error, an unnecessary hyphen, in the GuLoader scam we covered on Malwarebytes Labs this week.

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The entire body of the email reads, in verbatim:

We realise that the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus may leave you feeling concerned, so we want to take a moment to reassure you that your safety and well-being remains our absolutely top priority.

Please be assured that our teams are working hard and we are monitoring the situation and developments closely with the health and governmental authorities of all countries we operate in. See attached WHO vital information to stay healthy.

we personally thank you for your understanding and assure you that we will do our utmost to limit disruptions this event brings to your travel plans while keeping your well-being our top priority.

This campaign attempts to trick victims into downloading a fake informational packet on coronavirus, with the file title “COVID-19 WHO RECOMMENDED V.gz.” Instead of trustworthy information, victims are infected with Agent Tesla.

While this campaign does not include as many smoke-and-mirror tactics, such as a fake media representative and a fake phone number, it can still do serious damage simply by stoking the fears surrounding COVID-19.

Finally, we found a possible WHO impersonator pushing the NetWire Remote Access Trojan (RAT). RATS can allow hackers to gain unauthorized access to a machine from a remote location.

As we explain in our Threat Center profile on RATs, these types of Trojan can have devastating effects:

If Remote Access Trojan programs are found on a system, it should be assumed that any personal information (which has been accessed on the infected machine) has been compromised. Users should immediately update all usernames and passwords from a clean computer, and notify the appropriate system administrator of the potential compromise. Monitor credit reports and bank statements carefully over the following months to spot any suspicious activity on financial accounts.

The NetWire campaign included a slapdash combo of a strange email address, an official-looking WHO logo inside the email’s body, and plenty of typos.

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Sent from “Dr. Stella Chungong” using the email address “brennan@caesars.com,” the email subject line is “SAFETY COVID-19 (Coronavirus Virus) AWARENESS – Safety Measures.” The body of the text reads:

To whom it may concern,

Go through the attac=ed document on safety measures regarding the spreading of Corona-virus.

Common symptoms include fever, cough, shortness in breath, and breathi=g difficulties.

Regards.

Dr. Stella Chungong

Specialist whuan=virus-advisory

The litany of misplaced “=” characters should immediately raise red flags for potential victims. These common mistakes show up in a wide variety of malicious email campaigns, as threat actors seem to operate under the mindset of “Send first, spellcheck later.”

Other malspam campaigns

Most of the coronavirus scams we spotted online are examples of malspam—malicious spam email campaigns that cross the line from phony, snake-oil salesmanship into downright nefarious malware delivery.

Here are a number of malspam campaigns that our threat intelligence team found since March 15.

First up is this strange email titled “RE: Due to outbreak ofCoronavirus,” which arrives to users’ inboxes from the vague sender “Marketing,” with an email address of “info@bcsl.co.ke.” A Google search reveals that bcsl.co.ke appears to point to Boresha Credit Service Limited, a debt collector based in Kenya.

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The short email reads:

Hello,

We have been instructed by your customer to make this transfer to you.

we are unable to process your payment as the SWIFT CODE in your bank account information is wrong,

please see that enclosed invoice and correct SWIFT CODE so we can remit payment ASAP before bank close.”

Again, scrutinizing the details of the email reveals holes in its authenticity.

The email is signed by “Rafhana Khan,” a supposed “Admin Executive” from the United Arab Emirates. The email sender includes this extra bit of info that leads us nowhere: TRN No. 100269864300003.

What is a TRN, and why would it be included? At best, we can assume this is the individual’s “tax registration number,” but think about the last time anyone signed an email with the US equivalent—their tax identification number. You’ve probably never seen that before, right? That’s because tax IDs are meant to be private, and not shared in email signatures. We can assume that the threat actors included this bogus bit of info to add some imaginary credibility. Really, it’s just nonsense.

The email’s attached invoice, once again, pushes GuLoader to the potential victim.

Another spotted malspam example pushes neither GuLoader or Agent Telsa. Instead, it tries to trick users into downloading a malware called HawkEye, a credential stealer that has plagued users since at least 2013.

According to the cybersecurity news outlet Security Affairs, HawkEye “is offered for sale on various hacking forums as a keylogger and stealer, [and] it allows to monitor systems and exfiltrate information.”

The HawkEye scam comes packaged in an email with the subject line “CORONA VIRUS CURE FOR CHINA,ITALY” from the alleged sender “DR JINS (CORONA VIRUS).” Again, potential victims receive a short message. The entire email body reads:

Dear Sir/Ma,

Kindly read the attached file for your quick remedy on CORONA VIRUS.

The email sender lists their place of work as the non-existent, misspelled RESEARCH HOSPITAL ISREAL at the address NO 29 JERUSALEM STREET, P.O.C 80067, ISREAL.

A screenshot of a social media post

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On March 15, we also found an email scam targeting victims in the UK and pushing, yet again, GuLoader. This time, threat actors promised updated statistics on the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the United Kingdom.

The malicious email comes from the sender “PHE” with the email address paris@mfa.go.ke, which, like one of the examples above, appears to come from Kenya.

A screenshot of a cell phone

Description automatically generated

Because threat actors have one, overplayed tactic in these types of campaigns—putting in low effort—the content of the email is simple and short. The email reads:

Latest figures from public health authorities on the spread of Covid-19 in the United Kingdom.

Find out how many cases have been reported near you.

There is no email signature, and not even a greeting. Talk about a lack of email etiquette.

Finally, we found another campaign on March 18 that targets Spanish-speaking victims in Spain. The email, titled “Vacuna COVID-19: prepare la vacuna en casa para usted y su familia para evitar COVID-19,” pushes GuLoader.

A screenshot of a social media post

Description automatically generated

The email is signed by “Adriana Erico,” who offers no phone number, but does offer a fax number at 93 784 50 17. Unlike the fake phone number we tested above, we could not test the authenticity of this fax number, because the Bay Area is under a shelter-in-place order, and, truthfully, I don’t own a fax machine in my home.

Protect yourself

Threat actors are always looking for the next crisis to leverage for their own attacks. For them, coronavirus presents a near-perfect storm. Legitimate confusion about accurate confirmed cases, testing availability, and best practices during social distancing makes for a fearful public, hungry for answers anywhere.

Like we said the last time we looked at COVID-19 scams, the best places for information remain the WHO and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

You can find updated statistics about confirmed COVID-19 cases from the WHO’s daily, situation reports here.

You can also find information on coronavirus myths at the WHO’s Myth Busters webpage, along with its Q&A page.  

To help prevent the spread of the illness, remember, wash your hands for at least 20 seconds, refrain from touching your face, and practice social distancing by maintaining a distance of six feet from people not in your household.

This is difficult, this is new, and for many of us, it presents a life-altering shift. It’s important to consider that, right now, banding together as a global community is our best shot at beating this. That advice extends to the online world, too.

While coronavirus might have brought out the worst in cybercriminals, it’s also bringing out the best across the Internet. This week, a supposed “Covid19 Tracker App” infected countless users’ phones with ransomware, demanding victims pay $100 to unlock their devices or risk a complete deletion of their contacts, videos, and pictures. After news about the ransomware was posted on Reddit, a user decompiled the malicious app and posted the universal passcode to defeat the ransomware. The passcode was then shared on Twitter for everyone to use.

Stay safe, everyone.

The post Coronavirus scams, found and explained appeared first on Malwarebytes Labs.

Security tips for working from home (WFH)

Over the last decade, remote work and working from home has grown in popularity for many professionals. In fact, a 2018 study found more than 70 percent of global employees work remotely at least once per week. However, the coronavirus pandemic and resulting lockdown in many parts of the world have forced a large number of employees into unfamiliar territory—not just remote work, but full-time working from home (WFH).

Given these circumstances, we figured it would be useful to share some of the security tips we have for WFH, not just for IT teams who suddenly need to secure their entire remote workforce, but for individuals to take their own precautions.

I have been working remote for over five years now, from several locations and mostly WFH, so I dare say I can speak from personal experience.

WFH physical security

The first so-obvious-it’s-not-obvious tip is to make sure your work devices are physically safe, and that you avoid offering unauthorized views of confidential information. Here are a few ways to shore up physical security while WFH:

  • If you need to leave your home for supplies or other reasons, make sure your work devices are either shut down or locked—including any mobile phones you might use to check email or make work phone calls.
  • If you live with a roommate or young children, be sure to lock your computer even when you step away for just a bit. Don’t tempt your roommates or family members by leaving your work open. This is true even for the workplace, so it is imperative for WFH.
  • If you can’t carve out a separate work space in your home, be sure to collect your devices at the end of your workday and store them someplace out of sight. This will not only keep them from being accidentally opened or stolen, but will also help separating your work life from your home life.

System access

Perhaps your office network was so protected that little thought was given to restricting access to servers with sensitive data. Or perhaps you now have to work on your personal laptop—one that you didn’t think much about securing before coronavirus upended your life.

Either way, it’s time to start thinking about the ways to guard against unauthorized access. If you think cybercriminals (and regular criminals) will be sensitive to global events and refrain from attacking remote workers, sadly, you’d be mistaken.

  • Access to the your computer’s desktop should at least be password protected, and the password should be a strong one. If the system is stolen, this will keep the thief from easily accessing company information.
  • If office network permissions previously gave you unfettered access to work software, now you may be required to enter a variety of passwords to gain access. If your workplace doesn’t already offer a single sign-on service, consider using a password manager. It will be much more secure than a written list of passwords left on your desk.
  • Encryption also helps protect information on stolen or compromised computers. Check whether data encryption is active on your work machine. If you’re not sure, ask your IT department whether you have it, and if they think it’s necessary.
  • If you’re connecting your work computer to your home network, make sure you don’t make it visible to other computers in the network. If you have to add it to the HomeGroup, then make sure the option to share files is off.

Separate work and personal devices

Easier said that done, we know. Still, just as it’s important to carve out boundaries between work life and home life while WFH, the same is true of devices. Do you have a child being homeschooled now and turning in digital assignments? Are you ordering groceries and food online to avoid stores? Best not to cross those hairs with work.

While it may seem cumbersome to constantly switch back and forth between the two, do your best to at least keep your main work computer and your main home computer separate (if you have more than one such device). If you can do the same for your mobile devices—even better. The more programs and software you install, the more potential vulnerabilities you introduce.

  • Don’t pay your home bills on the same computer you compile work spreadsheets. You can not only create confusion for yourself, but also end up compromising your personal information when a cybercriminal was looking to breach your company.
  • Don’t send work-related emails from your private email address and vice versa. Not only does it look unprofessional, but you are weaving a web that might be hard to untangle once the normal office routine resumes.
  • Speaking of homeschooling, it’s especially important to keep your child’s digital curriculum separate from your work device. Both are huge targets for threat actors. Imagine their delight when they find they can not only plunder an organization’s network through an unsecured remote worker, but they can also collect highly valuable PII on young students, which garners a big pay day on the dark web.

Secure connections

  • Make sure you have access to your organization’s cloud infrastructure and can tunnel in through a VPN with encryption.
  • Secure your home Wi-Fi with a strong password, in case VPN isn’t an option or if it fails for some reason.
  • Access to the settings on your home router should be password protected as well. Be sure to change the default password it came with—no 12345, people!

Cybersecurity best practices

Other WFH security precautions may not be all that different from those you should be practicing in the office, but they are easy to forget when you are working in your own home environment. A few of the most important:

  • Be wary of phishing emails. There will be many going around trying to capitalize on fear related to the coronavirus, questions about isolation and its psychological impacts, or even pretending to offer advice or health information. Scan those emails with a sharp eye and do not open attachments unless they’re from a known, trusted source.
  • Related to phishing: I’m pretty sure we can expect to see a rise in Business Email Compromise (BEC) fraud. Your organization may be sending you many emails and missives about new workflows, processes, or reassurances to employees. Watch out for those disguising themselves as high-ranking employees and pay close attention to the actual email address of senders.
  • Beware of overexposure on social media, and try to maintain typical behavior and routine: Do you normally check social media on your phone during lunchtime? Do the same now. Once again, watch out for scams and misinformation, as criminals love using this medium to ensnare their victims.

Other security precautions

Not every organization was prepared for this scenario, so it’s only natural that some may not have the level of RemoteSec in place that others do. Make sure to get yourself up to speed with the guidelines that your organization has in place for remote work. Ask for directions if anything is unclear. Not everyone has the same level of tech savvy—the only stupid question is one that isn’t asked.

I have listed some of the questions you may need to have answered before you can rest assured that WFH is not going to be a security disaster. Here are some to consider:

  • When you are working remote for long periods, make sure you know who is responsible for updates. Are you supposed to keep everything up to date or can your IT department do it for you?
  • Your system may require additional security software now that it has left the safer environment of your organization’s network. Check with your IT department on whether you should install addition solutions: Will you need a security program for your Window PC or for your Mac (which was hit with twice as many threats as Windows computers in 2019)? If you’re using an Android device for work, should you download security software that can protect your phone? (iOS doesn’t allow outside antivirus vendors.)
  • How will data storage and backup work? Can you save and back up your local files to a corporate cloud solution? Find out which one they prefer you to use in your specific role.

On a different note

This is a big adjustment for many people. Your first few days of WFH may leave you irritated, uncomfortable, unmotivated, or just plain exhausted. Adding security tips to the list may just add to your fatigue right now. We understand. Take it a day at a time, a step at a time.

When working from home, find a comfortable working area where you can assume a healthy posture, minimize the distraction from others, and where your presence has the least impact on how others have to behave. Take breaks to stretch your legs, and give your eyes a rest. And if you enjoy WFH, now is the time to prove to your employer that it’s a viable option in the long run.

Stay safe, everyone! Now more than ever.

The post Security tips for working from home (WFH) appeared first on Malwarebytes Labs.

Cybercriminals impersonate World Health Organization to distribute fake coronavirus e-book

The number of scams, threats, and malware campaigns taking advantage of public concern over the coronavirus is increasing each day. As a result, we’ve been actively monitoring emails within our spam honeypot to flag such threats and make sure our users are protected.

Yesterday, we observed a phishing campaign similar to malspam previously discovered by MalwareHunterTeam, which impersonates the World Health Organization (WHO) and promises the latest on “corona-virus.” Right off the bat, the incorrect use of a hyphen in “coronavirus” in the subject line could tip off users with a critical eye for grammar. However, since WHO are often touted as a trustworthy and authoritative resource, including by our own blog, many will be tempted to open the email.

In this particular campaign, threat actors use a fake e-book as a lure, claiming the “My Health E-book” includes complete research on the global pandemic, as well as guidance on how to protect children and businesses.

The criminals behind this scheme try to trick victims into opening the attachment, contained in a zip file, by offering teaser content within the body of the email, including:

Guidance to protect children and business centre;

This guidance provides critical considerations and practical checklists to keep Kids and business centre safe. It also advises national and local authorities on how to adapt and implement emergency plans for educational facilities.

Critical preparedness, readiness and response actions for COVID-19;

WHO has defined four transmission scenarios for COVID-19. My Health E-book describes the preparedness, readiness and response actions for each transmission scenario.

The email content goes on to tell readers that they can download and access the e-book from Windows computers only.

Instead, as soon as they execute the file inside the MyHealth-Ebook.zip archive, malware will be downloaded onto their computers. As seen in the previous wave of spam, the malicious code is for a downloader called GuLoader.

GuLoader is used to load the real payload, an information-stealing Trojan called FormBook, stored in encoded format on Google Drive. Formbook is one of the most popular info-stealers, thanks to its simplicity and its wide range of capabilities, including swiping content from the Windows clipboard, keylogging, and stealing browser data. Stolen data is sent back to a command and control server maintained by the threat actors.

While the threat actors are improving on the campaign’s sophistication by building reputable-sounding content within the body of the email, a closer examination reveals small grammatical errors, such as:

You are now receiving this email because your life count as everyone lives count.

This combined with other minor formatting and grammar mistakes, as well as a mix-and-match selection of fonts make this clever phishing scheme, upon closer examination, a dud. Still, many have fallen for far more obvious ploys.

With a huge swatch of the population now confined to their homes but working remotely, the risk of infecting a highly-distributed network is increasing. That’s why it’s more important than ever to use a discerning eye when opening work or personal emails, as employee negligence is one of the top indicators for successful cyberattack/data breach.

Malwarebytes home and business customers were already protected against this malspam campaign and its associated payloads.

Indicators of compromise

GuLoader

de1b53282ea75d2d3ec517da813e70bb56362ffb27e4862379903c38a346384d

FormBook URL

drive.google[.]com/uc?export=download&id=1vljQdfYJV76IqjLYwk74NUvaJpYBamtE

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Lock and Code S1Ep2: On the challenges of managed service providers

This week on Lock and Code, we discuss the top security headlines generated right here on Labs and around the Internet. In addition, we talk to two representatives from an Atlanta-based managed service provider—a manager of engineering services and a data center architect—about the daily challenges of managing thousands of nodes and the future of the industry.

Tune in for all this and more on the latest episode of Lock and Code, with host David Ruiz.

You can also find us on the Apple iTunes store, on Google Play Music, plus whatever preferred podcast platform you use.

We cover our own research on:

  • International Women’s Day: Is awareness of stalkerware, monitoring, and spyware apps on the rise?
  • How a Rocket Loader skimmer impersonates the CloudFlare library in a clever scheme
  • Securing the MSP: What are the best practices for vetting cybersecurity vendors?
  • Remote security, aka RemoteSec, and how to achieve on-prem security levels with cloud-based remote teams
  • How the coronavirus has impacted security conferences and events, including which were cancelled, postponed, or switched over to virtual
  • The effects of climate change on cybersecurity

Plus, other cybersecurity news:

  • FBI warning: Hackers are targeting Office 365, G Suite users with business email compromise attacks. (Source: SiliconAngle)
  • How poor IoT security is allowing the 12-year-old Conficker malware to make a comeback. (Source: ZDNet)
  • Recently discovered spear phishing emails are using HIV test results as a scare factor. (Source: ThreatPost)
  • Talkspace threatened to sue a security researcher over a bug report, and forced him to take down a blog post. (Source: TechCrunch)
  • Independent testing found Google’s Play Protect to be poor on malware protection. (Source: Forbes)
  • Researchers found thousands of fingerprint files exposed in an unsecured database. (Source: Cnet)
  • Researchers discovered a phishing page informing victims about fake Netflix service disruptions, supposedly due to problems with the victim’s payment method. (Source: Sucuri Blog)

Stay safe, everyone!

The post Lock and Code S1Ep2: On the challenges of managed service providers appeared first on Malwarebytes Labs.

APT36 jumps on the coronavirus bandwagon, delivers Crimson RAT

Since the coronavirus became a worldwide health issue, the desire for more information and guidance from government and health authorities has reached a fever pitch. This is a golden opportunity for threat actors to capitalize on fear, spread misinformation, and generate mass hysteria—all while compromising victims with scams or malware campaigns.

Profiting from global health concerns, natural disasters, and other extreme weather events is nothing new for cybercriminals. Scams related to SARS, H1N1 (swine flu), and avian flu have circulated online for more than a decade. According to reports from ZDnet, many state-sponsored threat actors have already started to distribute coronavirus lures, including:

  • Chinese APTs: Vicious Panda, Mustang Panda
  • North Korean APTs: Kimsuky
  • Russian APTs: Hades group (believed to have ties with APT28), TA542 (Emotet)
  • Other APTs: Sweed (Lokibot)

Recently, the Red Drip team reported that APT36 was using a decoy health advisory document to spread a Remote Administration Tool (RAT).

APT36 is believed to be a Pakistani state-sponsored threat actor mainly targeting the defense, embassies, and the government of India. APT36 performs cyber-espionage operations with the intent of collecting sensitive information from India that supports Pakistani military and diplomatic interests. This group, active since 2016, is also known as Transparent Tribe, ProjectM, Mythic Leopard, and TEMP.Lapis.

APT36 spreads fake coronavirus health advisory

APT36 mainly relies on both spear phishing and watering hole attacks to gain its foothold on victims. The phishing email is either a malicious macro document or an rtf file exploiting vulnerabilities, such as CVE-2017-0199.

In the coronavirus-themed attack, APT36 used a spear phishing email with a link to a malicious document (Figure 1) masquerading as the government of India (email.gov.in.maildrive[.]email/?att=1579160420).

Figure 1: Phishing document containing malicious macro code

We looked at the previous phishing campaigns related to this APT and can confirm this is a new phishing pattern from this group. The names used for directories and functions are likely Urdu names.

The malicious document has two hidden macros that drop a RAT variant called Crimson RAT. The malicious macro (Figure 2) first creates two directories with the names “Edlacar” and “Uahaiws” and then checks the OS type.

Figure 2: malicious macro

Based on the OS type, the macro picks either a 32bit or 64bit version of its RAT payload in zip format that is stored in one of the two textboxes in UserForm1 (Figure 3).

Figure 3: embedded payloads in ZIP format

Then it drops the zip payload into the Uahaiws directory and unzips its content using the “UnAldizip” function, dropping the RAT payload into the Edlacar directory. Finally, it calls the Shell function to execute the payload.

Crimson RAT

The Crimson RAT has been written in .Net (Figure 4) and its capabilities include:

  • Stealing credentials from the victim’s browser
  • Listing running processes, drives, and directories on the victim’s machine
  • Retrieving files from its C&C server
  • Using custom TCP protocol for its C&C communications
  • Collecting information about antivirus software
  • Capturing screenshots
Figure 4: Crimson RAT

Upon running the payload, Crimson RAT connects to its hardcoded C&C IP addresses and sends collected information about the victim back to the server, including a list of running processes and their IDs, the machine hostname, and its username (Figure 5).

Figure 5: TCP communications

Ongoing use of RATs

APT36 has used many different malware families in the past, but has mostly deployed RATs, such as BreachRAT, DarkComet, Luminosity RAT, and njRAT.

In past campaigns, they were able to compromise Indian military and government databases to steal sensitive data, including army strategy and training documents, tactical documents, and other official letters. They also were able to steal personal data, such as passport scans and personal identification documents, text messages, and contact details.

Protection against RATs

While most general users needn’t worry about nation-state attacks, organizations wanting to protect against this threat should consider using an endpoint protection system or endpoint detection and response with exploit blocking and real-time malware detection.

Shoring up vulnerabilities by keeping all software (including Microsoft Excel and Word) up-to-date shields against exploit attacks. In addition, training employees and users to avoid opening coronavirus resources from unvetted sources can protect against this and other social engineering attacks from threat actors.

Malwarebytes users are protected against this attack. We block the malicious macro execution as well as its payload with our application behavior protection layer and real-time malware detection.

Indicators of Compromise

Decoy URLs

email.gov.in.maildrive[.]email/?att=1579160420
email.gov.in.maildrive[.]email/?att=1581914657

Decoy documents

876939aa0aa157aa2581b74ddfc4cf03893cede542ade22a2d9ac70e2fef1656
20da161f0174d2867d2a296d4e2a8ebd2f0c513165de6f2a6f455abcecf78f2a

Crimson RAT

0ee399769a6e6e6d444a819ff0ca564ae584760baba93eff766926b1effe0010
b67d764c981a298fa2bb14ca7faffc68ec30ad34380ad8a92911b2350104e748

C2s

107.175.64[.]209
64.188.25[.]205

MITRE ATT&CK

https://attack.mitre.org/software/S0115/

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The effects of climate change on cybersecurity

Outside the coronavirus pandemic and its related healthcare and economic fallout, climate change and cybersecurity are seen by many as the two most urgent problems facing our planet now and in the near future. They are two distinct and separate problems, to be sure. There are some areas, however, where security and climate change overlap, interlock, and influence one another. Let’s have a look.

To understand how climate change and the methods to counteract its rapid ascent will affect cybersecurity, we first have to look at how computing contributes to global warming. Your first instinct about their relationship is probably right: computing involves energy consumption and heat production. As long as we cannot produce enough “clean energy” to satisfy our needs for electricity, the energy consumed by computing—and security within it—will continue to contribute to global warming.

The big energy consumers

There are a few fields in computing and cybersecurity that guzzle up huge amounts of energy and produce heat as a byproduct:

  • Supercomputers
  • Blockchain mining
  • Data centers
  • The Internet as a whole

Before you dismiss the problem of the supercomputers (because you assume there are only a few of them)—even I was astounded to find out that there are over 500 systems that deliver a petaflop or more on the High Performance Linpack (HPL) benchmark. Most of these supercomputers consume vast amounts of electrical power and produce so much heat that large cooling facilities must be constructed to ensure proper performance. But in recent years, vendors have started to produce supercomputers that are more energy efficient.

In 2019, the mining of Bitcoin alone consumed more energy than the entire nation of Switzerland, which equals about one quarter percent of the world’s entire energy consumption. There are many more blockchains and cryptocurrencies, although Bitcoin is by far the largest energy consumer among them. This is mostly due to their operation on the proof-of-work concept and the high value of Bitcoin.

While cybercrime experienced a huge jolt in cryptomining in 2018, the frenzy has mostly died down as Bitcoin value dipped and plateaued. However, cryptomining continues as both a legitimate and illegitimate activity—especially because miners can switch to other cryptocurrencies when Bitcoin drops off.

An even bigger impact on energy consumption are data centers, which already use over 2 percent of the world’s total energy consumption, and that number is expected to rise fast. The prediction is based on the growing number of content delivery networks (CDN), more Internet of Things (IoT) devices, the growth of the cloud, and other colocation services. So, not only do computer centers consume massive amounts of energy, their use is expected to grow astronomically.

The Internet can’t be completely separated from the data centers that enable it. But despite the overlap, it’s still worth mentioning that the total energy consumption of the Internet as a whole lies at around 10 percent, which is more than the world’s total energy production from renewable sources such as wind and solar.

However, it’s fair to note that the Internet has taken over a lot of tasks that would have cost more energy or created a greater carbon footprint if they had been performed in the “old ways.” Consider, for example, the energy saved by working remote: the energy expended on the Internet and inside one’s home is far less damaging than the carbon monoxide released into the atmosphere by fossil fuels from a daily commute to the office.

Global warming’s trickle down effects

Conversely, global warming and its effects on the climate, environment, and economy do have a direct impact on our everyday lives, and that trickles down to cybersecurity. Some of the projected dangers include:

  • Flooding of certain areas
  • Prolongation of the wild-fire season
  • Spread of diseases
  • Economic costs
  • Scarcity of fresh water in certain areas

By 2030, climate change costs are projected to cost the global economy $700 billion annually, according to the Climate Vulnerability Monitor. And The International Organization for Migration estimates that 200 million people could be forced to leave their homes due to environmental changes by 2050.

Climate change and its implications will act as a destabilizing factor on society. When livelihoods are in danger, this will spark insecurity and drive resource competition. This does not only have implications for physical security, but in modern society, this also has an impact on cybersecurity and its associated threats.

From a big picture, worst-case-scenario perspective, climate change could trigger profound international conflicts, which go hand-in-hand with cyberwar. Beyond nation-state activity, individuals that have no other means of providing for their families could turn to cybercrime, which is often seen as a low-risk activity with a potentially high yield.

But on a smaller scale, we’re already seeing the impacts of climate change on cybersecurity, whether via social engineering scare tactics embraced by threat actors or disruptions to Internet-connected home heating and cooling devices meant to track energy consumption.

Global warming scams

NO, we’re not saying that climate change is a hoax or a scam. But we want to issue a warning related to the subject. As with any newsworthy topic, there are and will be scammers trying to make a profit using the feeling of urgency that gets invoked by matters like climate change.

For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a warning against several scams abusing their name.

“IPCC has been made aware of various correspondences, being circulated via e-mail, from Internet Web sites, and via regular mail or facsimile, falsely stating that they are issued by, or in association with, IPCC and/or its officials. These scams, which may seek to obtain money and/or in many cases personal details from the recipients of such correspondence, are fraudulent.”

Natural disaster scams are increasing in the same frequency as natural disasters themselves, often claiming to be collecting donations for a particular cause but putting money in their own pockets instead. We’ve seen social engineering tricks ranging from phishing emails and malspam to social media misinformation campaigns on hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, and flooding. Expect this sort of gross capitalization on tragedy and fear to continue as the effects of climate change become more dramatic.

Improving efficiency and preparing for changes

The number of datacenters is down, but their size has grown to meet the demand. This is potentially a step in the right direction since it decreases the power needed for the overhead, but not as big as the step that could be made if they would actually work on their power efficiency.

Online companies typically run their facilities at maximum capacity around the clock, regardless of the demand. As a result, data centers are wasting 90 percent or more of their power. Smart management could make a substantial difference in energy consumption and costs.

Cryptomining could improve on energy consumption if the most popular currencies would not be based on proof of work but proof of stake. Proof of work rewards the largest number of CPU cycles with that the highest energy consumption.

NEO and Hyperledger are next generation blockchain technologies with much lower electricity cost. NEO uses what it calls delegated Byzantine Fault Tolerance (dBFT), which is an optimized proof-of-stake model. Hyperledger Fabric centralizes block creation into a single resource pool and has multiple validators in the participants. It’s an enterprise collaboration engine, using blockchain smart contracts, where validation is much easier than creation, and creation will be centralized on a single, optimized platform.

More effective methods of cooling would both help supercomputers and large data centers. At the moment, we are (ironically) using electricity to power cooling systems to control the heat caused by electricity usage. In fact, cooling gobbles up about 35 percent of the total power in high performance computing with air cooled systems. Hot-water liquid cooling might be a key technology in future green supercomputers as it maximizes cooling efficiency and energy reuse.

Interaction between climate change and cybersecurity

As we have seen, there are opportunities for those in security and computing to slow the progression of climate change. But there are also opportunities for those in cybercrime to take advantage of the destabilization caused by climate change, as some already have through related scams and malware campaigns. As long as we don’t drop security in attempts to counteract global warming, we’ll be able to protect against some of the more advanced threats coming down the pike. But while we still can, let’s rein in our carbon footprint, improve on computing efficiency, and remember our cybersecurity lessons when criminals come calling.

Stay safe, everyone!

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Coronavirus impacts security conferences and events: check your schedule

With coronavirus starting to take hold globally, international travel restrictions are kicking in and more workplaces are advising to work from home whenever possible. When self-isolation is a potential solution, public gatherings are increasingly looking like a terrible idea. Events are becoming a bit of a hotspot for cases, leading to inevitably bizarre scenarios where coronavirus conferences are cancelled due to coronavirus.

Many major security conferences are already reassessing whether going ahead is worth it. Indeed, some cases of coronavirus have already been confirmed at RSA—one of the biggest security events on the planet. Given the number of attendees and the nature of their jobs (government and private security officials), that alone could have repercussions galore.

Some security events have decided to cancel outright, while others are going with the “temporarily postpone and see what happens at a later date” approach. While it’s tempting to suggest “just going virtual” as some are doing, that’s not always easily achieved.

Cancel, postpone, or virtual

Here’s a short rundown of some problems faced by event organisers in the wake of the current pandemic:

1) Putting on an event costs a lot of money. The venue, advertising, food, setup, safety, insurance, transportation to and from the event for organisers—it all adds up. People pay a ton of cash in advance to secure the event location, and not every venue operator is willing to hand $100,000 back if an event organiser phones up and says, “Actually, about that global pandemic…”

2) Lots of smaller conferences rely on sponsors. If sponsors suddenly bail without considering the impact of vanishing, the event could easily go under, and it won’t get a second attempt the following year. In turn, this (combined with the difficulty in recovering venue fees) could force some events into going ahead or facing financial ruin. It’s in everyone’s best interest to work together as much as possible in those situations, and see if there’s a possibility of going virtual.

3) I’ve helped with a few online events in the past—only small ones—and it was difficult. You can’t just throw up a website and yell “job done!” Streaming can be expensive. Locking down the site and figuring out how to only give content to paying virtual attendees isn’t straightforward. Which time zone are you aiming for when the event happens, and do you even need to stream?

It’s all online anyway, so would it be better to simply record everything and lock it behind a portal somewhere? What software will you use? Does your license accommodate your plans? Can you afford an upgrade if it doesn’t? Will the tech go wrong during the event, and what sort of contingency plans are in place if it does? These are just some of the questions waiting in store for intrepid event folks.

Taking stock of the situation

It’s difficult enough running a virtual event from scratch. I can’t imagine the stress of finding out you suddenly have to switch everything to online or shut everything down at short notice.

While it may end up costing less than a physical event, it may well cause more headaches than planning for the real world, where there’s a fairly solid set of event planning criteria/expectations.

With this in mind, and with a growing collection of security events going into lockdown, we thought it’d be good to pass you a few handy lists that explain what’s going on in security conference land for the foreseeable future. 

The current state of play

In a nutshell, the current state of play is “bad.” Wild West Hackin’ Fest is one such example of an event having to cancel and losing a lot of money in doing so to keep people safe from harm. They’ve decided to go virtual, just like Kernelcon who announced their decision today to do the same thing. Good luck to them both.

Meanwhile, the first major roundup of affected events over on ZDNet grew from nine to 22 in just two days. As per the list itself, some notable changes to your potential event schedule:

  • Black Hat Asia and DEF CON China are both postponed
  • Notable BSides events, including Budapest and Vancouver, are postponed, though Charm (Baltimore) is giving the option to go virtual alongside real-world presenting
  • Kaspersky’s incredibly popular Security Analyst Summit is also postponed
  • Infosecurity Belgium, a huge trade event, has been postponed

Those are just some of the big shakeups heading the infosec industry’s way. That list is constantly being updated, as is the comprehensive listing by region over on Infosecurity Conferences.

More disruption is likely

Regardless of which list you use to keep yourself informed, there will absolutely be more events affected in days to come. Your workplace may already have implemented no-travel policies, but even if you’re going it alone, you may wish to give some events a pass this time around.

Of course, that advice isn’t exactly good news for people who make their living from organising these events or even speaking at them. Whatever your involvement in security conferences, it’s going to be a rough old time of it for the foreseeable future. Stay safe and be well.

The post Coronavirus impacts security conferences and events: check your schedule appeared first on Malwarebytes Labs.