When you think of the cyber dangers that threaten your business, what specific threats come to mind? Chances are you’re thinking of perils like ransomware, and viruses that have the ability to transit an entire network.
These threats are known collectively as “malware,” an umbrella term used to define any form of damaging software program. Malware can present in a variety of forms and cause wide-ranging harms to computers, servers, or networks. These harms include, but are not limited to:
- Forcing unauthorized access to data or digital systems.
- Leaking or exfiltrating sensitive information.
- Blocking access to systems or information.
- Corrupting or encrypting information.
- Covertly compromising the security and/or privacy of a user’s computer system.
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While malware is a well-recognised cyber threat, there are many misconceptions about it in circulation. Confusion exists around some of the terminology, and businesses are often oblivious to some of the ways malware can infect corporate IT systems.
To help you make sense of the malware landscape, this blog intends to act as a short guide to malware and set out some of the ways you can defend your Ohio business against this growing and evolving digital hazard.
Malware Transmission – How Malware Infects IT Systems
Before you can begin establishing effective malware countermeasures, it is important to understand the routes of entry malware takes into business IT systems. Here are some of the most common malware delivery mechanisms:
Hackers will assume the identity of a trusted colleague, associate, or business partner, and conceal malware within an email attachment. This attachment might be presented as an important invoice or spreadsheet, only revealing its true nature when opened and executed.
Rogue websites are counterfeit sites which usually mimic legitimate ones, created to exploit visitors for malicious purposes. Such sites are often used to distribute malware, with “drive-by-downloads” exploiting browser or plugin vulnerabilities to infect the site visitor’s device. Malware infection through rogue sites often occurs without the user’s knowledge.
Malicious advertising (commonly shortened to “malvertising”) is a practice that sees legitimate digital adverts leveraged as a delivery mechanism for malware. Cybercriminals hijack legitimate ads on trusted sites, injecting them with code that redirects users to malware-infested websites. This redirect is triggered either by interacting with the ad, or sometimes simply by viewing it.
External devices that aren’t security vetted can present malware infection risks when linked to PCs, servers and other devices. USB drives, memory cards, smartphones, network attached storage devices, printers, photocopiers, and scanners are just some of the devices that can pose security risks without proper care.
Attackers are always on the hunt for new software vulnerabilities to exploit, with poorly patched and updated systems presenting opportunities for hackers to inject malware into corporate IT networks. “Exploit kits” which often lurk on malicious websites or compromised legitimate ones, enable hackers to automate the identification and exploitation of vulnerabilities on a user’s system. These tools look for vulnerabilities in popular applications, and if any are detected, launch the corresponding exploit to compromise the system.
Supply Chain Attacks
In supply chain attacks, attackers identify and exploit vulnerabilities in the distribution chain of technology products (most often software). For example, a hacker may inject malicious code into a software product or update, which users then import onto their network, completely unaware that the program has been compromised. Cybersecurity experts have observed a sharp rise in supply chain attacks in recent years, a threat that many businesses have little awareness of.
Forms of Malware
Malware varies greatly in terms of its behavior and intended purpose. Cybercriminals are adept at finding new ways to exploit vulnerabilities in IT systems, and as such, have developed numerous categories of malware, each possessing distinct traits and capabilities. Here are some of the malware types that pose the greatest threat to corporate IT systems.
Perhaps the most infamous and feared form of malware, ransomware typically uses encryption to prevent users accessing the files and data they need, or to restrict access to a device or software programme. In most cases, the attacker will pledge to restore access upon payment of a reward: this is what the “ransom” refers to.
Experts widely advocate preventative measures and comprehensive data backups as the best line of defense against ransomware, particularly since paying the ransom offers no guarantee that your files or system will be restored.
Ransomware incidents have skyrocketed in recent years, driven largely by the migration of organized crime gangs into the ransomware sphere. Taking proactive steps to minimize the risk of ransomware is therefore a cybersecurity imperative for businesses of all sizes.
Trojans refer to various forms of malware that assume the appearance of legitimate, trusted applications. Phishing emails are often used as carriers for Trojans, often containing convincing messages prompting users to download and launch the applications onto their devices. Once these malicious programs are executed, they can inflict a range of harm, including file encryption, hostile espionage, data theft and device damage. Some even have the capacity to coordinate highly disruptive DDoS attacks.
Spyware is a stealthy form of malware that surveils user activity and captures sensitive information, usually for the purpose of launching a more impactful cyberattack in the future. Spyware never makes its presence known, which makes it impossible to detect without the proper technical means.
The terms “virus” and “malware” are often used interchangeably, but a virus is in fact a distinct subcategory of malware, distinguished by the way it attaches to legitimate files or programs in order to spread between devices or networks. Phishing email attachments, portable storage devices, and file downloads are some common virus delivery mechanisms, and the virus payload is offloaded when a user activates the host program. Upon activation, viruses can damage, delete, or edit files, steal valuable data, and carry out other damaging functions.
While viruses are reliant on a host application in order to spread, worms can self-duplicate and disperse across networks independently, requiring no carrier program or user interaction. Worms are injected through vulnerabilities in software and operating systems, and leverage network connections to multiply and spread across devices and system components.
Adware, a condensed term meaning “advertising-supported software,” is a software type that displays unwelcome and disruptive advertisements to users. Although adware is generally perceived more as an annoyance than a type of malware, it can play a role in broader malicious schemes. In such cases, adware guides users to harmful websites involved in phishing scams or the distribution of more severe malware. Additionally, certain adware variants incorporate tracking features, allowing hackers to observe online activities and create a comprehensive user profile.
6 Strategies to Minimize the Malware Threat in Your Business
Combatting the threat posed by malware requires a dynamic, multi-facetted approach that applies multiple layers of protection to address vulnerabilities across devices, servers, software programs, online services, and networks. Human-based security risks should also be acknowledged, with user education playing a key role in addressing the threats posed by phishing and malicious websites.
Work collaboratively with your IT team or service provider to build a cybersecurity framework that features robust malware countermeasures. Here are some measures, strategies and initiatives you should consider to keep your network free from harmful code:
- Patch Management. Download, test and apply security patches in a timely manner to secure known vulnerabilities in software programs against exploitation.
- Create a list of authorized programs. Assemble a list of sanctioned, trusted applications for use within your business, and forbid the download of applications that don’t feature on this list. Consider using device management software to enforce it or require that work devices be regularly audited by your security team.
- Use anti-malware software. Run anti-malware programs network-wide, including on portable devices used for remote work. These valuable programs can identify and neutralize malware before it has the chance to cause harm using vast libraries of known threat signatures.
- Configure Firewalls. Apply firewall protections across your digital ecosystem, ensuring protections are applied at your office network’s perimeter, and at device-level in cases where a device may be used outside your trusted network. Establish firewall rules that block access to high-risk sites as well as those that aren’t work-related.
- Use sandboxing to verify the integrity and safety of new applications before installing them onto your network. Sandboxing allows a program to run in a segregated, contained environment for testing purposes, ensuring that any hidden malware is unable to compromise the security of your systems and data.
- Cybersecurity Awareness Training. Train your staff on the damage that malware can inflict, the forms of malware in circulation, and some of the places they might encounter it. Emphasize the dangers of links and attachments contained within unsolicited emails, stress the importance of using software from trusted sources, and discourage the use of removable storage media for file sharing.
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