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McAfee Labs Q4 Report Reveals Techniques Used in High-Profile Data Breaches

McAfee Labs today released the McAfee Labs Threats Report: Fourth Quarter 2013, highlighting the role of the “dark web” malware industry as a key enabler of the high-profile point-of-sale (POS) attacks and data breaches in the fall of 2013. The report brings to light the growing ease of purchasing POS malware online, 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. McAfee Labs believes this accelerating trend could pose a significant threat to the long-established certificate authority (CA) model for authenticating “safe” software.

Detailed research of the high-profile Q4 credit card data breaches found that the POS malware used in the attacks were relatively unsophisticated technologies likely purchased “off the shelf” from the Cybercrime-as-a-Service community, and customized 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 40 million credit card numbers reported stolen in batches of between 1 million and 4 million 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 in our database triple, to more than 8 million suspicious binaries. In the fourth quarter alone, McAfee Labs found more than 2.3 million new malicious signed applications, a 52 percent 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.

“Although the expansion of the CA and CDN industries has dramatically lowered the cost of developing and issuing software for developers, the standards for qualifying the identity of the publisher have also decreased dramatically,” said Weafer. “We will need to learn to place more trust in the reputation of the vendor that signed the file, and less trust in the simple presence of a certificate.”

Additional Q4 2013 Findings

  • Mobile malware. McAfee Labs collected 2.47 million new mobile samples in 2013, with 744,000 in the fourth quarter alone. Our mobile malware zoo of unique samples grew by an astounding 197 percent from the end of 2012.
  • Ransomware. The volume of new ransomware samples rose by 1 million new samples for the year, doubling in number from Q4 2012 to Q4 2013.
  • Suspicious URLs. McAfee Labs recorded a 70 percent increase in the number of suspect URLs in 2013.
  • Malware proliferation. In 2013, McAfee Labs found 200 new malware samples every minute, or more than three new threats every second.
  • Master boot record-related. McAfee Labs found 2.2 million new MBR-attacks in 2013.

Each quarter, the McAfee Labs team of 500 multidisciplinary researchers in 30 countries follows the complete range of threats in real time, identifying application vulnerabilities, analyzing and correlating risks, and enabling instant remediation to protect enterprises and the public.

To read the full McAfee Labs Threats Report: Fourth Quarter 2013, please visit:

About McAfee Labs

McAfee Labs is the world’s leading source for threat research, threat intelligence, and cybersecurity thought leadership. The McAfee Labs team of 500 researchers collects threat data from millions of sensors across key threat vectors—file, web, message, and network. It then performs cross-vector threat correlation analysis and delivers real-time threat intelligence to tightly integrated McAfee endpoint and network security products through its cloud-based McAfee Global Threat Intelligence service. McAfee Labs also develops core threat detection technologies—such as McAfee DeepSAFE technology, application profiling, and graylist management—that are incorporated into the broadest security product portfolio in the industry.

About McAfee

McAfee, a wholly owned subsidiary of Intel Corporation (NASDAQ:INTC), empowers businesses, the public sector, and home users to safely experience the benefits of the Internet. The company delivers proactive and proven security solutions and services for systems, networks, and mobile devices around the world. With its Security Connected strategy, innovative approach to hardware-enhanced security, and unique Global Threat Intelligence network, McAfee is relentlessly focused on keeping its customers safe.

Note: McAfee is a trademark or registered trademark of McAfee, Inc. in the United States and other countries. Other names and brands may be claimed as the property of others.

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