Spotting and Protecting Against Malware: Adware and Malvertising

June. 12, 2020

3:00-4:00AM PST

The type of malware most commonly on the minds of tech-using individuals around the world is the computer virus, however, there are several variations of malware that can plague your device, network, server, etc. at any given time. Although the average user is highly unlikely to  encounter elite hackers that unleash the utmost technically-advanced malicious attacks, “run-of-the-mill, profit-generating malware, on the other hand, is rampant.“ For this reason, it is imperative to understand the characteristics of numerous kinds of malware so that you might be able to avoid data theft and destruction that might be left in their wake.

What is Adware?

Adware very well may be the variation of malware that the average user is most likely to face. To put it simply, adware is a type of malicious software that illegally slips into a user’s browsers and apps for the purpose of originating phony profits. Adware is quite similar to the pop-up ads of the past. However, while adware is a particular software that operates on a device, pop-ups ads are comprised of rogue web scripts that project ads onto a user’s device. And cyber-scammers have begun to utilize the nature of the widely held advertising revenue model to their advantage. By creating and putting more illegitimate ads onto the Internet, a larger quantity of eyeballs become likely to view such advertisements, which results in greater revenue placed in the pockets of these scammers. Although these ads were often obvious, conspicuous, and clumsy at their inception, most have evolved into more undistinguishable, refined, and stealthy versions of themselves over time.

 

Unfortunately, smartphones have become a near-perfect launching pad for the release of adware. This is due to the fact that scammers can disperse adware-tainted apps via smartphones via third-party app stores available to Android users. Moreover, these cyber-scammers can even leverage highly trusted app stores like the Google Play Store and Apple’s App Store by utilizing them to disseminated apps that are contaminated with adware. In doing so, such apps have the potential to land in the hands of millions of smartphone owners. These apps can distribute disingenuous ads onto these devices which either operate in the background or out in the open for the device owner to see. This is what separates adware from other forms of malware. Without necessitating the carrying out intricate cyber attacks, or even attempting to steal money from device owners, adware sneaks onto a device and causes mere inconvenience or slowed operating speed for the user. In doing so, the scammer behind the adware hopes to accumulate advertising revenue. And more often than not, adware supplies scammers with the greatest opportunity to generate profits. However, it is important to keep in mind that although adware may not pose an immediate danger to users, this type of malware effectively creates opportunities for future malicious activities that can put user data, networks, devices, etc. in jeopardy. Furthermore, it is not impossible for adware and other malicious software to be transmitted as a package deal, foretelling subsequent grave attacks.

Users can make an active effort to avoid adware by exclusively utilizing official app stores and downloading credible applications. Additionally, users should rid their phones of applications that they do not often use, as well as applications that regularly experience glitches or that are ad-heavy. Overall, since adware is the type of malicious software that smartphone users are most likely to run into, users should keep a consistent and vigilant eye out for it.

What is Malvertising?

An incredibly tough problem to address, malvertising is a type of malware that users often find most difficult to wrap their heads around entirely. Malvertising is the propagation of malicious code that lives within online advertisements, waiting for just the right moment to contaminate the device of an unknowing user. Malvertising has found success, in part, due to user’s seemingly unshaken trust in mainstream websites such as Youtube and Reuters. Individuals visiting these sites often do so with peace of mind founded in the credibility associated with such platforms, but malicious actors are taking advantage of this confidence in order to infect user devices, networks, etc. -- sometimes without a single click of a button -- via third-party content that typically goes unnoticed by the user. It isn’t enough to steer clear of sketchy websites because “mainstream, high-trafficked Web sites today outsource the ad content on their pages to a vast array of third-party ad networks, including household names like Google (DoubleClick) to start-up providers and others well under the radar.” When users utilize these mainstream sites, their device -- unbeknownst to most -- is, in fact, making connections with several additional URLs. The main purpose of this is to boost convenience and efficiency on the web, offering features like video files and more in-depth web interactions. However, this effectively opens the doors to malvertising attempts, rendering the credibility of sites almost entirely inconsequential. In fact, malvertising is oftentimes dependent on this credibility, as it makes it easier to attract unsuspecting users to other contaminated domain addresses.

Moreover, malicious attackers leveraging malvertising greatly benefit from their easily maintained anonymity. This is typically due to the fact that the operators of the sites that ultimately serve these harmful advertisements entirely lack visibility of such ads. To top it off, ads rotate from site to site at rapid speeds and can even be purchased with theft credentials and assets, making it increasingly difficult to identify the malicious actor in question. And much of the success of malvertising is thanks to the preexisting nature of the modern advertising industry. The modern ad model only makes it easier for malicious actors to weaponize frequent user behavior, as it enables these cyber attackers to benefit from the profiling and targeting that is already in place -- all while they remain anonymous. And it doesn’t look like malvertising is going to lose its popularity any time soon. Malvertising is an incredibly lucrative form of malicious activity that is bolstered by the credibility and reputation of mainstream sites, and that, unfortunately, cannot be anticipated and is terribly tough to avoid without the mobilization of antivirus tools.

References

Newman, Lily Hay. “Here's the Malware You Should Actually Worry About.” Wired, Conde Nast,

21 July 2019, www.wired.com/story/adware-most-common-malware/.

Rahul Kashyap, Bromium. “Why Malvertising Is Cybercriminals' Latest Sweet Spot.” Wired,

Conde Nast, 7 Aug. 2015,

www.wired.com/insights/2014/11/malvertising-is-cybercriminals-latest-sweet-spot/.

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